Manoeuvring the Ship of State

Most diplomats work in foreign ministries, and most foreign ministries have been struggling to adapt to the challenges posed by globalization. Those challenges, which include the emergence of rival international actors ranging from celebrities, to NGOs, to other government departments – are compounded during periods of weak leadership and uncertain political interest. At such times, absent international policy demands or the requirement to produce related real-world outcomes, the employees of foreign ministries tend to fall back on the transactional, on the perfection of bureaucratic process, on entrail gazing. Endless internal reviews, re-organizations and narrow careerist calculation often substitute for policy analysis, development and implementation.

The result strikes me as something like a metaphorical equivalent to the board game “Snakes and Ladders”… or perhaps, “Vipers and Chutes”.

What to do? A few years ago, following the separation of the Canadian Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, senior officials tried to turn adversity into opportunity by launching an initiative to create a “Foreign Ministry for the Twenty-first Century”, or FAC 21. At the centre of this strategy was a significant re-definition and sharpening the of the foreign ministry’s s mandate as an interpreter of globalization, articulator of foreign policy, integrator of the international agenda, advocate of values and interests, provider of services, and steward of public resources.

The plan?

To identify and address the imperatives for institutional change by:

  • strengthening policy capacity;
  • renewing core professional skills;
  • increasing agility, reducing rigidity;
  • maximizing assets in the field;
  • connecting with wider networks; and
  • focussing on public diplomacy.

All of this struck me as completely sensible, and indeed overdue, but an election intervened, the government changed, new resources were withheld, and the attempt to build a contemporary, stand-alone foreign ministry, but one that did not contain a trade component, was among the first casualties of the subsequent re-integration of the two departments.

When I think back on this initiative, or reflect on former Secretary of State Rice’s efforts to transform the State Department, or consider the current initiative in the UK to produce an FCO which is more foreign, less office, a certain image keeps returning to my consciousness. I imagine a scene set on the bridge of a once-magnificent ocean liner, still in service but well past its prime. The boarding process is complete, and thousands of passengers are excited about their imminent departure. The captain is gazing ahead, taking note of possible navigation hazards and enjoying a majestic view from his command centre on the bridge.

The last few voyages, though, have been a bit rough and the captain is eager to get underway. He gives the order to cast off, does a final check of the instruments, nudges the wheel to port and slides the throttle forward to “all-ahead half.” He waits to hear the rumble of the mighty engines… but nothing happens. He shoves the throttle to “full.” Still nothing. “Reverse.” Nothing. He tries to correct course – but the wheel now spins as if it were being used for roulette.

The captain looks down and to his horror discovers that none of his controls are connected. Either someone else is driving, or the ship is adrift.


The success of any diplomatic surge will be dependent, a least in part, upon fixing the foreign ministry.