Canadian Multilateralism: An Opportunity for Diplomatic Alternatives?

Last month the Canadian International Council released its report, Open Canada, on possible new directions for Canadian foreign policy. There is much to commend about this easily-digested document, not least the fact that at a critical moment a group of thoughtful Canadians took the time and effort required to bring the ambitious project to completion within a very short time frame.

My observations are directed at the content in Chapter 2, entitled Multilateralism: The Revolution. That section contains most of the authors’ commentary related to diplomacy in an interdependent, connected and network-centric world.

Not all of the material presented in the chapter is revolutionary, and indeed much of what does appear has been seen in one form or another elsewhere. Consider, for example, suggestions that:

  • The G20  is eclipsing the G8
  • Scope exists for  the establishment of  joint-venture partnerships between government and universities, think tanks, and civil society
  • After a prolonged absence, Canada should revisit the merits of engagement in 21st century peacekeeping operations
  • A specialized civil-military, rapid deployment force could be created and headquartered at DFAIT for use in fragile state stabilization missions
  • Underinvestment in international education has created opportunities for increased activity in scholarships, global and language studies and the establishment of overseas campuses by Canadian universities

While there is no harm in re-floating sensible ideas, the section’s more powerful appeal is found at a higher level of analysis.

For example, most of the other chapter titles in Open Canada reflect the set of existing priorities which are being used to define this country’s global interests – the USA, Western Hemisphere, Asia, the Arctic, prosperity, defence and security. Multilateralism, however, does not figure centrally or explicitly on the government’s list, the ongoing Canadian campaign for a UN Security Council seat notwithstanding. As an international policy instrument,  multilateralism  has lately taken a back seat to defence and trade.  Reference to diplomacy, which the authors of Open Canada tend to use almost synonymously with multilateralism, is similarly absent in most official strategy. That’s why the elevation multilateralism – a.k.a. diplomacy – to a core list of recommended activities is encouraging.

Equally interesting is decision of the authors to frame and conceptualize their discussion of a failing states strategy under the rubric of multilateralism rather than defence and security. Inherent in that choice is a conviction that failing states are best treated with non-military tools, diplomacy and development foremost amongst them.

That, too, is laudable, and dovetails well with a conclusion that I have advanced elsewhere, namely that public diplomacy rather than aggressive war-fighting should have a central place in counterinsurgency.

The authors also raise the idea of knowledge diplomacy. Were failing states to become a focus for Canadian international policy post-Afghanistan, then the capacity to deliver that form of representation would have to be honed and reinforced considerably. The report highlights the importance of knowledge diplomacy in areas such as energy; multicultural diversity; water; democratic development, and; international education,  but it is hard to imagine real progress on these files under prevailing circumstances. To improve performance and produce results, significant change and reform would be required.

Here I am thinking about the need to afford Canadian foreign service officers substantially greater room to manoeuvre in order to permit complex and difficult problems to be resolved adroitly. Simply identifying the objectives is not enough. Canadian representatives must be vested with the confidence, trust and respect necessary not only to tap quickly and effectively into the global political economy of knowledge, but then to bring the results to bear in a timely fashion and with maximum effect in the field.

Multiple layers of oversight and endless consultation with superiors and headquarters would not be the business model of choice for knowledge diplomats.

The implicit need to transform diplomatic structures, culture and technique without lapsing into maudlin recollections about some “Golden Age” is arguably a major element of Chapter 2. If that observation is pushed just a bit, one could interpret a related requirement to create an institution capable of supporting innovative policy-making and enlightened diplomatic practice.  Preferably, this project would be undertaken outside of the foreign ministry, where the generation of new thinking sometimes takes a back seat to career and political considerations.

A stand alone entity dedicated to the exploration and articulation of diplomatic alternatives – and alternative diplomacy – would not suffer from the diffuse objectives, diverse taskings and vexing administrative overheads of a government department. Such an enterprise would be staffed by experts recruited inter-sectorally, and could perhaps function along the lines of a skunk works, not unlike the sort usually associated with the high technology industry. This would mean the adopting, and living by values such as flexibility, adaptability, teamwork, continuous learning, and risk tolerance.  The use of new media and virtual networks would figure centrally.

The establishment of a cross-cutting, public-private and independent network node for the promotion of diplomacy would both burnish the Canadian brand and serve as a concrete expression of this country’s comparative advantage internationally. By way of charter and mandate, a whole-of-government, whole-of-Canada Institute for Diplomatic Alternatives (or Alternative Diplomacy…?) could:

  • develop innovative diplomatic strategy and tactics
  • identify and advocate approaches and solutions to global issues and problems
  • generate creative ideas on crisis remediation and conflict resolution
  • conduct research and analysis, develop policy, provide advice
  • undertake continuous outreach to journalists, attentive publics and opinion leaders
  • engage strategic partners on all sides of key issues
  • produce events (conferences, symposia, round tables)
  • edit and publish an e-journal of alternative diplomacy
  • prepare reports, op-eds and commentary
  • design and deliver training and professional development programs

The management of international relations non-violently, through dialogue, negotiation and compromise, is a worthy end deserving of additional means. To get to the “multilateral revolution” which the authors of Open Canada plainly seek, those considering the recommendations in Chapter 2 might usefully think about, but also well beyond, the existing range of options.

Contemplating the merits of a distinctively Canadian Institute for Diplomatic Alternatives seems a good place to start.