Canadian Public Diplomacy – Where to?

In the previous post, I tried to show that during the 1980s and ‘90s the paradigm for the delivery of Canadian international policy shifted fundamentally. Over the course of those years, there was a deliberate move away from an emphasis on traditional, state-to-state interaction in the direction of public diplomacy (PD). This form of international political exchange features diplomats communicating directly with foreign populations and cultivating partnerships with civil society actors – NGOs, businesspeople, journalists and academics.  I also made the case that the PD formula, in conjunction with the right combination of political will and bureaucratic skill, can produce impressive results, especially if directed towards projects with broad popular and media appeal, such as a land mine ban or efforts to improve the lot of children in conflict zones.

Looking back, it can be seen that Canadian PD reached its apogee under Foreign Minister Axworthy (1996-2000). At a time of severe government-wide cost-cutting, Canada fundamentally down-sized its international ambitions, but that exercise was not translated into a retreat from the field. To be sure, the large scale, long range, potentially world changing projects of the post-war decades  – poverty eradication, conflict resolution, global environmental conservation – were gone. In their place, Canadian officials proposed a series of special projects – for example, curbs on the trading of “blood” diamonds and small arms – designed for implementation within media-friendly diplomatic niches. They did not always succeed, but each initiative featured a defined start and finish. Upon completion, the Minister could simply call a press conference, declare victory and move on.

Minister Axworthy learned, and very quickly, how the use of soft power could make a virtue of necessity. Conventional diplomacy was still necessary, but it was no longer sufficient when it came to influencing foreign governments. That influence was best brought to bear through their publics, and through international public opinion, especially when compulsion was not an option and democratization had expanded the scope for exercising influence indirectly.

The requirements associated with this burst of activism imposed significant costs upon DFAIT’s staff, already struggling under the burden of increased demands and reduced resources.  Moreover, some strategic opportunities were missed. In 1996-97, for instance, the department’s Communications Bureau proposed the launch of an ambitious project which would have vaulted Canada into the digital age by establishing an integrated global presence based upon satellite broadcasting, the internet, public diplomacy, international education and branding.  In the end, however, at a time of diminishing capacity across government, the Canadian International Information Strategy (CIIS) lost out in Cabinet to the campaign to ban land mines (later christened the “Ottawa Process”). Canada might today be more effective and influential in the world had circumstances – particularly timing and the economic environment – been more propitious during that critical period.

In bureaucracy, there is often a lag between action and reflection. The Axworthy years were so frenetic that there was little time to think through the full implications of his program in terms of the design, structure and operations of the foreign ministry. As a result, generic interest in PD within the DFAIT apparatus actually peaked following Axworthy’s departure. For the first five years of the new century, significant efforts were made weave PD into the department’s modus operandi. A new PD Secretariat was established in Washington to coordinate advocacy activities in the USA. The idea of  “mainstreaming public diplomacy” was central to a comprehensive reform package launched by DFAIT’s  Deputy Ministers in 2004 and entitled Building a 21st Century Foreign Ministry, or FAC21. When Prime Minister Chretien stepped down the same year, the new leader, Paul Martin, commissioned a comprehensive international policy review. In the final, five volume report, A Place of Pride and Influence in the World, PD was highlighted as “the new diplomacy”.

Although it has been scarcely more than a decade since Axworthy left office, the years of Canadian public diplomatic activism now seem long ago and far away. Ironically, despite the many practical successes and, later, some focused internal interest, PD never received the extent of budgetary support which might have been anticipated. This is doubly curious because although Axworthy’s Liberal successors, John Manley, Bill Graham and Pierre Pettigrew, did not share his enthusiasm for human security, they did seem to buy into PD. Manley mandated a public diplomacy working group within the secretariat conducting his – albeit short-lived –  Foreign Policy Update in 2001, and beginning in 2003 Graham used the interactive potential of the internet to reach out to Canadians with his Foreign Policy Dialogue. But political interest in undertaking concrete diplomatic initiatives had waned well before the January, 2006 election of a Conservative minority government. Almost immediately, the previous administration’s policy review was shelved, government communications were centralized and placed under strict control, and DFAIT officials were gagged.

Canadian public diplomacy, already in decline and tainted lethally by its association with the outgoing Liberal government, effectively disappeared.

Memories of independent Canadian leadership on global issues are receding, the drift towards continental integration continues.

In May 2011 the Conservative party was returned with a majority, and John Baird, a prominent and influential Tory insider, was named Foreign Minister. The new minister speaks of the need for a “tough”  foreign policy, and the overall emphasis favours the military over diplomacy and development assistance. Yet there are stirrings within DFAIT of a possible PD renewal. A modest experiment has been launched allowing several of Canada’s European ambassadors to engage foreign audiences using social media platforms Twitter and Facebook, and this enterprise may eventually be expanded to include the participation of all Canadian missions.

That said, even under a best case scenario Canada will still be trailing most of its diplomatic competition, both within the OECD and beyond. Unless and until DFAIT regains the full confidence, trust and respect of its political masters, and is once again called upon to perform, any return to the halcyon days of Canadian PD activism seems unlikely.

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