In Defense of DFAIT: Why Diminished Diplomatic Capacity Damages Canadian Interests

These are not the best of days at DFAIT.

According to an article on p.1 of this week’s of Embassy magazine, Canada will be moving to a “hub and spoke” model for its diplomatic network in Europe, centralizing resources at a few larger missions while reducing the Canadian presence elsewhere in the region.

A box on p. 9 in the same edition reports that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will lose about $170 million from its budget over the next three years. As a result, and among other things, the Department will:

• Review Canada’s participation in some international organizations

• Close five US missions in Anchorage, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Raleigh-Durham, and one satellite office in Princeton

• Introduce five new regional clusters in the United States: West Coast, Midwest,Great Lakes, South East, North East, and the South Rocky Mountain corridor

• Phase out the international Canadian studies program

• Reduce the funding and geographic scope of the International Scholarships Program

• Change DFAIT’s domestic network to have five regional hubs (Vancouver, Calgary,Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax) and close offices in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon,Winnipeg, St. John’s, Charlottetown, and Moncton

• Eliminate 35 Commerce Officer positions

• Reduce the vehicle fleet at missions

• Update allowances for diplomats

• Extend the length of postings

• Sell some official residences abroad

Working smarter?

Readers may well be thinking… Hub and spoke in the EU? A bit of trimming here and there?

Under the prevailing circumstances in public finance, these measures seem modest, sensible, and perhaps timely if not overdue.


With a few exceptions, that has certainly been the reaction across the Canadian mainstream.

As with so much received wisdom, however, a closer examination is necessary.

How so?

I have always been a strong supporter of diplomacy as an alternative to the threat or use of armed force. But I have also been critical of foreign ministries as rigid, authoritarian, hierarchic and change-resistant. Much of my criticism has been directed specifically at DFAIT. Over the course of 30 years working there, I experienced a hot-house of ambitious careerism, bureaucratic intrigue and self-service, a work environment in which fear and loathing subverted innovation and conservatism trumped risk tolerance. Management was typically weak and sometimes incompetent, especially when it came to game-changing issues like failing to push-back when public diplomacy was effectively abolished following the change of government in 2006.

Overall, despite the opportunities to travel and live abroad, the presence of many bright people and the intrinsically interesting issues, I found that inside DFAIT, professional life amounted largely to an extended case study in public administration’s worst practices.

So – I have not been a fan.

That said, these reductions, which according to my calculations amount to something closer to 314.5 million by 2014-15, represent mainly false economies, and are only going to make a desperate situation even worse.

In an increasingly competitive, complex and difficult global environment that is bad news for prospective Canadian security and prosperity.

Contextualizing the cuts

Very compelling counter-arguments can be conjured in support of each of the items facing downward budgetary pressure.

For example, is cutting our presence on the ground in the USA a good idea in the wake of the precarious circumstances attending consideration of the XL pipeline proposal?

In a world where competition for attracting the best minds is fierce, does it make sense to phase out international scholarships and support for Canadian Studies programs abroad?

Having failed spectacularly in our 2010 bid to gain election to the UN Security Council, is it wise to lighten our presence in Europe and to reduce our exposure in international organizations?

In a situation in which winning the confidence, trust and respect of foreign decision-makers and opinion-leaders counts for everything, is it advisable to downgrade the quality and accessibility of our prime representational space?

What will all of this mean for the maintenance of key personal and professional relationships, and the ability of Canadian envoys to work their networks of contacts?

Rather than dwell on these sorts of particulars, however, and acknowledging that radical institutional reform is essential, I believe that the most forceful arguments have yet to be advanced.

We live in a world in which the most profound challenges to Canadian well-being have little to do with religious extremism or political violence. By any reasonable measure, putative threats such as terrorism, or Islamic fundamentalism do not warrant a place on the A-list. Think instead of the issues which imperil not only this country, but the entire planet: climate change; resource scarcity; environmental collapse; pandemic disease; protection of the global commons, and; public health, to name a few.

These issues share three characteristics in common:

  • the absence of any military solutions
  • an intimate connection to science and technology
  • an urgent requirement for remedial international action

All of which brings us back to diplomacy. At the end of the day, this non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and knowledge-based problem solving represents our best hope. Yes, DFAIT needs work, not least in gearing up for science diplomacy. But there is a dialectic relationship between results and resources, and meaningful, progressive change cannot be driven by a pre-occupation with the identification and implementation of cuts.

Canada’s foreign ministry has been running on fumes for too long. Additional austerity is surely not the order of the day.

Moving forward… or back?

Canada is a rich country, and one with many comparative advantages over the competition. The savings being realized as a result of the DFAIT expenditure reductions as so small that they barely register on scale of public accounts.

More can, and should be done internationally.

This is especially true because since about the middle of the last century, Canadian prestige and influence around the world have been in a pattern of inexorable, but largely inevitable decline. Our position at the end of WWII was artificially exaggerated. Although it remains highly admirable, our relative role – and place – have been shrinking. The US surged into uni-polarity, and then miscalculated colossally in Iraq and Afghanistan; Europe and Japan re-built, prospered, and then plateaued; the BRICs  are rising… and Canada?

Lately, we have been watching from the sidelines.

Thus the question: why shoot yourself in the foot when you are in a race? Why lower the GST and reduce corporate and personal income taxes instead of planning and organizing to reduce the vulnerabilities which attend the globalization era?

On that note, how about assigning political officers to DFAIT’s regional offices in order to engage the intelligence potential inherent in Canada’s burgeoning diasporic communities?

Of this I have no doubt. With the emergence of a heteropolar, G-Zero, post-American, or even non-polar world order, governments everywhere will need diplomats – and diplomacy – more than ever.

For that reason and more, it is in Canada’s interest to re-invest in DFAIT, not to slash and burn.