Coming up short: No sign of a grand strategy in Canada’s “secret” foreign policy plan

The leak of a draft Canadian foreign policy plan, first reported nationally on 19 November, was treated breathlessly by the media and hyped as a major story.

By way of contrast, the event has generated something of a yawn from members of the commentariat.

Insofar as that lacklustre response reflects what we know of the apparently insipid content of the paper, it is unsurprising. The need to embrace trade and economic opportunities in emerging markets, while continuing with efforts to advance Canadian interests in the USA, is hardly the stuff of revelation.

So, too with the requirement to manage carefully the pursuit of Canadian objectives in countries where fundamental values may not align.

Still, the appearance of this document, the status of which remains uncertain, is not completely without significance. The absence of consultations during its preparation suggests serious problems of governance, not least an over-reliance on secrecy and control. Moreover, the issues that are not covered in the plan may be more significant than those that are.

Unlike the comprehensive, five volume International Policy Statement released by the Martin government in 2005, the leaked policy guidance does not appear to be product of a wide-ranging, strategic review.

That is unfortunate, because the fundamental structural changes now sweeping the globe have generated a new set of threats and challenges, many of which are characterized by the presence of a  significant scientific and technological component.

These perils are not flagged in the plan, and for the most part are not well understood.

In that respect, the initiation at this juncture of a national conversation on grand strategy could scarcely be more timely.

What would that sort of exercise involve? Much more than stating the obvious and the reiterating familiar platitudes.

Grand strategy is all about devising a master plan which sets out where a country wants to go in the world, and how it intends to get there. A detailed estimation of national capabilities is matched by an equally searching consideration of vulnerabilities, obstacles and constraints.

As such, grand strategy seeks to draws together and unify all elements of national power and influence – political, economic, cultural, diplomatic and military.

The 2005 enterprise, whatever its failings, did attempt to achieve that goal.

Once constructed, grand strategy takes the form of a clear statement of fundamental  interests and values. This core is supported by an estimation of capacity and potential and an articulation of the policies and plans required to advance the strategic objectives identified.

By providing both visionary intellectual guidance and an interpretive operational framework, grand strategy reconciles longer term ends with available means, and sets out a world view which illuminates both risks and possibilities.

Grand strategy is especially useful during times – not unlike the present – of heightened danger and instability, when it serves as a primary navigational beacon which helps policy-makers chart the way forward.

In a turbulent operating environment, and especially in moments of uncertainty or doubt, that beacon should be glowing in the mind’s eye, inspiring purposeful decisions and directed action.

The secret plan does not contain those attributes, or deliver that kind of advice.

It underwhelms.

How to move forward from here? By launching a larger, more open discussion and debate. By tapping into the energy, creativity and imagination to be found in Canadian universities, think tanks, businesses and NGOs.

Under those more inclusive circumstances, it just might be possible reconnect with the well-springs of innovation and inspiration which once animated an activist Canadian foreign policy.

Lest we forget, this is a country until recently known for in its enlightened, progressive, compassionate approach to international policy. Terms such as peacekeeping, human security, and the responsibility to protect, however removed from the current political discourse, still bear an unmistakably Canadian imprimatur.

In the same vein, the existence of the land mine ban treaty and International Criminal Court are in no small measure the result of Canadian initiative. Even if issues of blood diamonds, child soldiers and the plight of children in conflict no longer occupy a central place on the multilateral agenda, they, too, constitute part of the legacy of engaged Canadian internationalism.

That brand is gone. But with what has it been replaced?

Unless the secret plan is made public, beyond the soothing bromides of prosperity and security we will not know whether or not Canada’s future diplomatic priorities are clearly identified. What has been seen does not suggest the existence of an agreed assessment of where or how Canada might fit into an emerging big picture. Nor does it take sufficient account of the serial mishandling of relations with most Asian countries, or the retreat from Africa, or the unfulfilled commitment to build stronger ties to Latin America.

It is just these sorts of vulnerabilities and constraints that grand strategy is intended to address.

Finally. DFAIT authored the foreign policy plan. Does that paper pre-suppose any kind of vision of the foreign ministry functioning as a whole-of-government central agency equipped to ensure international policy coherence and to manage all aspects globalization? I doubt it.

For these reasons and more, I believe that the orchestration of grand strategy should be established as one of DFAIT’s core tasks.

By focusing on grand strategy and globalization management, the foreign ministry could realize its strongest comparative advantages and begin to add real value as a network node.

This may seem like a very tall order, especially for a department struggling with significant cuts and which does not appear to enjoy the complete confidence, trust and respect of its political masters. Yet until the Department is provided with the political clearance and the tools required to operate effectively at a more elevated level of analysis, improved performance is unlikely.