Thirty Years On: Reflections on DFAIT and the Diplomatic Prospect – Part I

Editors’s Note: Abridged versions of the following retrospective appear today in bout de papier (in print) and on the web site of the Canadian International Council.  The first instalment of the full, unedited text follows.

A burning platform

London cabbies are a great source of received wisdom. Over the past several years I have had occasion to focus test dozens of drivers drawn from this select group. I queried them about the reputation of diplomacy in general, and their impressions of diplomats in particular.

Their verdict?

Reduced to its most essential iteration:

Dithering dandies, hopelessly lost in a haze of irrelevance somewhere between protocol and alcohol…

For diplomatic practitioners, exposure to the mainstream view of cartoon caricatures in pin stripes or pearls riding high at public expense serves as a sobering reminder that any vestigial prestige and mystique once associated with the profession has worn long since off.

More worrisome still, since at least Chamberlain’s ill-starred visit to Munich in 1938, diplomacy has come to be associated with weakness and appeasement, with caving in to power.

In other words, diplomacy’s debilitating image problems are matched by serious misunderstandings concerning the substance of the work. That said, however misleading the archetypes, popular perceptions of diplomacy are not entirely unfounded. Neither the profession nor its institutions have adjusted well to the exigencies of the globalization age.

It doesn’t help that so few foreign service officers have a clear sense of just how their work fits into the bigger picture. Simply put, diplomacy is a non-violent approach to the management of international relations which relies upon dialogue, negotiation and compromise. Doing it well requires empathy and understanding, a keen intellect, a capacity for political communication, and a very particular set of personal aptitudes. Book learning may be necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. Adaptability, self awareness and life skills, most more easily acquired through world travel than over the course of years of formal education, are crucial.

It took me a few postings – and decades – to develop much of an interest in, or appreciation for diplomacy. No one at DFAIT  ever talked about it much. It is not on the curriculum at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute. It is largely ignored by Canadian universities and in the press. Yet the idea of diplomacy should be at the core of most everything that a foreign ministry does.

At DFAIT these days, nothing could be further from the truth. Policy initiatives? Strategic advice? Intelligence generation? Innovative thinking?


Sadly, these days a sidelined and marginalized DFAIT spends most of its time talking to itself rather than reaching out at home or abroad.

The transactional has triumphed – at enormous expense.

Rethinking security

Diplomacy matters, but it is in crisis. As in most OECD countries, our political leaders have developed an unfortunate habit of reaching for the gun as the international policy instrument of choice. Defence departments receive the lion’s share of  international policy funding, while foreign ministries and development agencies struggle. In the world we live in, not only does this make no sense, but it gives rise to serious distortions and misallocations. Western governments failed to learn the main lesson of the Cold War, namely that militaries work best when they are not used. Take the sword out of the scabbard, and it makes a dreadful mess.

Defence is primarily about power. Diplomacy is about influence. The most profound threats and challenges engendered by globalization – and in my view religious extremism and political extremism do not make the A-list – are not amenable to coercive military solutions. Generals and admirals, bombs and guns have their place, but at this point in the 21st century, it should not be centre stage. The best army cannot stop pandemic disease. Air strikes are useless against climate change. Alternatives to the carbon economy cannot be occupied by expeditionary forces.

The unresolved, transnational issues that today imperil the planet are neither territorial nor ideological. Diminishing biodiversity, resource scarcity and a collapsing physical environment afflict us all. In contrast, the probability that anyone reading this article will be caught up in a terrorist incident is slightly lower than that of drowning in the bathtub.

Bottom line? Security is not a martial art. Under prevailing circumstances, the military is both too sharp, and too dull an international policy instrument to deal with the globalization threat set. Diplomacy, linked integrally to development, is our best hope.

Diplomacy, however, is in serious disrepair.