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

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

Greasing the skids…

DFAIT’s network of missions abroad should provide the foundation for the foreign ministry’s comparative advantage vis-à-vis other government departments. Instead, by running down the geographic divisions at headquarters and adopting the “international platform” model abroad, local knowledge and regional expertise have been devalued. The vital connection to place is wilting on the vine, while turf wars are being lost to line departments with functional responsibilities. One colleague commented to me recently that current approach looks like a plan for turning DFAIT’s facilities into a global door mat, and its personnel into a corps of overseas concierges, a slightly refined equivalent of the greeters at Walmart.

In a process which began under the rubric of Transformation, Canadian diplomatic missions are being remade into whole-of-government points of service overseas, with career diplomats often outnumbered by the employees of other government departments. That might be fine – except that too often those despatched are being exiled for reasons having little to do with their personal suitability for representational work abroad.

Prior to the current round of reductions, more people were finally being moved into the field – that was clearly needed. Yet this modest shift was accompanied by a new corporate design intended to migrate certain headquarters functions out to missions, a development which will almost certainly have the unintended but pernicious effect of forcing diplomats to behave even more like international policy bureaucrats. If limited numbers of DFAIT staff are called upon to write background and scenario notes, organize meetings and provide services not only to travelling Canadians, but also internally, there will be precious little time for actually doing diplomacy. Instead, those posted abroad will be consigned to their offices – exactly where they shouldn’t be – pushing paper and talking to others of their ilk about what might be going on outside.

That is a poor substitute for first hand experience, and a formula for turning allegations about the irrelevance of the foreign service into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An unloved outlier within the firmament of government, and reduced to the role of landlord and common service provider to other government departments overseas, DFAIT is being degraded from within.  The lobotomizing of the Department has left in its wake a rather banal crew of remainders, none of which contribute much to the design or delivery of diplomacy. Ambitious careerism, bureaucratic process and busy-work thrive, and have overtaken analysis and international policy leadership; the administrative tail is wagging the policy dog. Especially notable for its absence is the stuff of statecraft.

What, then, is left?

Substantial policy work has given way to the transactional. This has been expressed through the imposition of endless reorganizations; regulations; audits; performance and publications reviews; access to information and privacy requests, and so forth.  Vast swathes of time are devoted to tasks such as the preparation of media lines and routine communications, briefing materials and parliamentary Q&As, not to mention the planning, coordination and implementation of incoming and outgoing visits. The provision of travel advice and consular assistance has become a boom industry in the wake ever more Canadian nationals travelling and living abroad, as has crisis management (SARS, BSE, H1N1, evacuations, natural disasters) in our increasingly inter-connected world.  The need to maintain the physical and information technology infrastructure, with special attention to communications security, and to support the employees of other government departments has become a significant resource sink. And while there remains a skeleton crew devoted to policy work and the minimal maintenance of bilateral, multilateral and international legal obligations, today the centre of gravity has clearly shifted.

Whatever their merits, the preponderance of these sorts of activities is eclipsing the high end of DFAIT’s diplomatic potential. It is not so much that the mainstay of the business – relationship management with states, international organizations and global civil society – has disappeared entirely, but rather that it is being lost in the contemporary mix. The most recent “reform” project, Strategic Review II, whatever the packaging, proved to be little more than code for further cuts.

Resource reduction masquerading as reform almost never works.

Whether by omission or by commission, DFAIT has greased the skids for its long slide down.

…and a case unmade

Part of the responsibility must be borne by those who have held senior management positions, especially at DFAIT and in the Prime Minister’s and Privy Council Offices. This group was apparently unaware of the need not only to stand up for their country abroad, but – when required – to stand up to their country at home. DFAIT executives have not been held accountable for the serial failure to push back, to make their case to decision-makers. The wholesale retreat from public diplomacy (PD) is perhaps the most egregious example among many.

DFAIT was once a pioneer and a leader in the PD field. Now, through the imposition of the Orwellian “Message Event Proposal” pre-clearance requirement in advance of all public communications, DFAIT staff  have been effectively gagged. This is especially debilitating as regards the use of social media platforms to connect directly with populations. Among the world’s leading foreign ministries, digital, or e-diplomacy is front and centre. Not so in the Pearson Building. Whereas a decade ago DFAIT was way out in front – remember the on-line Foreign Policy Dialogue? – today it trails the pack internationally.

Clearly, something has been missed. Diplomacy can produce results by fostering genuine dialogue. When fed back into policy formulation and decision-making loops, the fruits of meaningful exchange can affect thinking and behaviour at both ends of the conversation. So it is that differences are narrowed and problems solved. Without the capacity to engage unscripted dialogue, however, diplomacy cannot deliver, and its comparative advantage over competing international policy instruments is lost.

I have seen no indication that this argument was forcefully put at a time when it might have made a difference. So, too, with the failure to articulate and advance a vision for the foreign ministry in the 21st century. Why not leave behind work on files better handled by specialized line departments in order to focus on the large, cross-cutting issues such as climate change, distributive justice and management of the global commons? By rising up a couple of levels of analysis to serve as a catalyst, entrepot and network node equipped to manage the complex challenges of globalization, DFAIT could do something that is no one else’s job.

Yet none of this is on the table, and the costs have been substantial. With so much of its budget fenced off or attached to specific programs, across the board reductions such as those contained in the March 2012 Federal Budget can only come from the operating funds. In a department already cut to the bone, this means amputating body parts – staff, missions, representational work, and the terms and conditions of service.

Quite apart from the fact that the savings are miniscule and the economies false, that is not a formula for engineering a supportive work environment, let alone for doing more and better diplomacy.

So, too with regards to the matter of patronage appointments, not just at the Head of Mission level, but anywhere. Using the foreign service for purposes of political waste disposal is unseemly, counter-productive and wasteful, not least because the diplomatic professionals have to spend so much of their time managing their boss and practicing damage control.

That said, political appointees don’t have to be disasters, and their impact need not be corrosive. The best have contacts, experience and a skill set which can add much to achievement of larger national objectives. Two of the best bosses that I have ever worked with – David MacDonald and Stephen Lewis – were appointees, but both were very effective as advocates and able as public servants. They were not timid, had excellent personal networks at home and abroad, and – critically –  knew both how the system worked and how to work the system. They were never afraid to pull strings in order to get things done.

Like so much else in diplomacy, the sensible and judicious use of such mechanisms is very much a matter of judgement and discretion.