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

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 third instalment of the full, unedited text follows.

Continuous learning?

At a personal level, what kernels of wisdom might I have acquired during the passage? For starters:

  • a diplomat’s most valuable assets are relationships based upon confidence, trust and respect
  • the ability to swim like a fish in the sea of the people is a hugely undervalued representational attribute; too many heads of mission flop around like fish out of water when outside their comfort zones
  • it is sometimes better to go down with all flags flying than to compromise a principle or submit to abusive authority

More broadly, I found out – usually the hard way – that about half of the decisions that really count in terms of career aspirations and outcomes can be ascribed to factors perhaps best described as personal and situational – who knows whom and what is going on where. Another thirty per cent or so of what happens tends to turn on matters of chance, luck and timing. That leaves typically only the remaining twenty per cent of decisions which are taken primarily on the basis of objective circumstances or the strength of a business case. The so-called “performance management” process for executives, from which flow the coveted bonuses, works more like a popularity or beauty contest, and is highly dependent upon who is present during the division of the spoils.

Meritocracy, while not unknown, is not the defining feature.

A hierarchic structure, top-down social relations and resistance to change remained defining characteristics throughout my tenure. At a time of oganizational flattening, there are today as many levels in the corporate structure as there were when I started out in 1981. In this rigid, cloistered environment, process dwarfs substance. There is enormous pressure to drink the Kool-Aid. Dissent is discouraged – with a vengeance – risk averted, unquestioning loyalty and faithful service rewarded. A focus on looking inward rather than looking out means that ideas are judged more on their provenance than their quality. Unless very senior officials are involved, failure is not treated as a learning experience.

In contrast, blessing the received wisdom and running with the herd, often under the guise of team playing, leads reliably to advancement.

Sycophancy, however disguised or tarted-up, is hugely damaging, yet I witnessed more than a few successful careers made by kissing up, kicking down, and specializing in making the boss look good.

There is way too much fear and loathing, and not enough tolerance or curiosity on Sussex Drive.

By way of illustration, DFAIT’s woefully inadequate preparation for its stewardship of the Afghanistan file offers particularly powerful testament. The Canadian International Council has published a series of articles on the theme of “What went wrong in Afghanistan?”. That organization, and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute have launched initiatives on “Lessons Learned”. Has DFAIT meaningfully addressed these issues?

The full story may never be told – with so many parties implicated there is no appetite for a searching retrospective – but it is clear that by any reasonable measure, the objectives of the mission were not achieved. Books will never be written about the enduring legacy of the Kandahar PRT, or the innovative leadership displayed by Canada in pursuing alternatives to defence-dominated counterinsurgency and pacification. In such a militarized environment, insecurity thrived and diplomacy was impossible. Scarce resources were diverted, tickets were punched, and true believers anointed. Resistance was scant, self-service rampant and criticism, for instance concerning the handling of Afghan detainees, was stonewalled, often with extreme prejudice.

Whistleblower Richard Colvin did not suffer the same fate as Peter Van Buren at the U.S. Department of State, but by any measure this was not DFAIT’s finest hour. In fact, the abject failure of the responsible DFAIT officials to assess carefully the disastrous implications of long-term involvement in the “graveyard of empires”, and hence to recommend against the plan being pushed by the military, represents a degree of negligence bordering on incompetence. At the highest levels, among other omissions, no one warned of what joining the global war on terror might mean for the security of Canada and Canadians, nor of the damage to this country’s once-admired internationalist brand.

But that is another, and more tortuous tale.

Finally, it is often remarked that large organizations have a tendency to bend, fold and mutilate those within them. While it is quite possible that there is something inherently corrosive about bureaucracies in general, I believe that this observation is particularly apt in reference to foreign ministries. Long service and an insular culture result frequently in employees taking on the values, voice and affectations of the institution. For that reason, over time I no longer recognized the personalities of many of those with whom I started. Former friends and colleagues became strangers. Sure, people change, but this is something quite different. All of those years of slow cooking in the foreign ministerial cauldron seem to have a particularly profound effect on perceptions and behaviour, with an effect akin to corporate cloning.

It may come with the territory, but on that score I am nonetheless left with a lingering sense of regret.