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

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 final instalment of the full, unedited text follows.

Turning the page

Too bleak?  Perhaps we can all look forward to reading a comprehensive rejoinder refuting the arguments set out here. That would certainly be welcome.

I should add that while critical, I remain committed to supporting DFAIT in its efforts to change and evolve. Most of the shortcomings outlined above can in fact be remedied, and the descent into genteel oblivion reversed, but getting there will require both budgetary support and a more strategic, determined and committed effort than has yet been attempted. Diplomatic performance can be dramatically improved, but not without radical reform and serious reinvestment. A new narrative is needed, as is an improved prescription for a smarter, faster, more supple approach to the way we work. .

And still, although praising Cesar is not my purpose here, there are many items on the positive side of the ledger.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers has made enormous strides, and now serves the interests of its membership rather than those of management. Salaries, benefits, and many of the terms and conditions of foreign service have improved markedly as a result.

Fascinating issues and smart people abound.

And the opportunities to travel, live work, and represent Canada abroad are priceless.

It was all of this, and more, that kept me coming back for three decades.

In all, quite the journey. There were many highs: Thailand was a dream come true, and I used one of my formative experiences there to construct the prologue for Guerrilla Diplomacy. The posting to Ethiopia in the midst of famine and civil war was like working in a theme park for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Participation in the (long extinct) exchange program with Ministry of  Foreign  Affairs and Trade in New Zealand exposed me to the experience of working for someone else’s government, and began a close association which continues to this day in my teaching, public speaking and consulting work. Doing intelligence analysis for Central and Southeast Asia as Cold War ended provided an intriguing window on a changing world. Winning the Canadian Foreign Service Officer Award for advancing the interests of the diplomatic profession- rather than just doing my job – has been a source of enduring satisfaction.

Last, but by no means least, securing approval for my book project – an epic undertaking in itself – and the subsequent teaching gig at the Munk Centre built nicely upon the foundations laid during my secondment as National Programme Director at the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in the late nineties.

Low points usually involved conflicts with bosses and various battles with “the system”. Even at that, the experience of taking on – often in full, frontal assaults – a number of abusive, psychopathic senior managers, none of whom were accustomed to dealing with (very) active resistance, taught me the importance of resilience, resourcefulness and strategic planning.

Loyal opposition is not easy. I sometimes felt like the lone ranger, riding the high sierra in isolation.

But I was never, ever bored. And I am especially grateful that those thirty years equipped me with the professional contacts, knowledge and experience required to re-invent myself for an excellent life after DFAIT.

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Of one thing I am certain.

As we move inexorably into the messy, dynamic, asymmetrical world order which is heteropolarity, governments will need diplomacy – and diplomats – more than ever. There simply are no military solutions to the vexing range of transnational issues which constitute the globalization threat set. To address these sorts of challenges, complex balancing, knowledge-based problem-solving, and genuine dialogue remain the best tools in the shed.

Thus the question must be put – why are the vast majority of international policy resources still being directed to the Department of National Defence, while DFAIT and CIDA are savaged?

Unless and until that misallocation is remedied, performance is unlikely to improve.

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Blink, and its gone.

It is our most precious non-renewable resource.

When time runs out, access to any other resource – wealth,  power, influence – no longer matters  much.

Keep that in mind while working.