Pin Stripes on the Picket Lines? Why the Plight of Canadian Diplomats Matters – Part I

Last month the membership of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers  (PAFSO), Canada’s working-level diplomats, voted overwhelmingly in favour of job action. The 1350 members of this occupational group, who have been without a contract since June 2011, are now in a legal strike position.

While this situation has raised eyebrows, to date the actions undertaken by PAFSO members have been largely symbolic, involving tactics such as “working to rule”, refusing overtime, and ignoring their Blackberries outside of office hours. An “electronic picket” affecting email communications has been deployed to automatically alert Canadians and international officials to the possibility of delays in responding to correspondence.

There has been no wholesale withdrawal of service, and PAFSO has shown itself as anything but rigid or uncompromising. When the Boston Marathon was bombed on April 15th, all job action measures at the Canadian Consulate-General in that city were suspended immediately in order to best assist Canadians.

So…what is all discontent all about, and why is it important?

Diplomacy Deconstructed

Foreign Service Officers play a critical role at home and abroad in advancing the security, prosperity and well-being of all Canadians. Yet their work is largely unappreciated. Diplomacy remains at best a mystery to most Canadians, and diplomats are rarely accorded the respect enjoyed by soldiers or aid workers.

This may be attributed in part to PAFSO’s relatively small size, in part to the lack of a vocal national constituency (unlike the Canadian Forces) and apathy on the part of journalists, academics, and opinion leaders. The elimination of domestic outreach programs by DFAIT’s  senior management and the related the centralization and control of all public communication in PMO/PCO has contributed as well.

Diplomacy also has a serious image problem.

In the public mind, to the extent that they are thought of at all, diplomats tend to be seen as a pampered elite living high off the hog at taxpayer expense. Dithering dandies.

That negative stereotype is often invoked by diplomacy’s detractors.  Like most stereotypes, however, this one is far off the mark.  Given the stakes at play, the time is overdue for a reality check.

To that end, one of the less celebrated outcomes associated with the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” episode of 2010-11 was the window it provided on the inner workings of the world’s second oldest profession. What was to be seen? In some 257,000 US-origin classified dispatches, diplomats were shown to be hard at work, pursuing interests, advocating policies, building relationships and projecting values, in major capitals and to the ends of the earth, 24/7. Innovative thinking, entrepreneurship, street-smarts, and granular local knowledge permeate the entire corpus.

Had these been Canadian cables, the story would have been much the same. Readers would have encountered brokers, guides, and cultural interpreters, including:

  • Political officers developing networks, performing analysis, gathering intelligence and assessing policy;
  • Trade Commissioners promoting goods and services and soliciting inward investment;
  • Consular officers assisting citizens by replacing passports, offering travel advice, arranging repatriations and medical care, visiting prisoners, and organizing evacuations from disaster areas or conflict zones, and;
  • Immigration officers interviewing and recruiting new Canadians, issuing student and visitor visas, and working with airline staff to identify illegal migrants and false documentation.

Essential and exciting pursuits, to be sure, but a far cry from easy street.

Comfort and joy?

Even under the best of circumstances, it can be tough to balance the imperatives of family life against the requirements of the job. Foreign Service Officers are by definition “rotational”, which is to say that they are subject to regular assignment abroad. Spouses are frequently unable to work on overseas postings, and may have difficulty finding employment, or even collecting unemployment insurance, when they return home. This can create both lost income and career development problems.

Children have to change schools, leave their friends, make new ones, and adjust to different educational systems and languages.

Some thrive.

Others fail.

Overseas moves may be exciting once, but over a career can exhausting. In the face of relentless downward pressure on the terms and conditions of service abroad, allowances are tumbling, rent ceilings are being lowered, commutes are getting longer, and incentives are disappearing. An increasing number of administrative and logistical tasks – from moving arrangements, to finding accommodation, to providing the furnishings – are no longer being provided by the employer and are falling upon families. That is, if families can come. More and more diplomats are going abroad unaccompanied, where they may face personal risks (Afghanistan), sleep in tents (post-earthquake Haiti) or come home to a pre-fab container jammed into a heavily guarded compound (Pakistan).

In short, this is challenging, complex, often difficult, and – remembering Glyn Berry, Chris Stevens, and Anne Smeddinghoff –  increasingly dangerous work.  But it must be done; social media and digital technologies, while useful tools, can never replace the value added by direct human contact and on the ground connectedness.