For Canada’s new Foreign Minister? A three point plan

As the dust settles in the wake of John Baird’s abrupt departure from the Foreign Affairs portfolio, little has been ventured about his successor, former Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. Given the new minister’s long record in government, we might reliably anticipate a steady, if somewhat slow hand on the tiller at Fort Pearson, and the quiet, if unquestioning execution of the PM’s ideologically-driven agenda.

My former colleague Paul Heinbecker recently offered Mr. Nicholson some useful advice on repairing the damage associated with Mr. Baird’s controversial legacy. These proposals are related mainly to specific foreign policy issues, and I have no particular qualms with the priorities set forth.

That said, the challenges associated with the restoration of this country’s place in the world are profound and far-reaching. Addressing them will require remedial action affecting all elements of the diplomatic ecosystem – the foreign ministry, foreign service, and diplomatic practice – as well as grand strategy and the Canadian brand.

Diplomacy, broadly cast, can be thought of as the plumbing of international politics. When it is working, dialogue flourishes, compromise is commonplace, and negotiations thrive. On occasions when the cool, clear waters of non-violent international policy are flowing, the flames of violence can be dampened or extinguished, droughts averted, crops grown and populations sustained. However, if the pipes are rusted-out or broken, or the well run dry or contaminated, any effort to turn on the tap will produce little more than grit, scale and foul fluid.

If he hopes to fill his glass with anything potable, Minister Nicholson needs to call in the plumbers. Immediately. Under-resourced, marginalized and tied up in multiple bureaucratic knots, DFATD is still reeling under the impact of having unexpectedly to absorb CIDA, the formerly independent development agency. The managerial and administrative overheads accruing to that sort of exercise are colossal and enduring. Even if they were not, the structure, mandate and modus operandi of Canada’s foreign ministry are obsolete. With five ministers, 15 Assistant Deputy Ministers, and as many layers in the decision-making hierarchy – six – as was the case when I joined the Department in 1981, the organization is in desperate need of reconstruction from the ground up.

Some pointers? I would imagine a smaller, flatter, more lithe and responsive organization focussed on the management of globalization and ensuring international policy coherence across government. Diplomats would spend less time in their offices and more time in the field actually doing diplomacy. Additional personnel would be deployed abroad and the representational footprint of embassies, consulates and multilateral missions made more flexible, responsive and diverse. Most crucially, staff would be made to feel like partners rather than adversaries – the bitter and divisive strike by Canadian Foreign Service Officers in 2013 has left a residue of mistrust now best relegated to memory.

So, too, with the present array of diplomatic techniques and instruments, many of which are out of sync with the demands of contemporary statecraft. Despite Mr. Baird’s late conversion to the use of social and digital media, mainstream public diplomacy remains largely off-limits, with all external communications highly controlled and centralized at the political level. Absent a return to the atmosphere of confidence and respect which would permit the resumption of outreach activities and unscripted conversations, Canada’s consignment to relative obscurity will persist.

Grand strategy, though much misunderstood, is a unifying, long-term and succinct vision of a country’s global goals, values and interests. The result of deep reflection and extensive consultation, grand strategy is expressed at a high level of analysis. This blueprint sets out where a country is, and wants to go in the world, and identifies partners, contingencies, obstacles and constraints in an omnibus assessment of long-term capacity. Without the planning benchmarks and over-arching sense of direction which constitute the core of grand strategy, a country will be locked inevitably in reactive mode, underperforming its potential while lurching from crisis to crisis or drifting aimlessly.

Sound familiar?

With the winding down of the Human Security Agenda, Canada has been without anything resembling a grand strategy for over a decade. The last effort to cobble together a comprehensive review document collapsed in a smoldering heap with the defeat of the Martin government in 2006. Nothing has been attempted since. The ultimate downside, in the memorable words of Oxford University historian and theoretician Hew Strachan, is that without grand strategy, policy can become an instrument of war, rather than vice versa. Canada’s disastrous involvement in Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq, coupled with tirades of bellicose bombast on Russia and Ukraine, suggest that Canada has fallen into precisely that trap.

Brand Canada is in trouble. Once widely admired for its association with generosity, openness, compassion and progressive internationalism, our brand has become weak and amorphous. The one-time helpful fixer, honest broker and earnest peacekeeper has morphed into something quite unrecognizable – part warrior nation wannabe, part fossil of the year, part evangelical free trader. In the densely interconnected and tightly networked precincts of the 21st century, an integrated and coherent approach to image projection and reputation management matters more than ever. Sadly, this has not registered. From the failure to win election to the UN Security Council in 2010, to the erosion of our position as a player in the dynamic Asia-Pacific, to the widespread criticism of unconditional advocacy in support of oil sands, pipelines and the extractive industries generally, the wilting of the red maple leaf has hurt.

Should Minister Nicholson chose to begin addressing the diplomatic deficit, attending to grand strategy and renewing Canada’s tattered brand, he could leave his mark on Canadian international policy. If not, he will be remembered – however vaguely – as just another place-holder in a long line of ineffective foreign ministers.