Rebuilding Canada’s international capacity: Diplomatic reform in the age of globalization – Part I

Editor`s note: This article was co-authored with my CDFAI colleague and friend Colin Robertson. We served together in the Canadian foreign service for 30 years.


The world is an ever more complicated place and diplomacy, the world’s second oldest profession, matters more than ever before. But it is a different form of diplomacy – embracing the tools of technology and recognizing that globalization has both flattened the old hierarchies and added new complexities.

For Canada, diplomacy is more than a tool of statecraft. As a country that still puts a premium on attracting immigrants from abroad, a part of our identity is dependent on how we behave and how we are seen internationally.

For those reasons and more, Canadian diplomacy is and must be a manifestation of our values, policies and interests.

Joining the Foreign Service over three decades ago was to enter what was still mostly a brotherhood. Women were few, and the atmosphere was almost clubby. Indeed, the hallmarks resembled in some respects those of a religious order, if perhaps more Jesuitical than Dominican.

Contemporary foreign service is not a priesthood, nor is the foreign ministry a cathedral.

And diplomacy is not liturgy.

In Chapters and Indigo bookstores across the country, shoppers are encouraged to believe that: “The world needs more Canada.” To deliver on that promise, a thoroughgoing process of secular diplomatic reform will be essential.

The approaching election is a good time to consider our international policies, diplomatic practice and the foreign service itself.

Looking back, looking forward

External Affairs Minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and later Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson gave his name to the headquarters of Canadian diplomacy on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Many of those who have been celebrated, even mythologized, as contributors to a golden age of Canadian diplomacy – Charles Ritchie, Norman Robertson, Alan Gotlieb – were active at that time.

In those days, Canadians were players: architects of the multilateral system and engineers in its operations. We were peacekeepers in Suez and Cyprus, major aid donors and large scale post-secondary educational providers to Colombo Plan recipients.

Our then avant-garde development and cultural policies reflected progressive values, diversity and bilingualism. Enunciated by Louis St. Laurent in his 1947 Gray Lecture, these attributes became pillars of Canadian foreign policy for over half a century.

Today, that international landscape – and Canada’s place therein – are radically different.

The types and numbers of actors – states, corporations, NGOs, provinces, cities, even individuals such as Bill Gates, George Soros and Bono – have multiplied.

Power has become more diffuse, with its sources and vectors now characterized more by difference than similarity.

In this increasingly heteropolar world order, China, India, and the ASEAN states have joined Japan and Korea as members of the rising Asia-Pacific region.

Latin America and Africa have emerged and are asserting their influence. New institutions like the G20 help respond to these changes

These transformative changes, in combination with a widening array of challenges to the status quo – in the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, North Africa, the East and South China seas – have put a premium on diplomacy.

Even more vexing are the “globalization suite” of S&T-based issues, ranging from climate change and diminishing biodiversity to resource scarcity and pandemic disease.

In a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, there can be no substitute for dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and knowledge-based problem-solving.

Diplomacy, in other words, has never mattered more. But, risk averse and innovation shy, it is underperforming.

Not the same old, same old

Poverty – at home and abroad – is a familiar ill with a new set of drivers. By way of example, globalization efficiently allocates resources, heightens productivity and generates wealth. But it also has a tendency to polarize, increasing inequality by privatizing benefits while socializing costs. For these reasons and more, conventional thinking about the root causes of development and underdevelopment has attracted critical attention.

Handouts may have eased the liberal conscience, but the overall impact and effectiveness of official development assistance has been questionable. Appeal after appeal directed towards problems which defy resolution has created donor fatigue at home while failing to achieve intended improvements in living standards abroad.

Equitable and sustainable development remain the fundamental objectives, but the means are evolving. Remittances, foreign direct investment, and private philanthropy now far outstrip the importance of aid flows as external contributors to GDP growth.

Our diplomacy must be adjusted accordingly.

Connectivity and networks rule

Much ink has been spilled about the existence of a transnationalized plutocracy, the 1% of the population who amongst themselves control an inordinate share of the world’s wealth and resources. While that problem is real, there has been a concomitant development, namely the emergence of a global middle class empowered by the revolution in information and communications technologies.

Smart phone access and broadband Internet service are changing everything, with cross-cutting effects. Electronic devices and digital data flows open our minds to new ideas – both good and dubious – and foster the creation of virtual communities.

Science and technology is a two edged sword.

Addressing, and refuting the virulent ideologies which give rise to religious extremism and political violence is a public policy and diplomatic imperative. Most of the 9-11 terrorists, and many of ISIL’s foreign recruits are not the products of impoverishment.  Worse yet, ISIL is arguably more skilled in its use of social media than most foreign services.

Security: more than a martial art

However unfortunate, threat or use of armed force is a fact of life. That requires being prepared – not just to defend sovereignty and contribute to collective defence, but to maintain the armed forces’ capacity as first responders when disaster strikes.

The military plays a crucial role in alliance politics, sovereignty protection and territorial surveillance. In the case of the Canadian Arctic, the latter elements are indispensable, if still largely unfulfilled.

In other instances, the need to provide emergency relief requires that stability be established on the ground, often in a manner that only armed forces are able to achieve.

In order to succeed in diplomacy, you sometimes need the leverage which comes from retaining a credible defence.

In terms of laying the groundwork for lasting peace, however, it is for diplomacy to address that “wicked” constellation of issues which are rooted in science and driven by technology.

Best practices

Here there is an interesting, and for the most part unappreciated point of intersection.

Diplomacy could usefully adapt from modern military doctrine the concept of readiness, which translates into an institutional acknowledgement of the need to be fit, fast and flexible enough to deal with what whatever comes up, wherever it appears.

Diplomats would be well-advised to adapt a similar notion in delivering on their responsibility for the promotion of national values, policies and interests through non-violent political communication.

The implications would be sweeping and suggest a business model which is less rigid, sclerotic and conventional; more lithe, supple and responsive.

Bottom line? The debate over the relative virtues of hard, soft and smart power is one that Canadians should engage. This rings especially true in the wake costly experiences in Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq. The military ought not to be the instrument of first resort – this is province of diplomacy – but it does have a legitimate and sometimes essential role in the international policy mix, both in conflict resolution and in creating the conditions for the application of diplomacy and development.

A national conversation about that mix, and the grand strategy which should underpin it, is long overdue.