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

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


The new diplomatic dialectic

The days of designated envoys speaking only with each other about the business of government have gone forever. Diplomats now have to engage with whole societies, creating partnerships and exchanging meaningfully not just with the usual suspects, but with strange bedfellows as well.

In short, public diplomacy has in important respects become the new diplomacy. In consequence, the epicentre of diplomatic practice must move out of the shadows and into the light.
That said, no amount of Twiplomacy, virtuality, digital dexterity or technological savvy will ever be able to substitute for face to face contact, cross-cultural communications, and the ability to cultivate relationships based on confidence, trust and respect.

At its core, diplomacy will remain a contact sport.

A cultural, but also a substantive revolution

Even by comparative bureaucratic measure, foreign ministries are conservative, rganizationally silohed institutions. With their faces to the world but backs to their own citizens, they are friendless and isolated. Social relations are hierarchic, communications are vertical, authority is unquestioned and risk is averted.

In the 21st century that combination represents a dead end, a fast track to irrelevance.

Risk must be managed, innovation relentlessly pursued, and failure treated as a learning experience, all within an institution that values and provides continuous learning – again, something the modern military does very well.

In terms of content, political and multilateral relations will remain central features of diplomacy, but the articulation of sound trade, commercial and investment policies are equally important as keys to a prosperous and peaceful future.

There is also a need to reach international agreement on rules governing cyber and space – both enable globalization, but they also offer terrible possibilities for chaos and destruction.

Finding effective ways to pursue the just and joint management of the global commons has become job one.

The human dimension

The most abiding, and unexpected impacts of the WikiLeaks/Cablegate episode was that the disclosures had the effect of burnishing the diplomatic brand. The work of (mainly American) foreign service officers was shown to be vigorous, varied, and valuable.

Diplomats were shown time and again to be hard at work, 24/7, all around the world, advocating policies and advancing interests while conducting analysis and advising their political masters on how best to overcome obstacles and attain objectives.

The efforts of Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin attract attention to the handling and treatment of Afghan detainees by Canadian authorities had a similar effect upon public perceptions. Colvin’s reports regarding the likelihood of torture after handover were unappreciated and treated with extreme prejudice by senior officials in Ottawa.

Equally disturbing were the attempts to muzzle Colvin’s input into the public discussions of possible war crimes, and later to malign his integrity and discredit his testimony before the Military Police Complaints Commission.

Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, reports in his forthcoming book that when political masters do not trust the advice of their foreign service advisors, informed public policy is the loser.

We concur.

Pulling together
Canada’s Foreign Service is small – less than 2000 officers – and Canadians get a very good return on their modest investment in this highly qualified occupational group.

Consideration is at present being given to a proposal to enlarge the diplomat’s professional association (PAFSO) by rolling-in all staff engaged in international policy work, regardless of home department or agency.

Amalgamation is a good idea. With careful attention to the vetting of individual files and the conduct of comprehensive interviews to ensure personal suitability, representational capability and the maintenance of professional standards, the creation of a larger grouping of diplomatic practitioners makes sound strategic sense. This broader, more dispersed unit could then function as an instrument of whole-of-government international policy integration and coherence.

Canadian prosperity depends on our ability to trade, and our Trade Commissioner Service, now well integrated into the foreign service, is showcasing new skills and technologies to help Canadians sell their products and services abroad and to expedite investments into and from Canada.

Advancement within the commercial stream of the foreign service should at some level be tied to obtaining experience within the private sector, especially in the areas of Canadian niche expertise: banking, insurance, pension fund, energy, engineering, food, mining or manufacturing.

Canada is still a work in progress, and there remains much scope for population growth. The search for the talent, skills and new ideas that comes with the recruitment of temporary workers, students, entrepreneurs and skilled workers has never been more critical to Canada’s future. It would therefore make sense to re-integrate Immigration officers back into the mainstream of the Foreign Service.

While no nation is without its shortcomings, Canadian pluralism is rightly judged a global model. In that context, recruitment into the foreign service from a wider pool – all levels of government and the private sectors, plus a more active program of secondments, exchanges and short-term assignments – would bring in fresh blood, cross-fertilize between departments and ventilate the otherwise somewhat stuffy and unrepresentative precincts of the foreign ministry.

Turn the inside out, bring the outside in, and incent promotions and postings to encourage a demonstrated ability to function effectively outside DFATD. We also need to re-examine the conditions under which foreign service officers serve – the last comprehensive review took place in 1980.

While formal education and broad professional experience contribute, Canada could do more to develop a cadre of “guerrilla diplomats” working in a manner which is smarter, faster, and lighter, more agile and creative than has traditionally been encouraged. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, improvisation and survival skills all count in the less disciplined, more disorderly world of the 21st century.

Starting within, reflecting out

Canadians appreciate that good governance matters – it is essential to deal with our continuing struggle to overcome challenges related to geography and demographics. It has given us a talent for compromise and conciliation.

Canada can do more in the world. Years of cuts, administrative distractions, weak senior management and poor policy performance have taken a toll. To reverse that trend, DFATD needs to hone core diplomatic skills: languages, local knowledge and history, analysis and reporting, negotiation and effective networking. But training in public diplomacy and advocacy, social media use and collaborative intelligence generation are also crucial.

Ivy league graduates need to go backpacking.

In recent years there has been an unfortunate tendency, both within the foreign service, and the public service generally, to focus on process rather than policy. The timid prefer to await instruction rather than proffer advice. When asked, they too often tell their political masters what they think that they want to hear.

Too little truth to power, too much ambitious careerism, bureaucratic self service and specializing in “managing up”, making the boss look good.

To fix Canadian diplomacy political leadership will be essential, and given the importance of international policy to Canadians these issues should be tabled for debate in the forthcoming election campaign.

Still, the ultimate responsibility for remedial action rests with the foreign service itself.

Renewal and reform are best started within.