Restoring Canadian Diplomatic Leadership in Five Uneasy Pieces

From the late 1940s through the early 2000s, Canada enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an innovative international policy entrepreneur.

From  a central role in the design and construction of the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions, through the Suez Crisis and invention of peacekeeping, to the North-South Dialogue, Earth Summit and Human Security Agenda, Canada’s much-admired diplomacy of the deed  translated into practical political influence and an oversized place in the world.

Although little of that legacy survived the Harper Conservatives’ visceral contempt for all that came before, the adverse consequences of that debilitating interlude just may have given rise to an historic opportunity. 

In marked contrast to its finger-wagging, warrior nation wannabe predecessor, Justin Trudeau’s government has shown itself more interested in listening than lecturing, and in staying than leaving. The first months have provided clear evidence of a fundamental change in orientation and direction. The PM’s exceptional global and media profile have created high expectations regarding Canada’s return to liberal internationalism, and between his frequent statements and the indications offered by his advisors, Canadians now have some idea of what may be in store.

That said, if policy pronouncements constitute the poetry of international relations, then diplomacy represents the plumbing. In this respect, when it comes to converting ambition into action, we have to date heard far more about the international policy “what” than the diplomatic “how”. Apart from a removal of the gag order and a widely anticipated return to mainstream practices in public and digital diplomacy, remarkably little been said about the mechanics and retooling which will be necessary to underpin a return to progressive activism.

The end of state-centricity, shifting power, profusion of new actors and emergence of complex, transnational issues have radically altered the diplomatic operating environment. The days of designated envoys discussing the business of government among themselves have been largely overtaken by events, and major adjustments are required. In an earlier article I set out the some of the structural and process reforms essential to fix Canada’s  foreign ministry (GAC), but institutional change, the leveraging of social media and otherwise substituting technology for labour, while necessary, will not in themselves be sufficient to address the challenges of globalization.

How, then, to begin to compensate for ongoing resource scarcity, compounded by a decade of mismanagement and neglect? The diplomatic business model requires a comprehensive rethinking and strategic reconstruction from the ground up.

The following recommendations may warrant further consideration:

  1. Position Canada as an agile advocate of dialogue, negotiation and compromise,  a champion of  diplomatic alternatives to the continuing militarization of international policy and a practitioner of creative, alternative diplomacy. This must be done across the board, bilaterally and multilaterally, and at both a reconstructed headquarters operation in Ottawa and a more diverse variety of missions abroad.
  2. Connect directly with members of burgeoning diaspora communities and harness the potential of this largely untapped resource by turning the inside out and bringing the outside in. Ventilate the foreign service through the targeted recruitment of first and second generation Canadians and assign political officers to major Canadian cities with a mandate to forge productive and mutually beneficial relationships based upon cooperation and respect.
  3. Engage civil society by renewing long-neglected partnerships with universities, think tanks and NGOs at home and abroad. Reinstate sponsored visits by foreign opinion leaders and rebuild international education programs to dramatically increase the numbers of both foreign students in Canada and Canadians studying abroad.
  4. Embrace virtuality and networks by experimenting with collaborative intelligence generation and open-sourced policy development to lower overheads and improve results. The pursuit of full spectrum e-diplomacy will generate efficiency gains far beyond those which have been realized to date.
  5. Elevate science diplomacy, which remains almost invisible within the current mix of  available tools, to top  priority status, and reallocate resources accordingly. Absent the robust pursuit of knowledge-based, technologically-enabled solutions to the vexing array of wicked, S&T-rooted   issues which together constitute the new threat set, Canada will be unable to achieve its promise as an evidence-driven problem solver.

Ideas are the lifeblood of diplomacy. In the context of a country as dynamic, diverse and multicultural as Canada, and if combined with the right mix of methods, institutions and resources, they can make a real difference.

Might a commitment to burnishing the diplomatic brand represent the best strategy for a government still finding its way forward?  Perhaps, especially given our strong internationalist traditions. Indeed, showcasing diplomacy per se as the contemporary international policy instrument of choice seems ideally suited to bridge from a noble, yet  increasingly distant Pearsonian past to a still undefined, but quite possibly inspiring future.  Success at developing a new narrative for diplomacy as a smarter, faster, more effective, and above all non-violent approach to the management of international relations could prove not only relevant, but transformative.

Training and professional development programs remain seriously inadequate, and a signal occasion to reinvest in diplomatic capacity was missed in last week’s Budget. Still, by privileging diplomacy, incubating innovation and reshaping representation, Canada can both advance its interests and make a significant contribution to global security and development.