Part I – Innovation. adaptation and foreign policy in the age of globalization: Is Global Affairs Canada fit for purpose?

 Blogger’s Note: The following series is drawn from the unabridged version of a commentary which has been published in edited form this month by The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.



The continuing evolution away from state-centricity requires that diplomacy become more public, inclusive and participatory. Responding to that imperative, and recognizing that the foreign ministry is not a cathedral, the foreign service is not a priesthood, and diplomacy is not liturgy, collectively represent the sine qua non for bringing Canada “back”. By privileging talking over fighting, embracing innovation and re-thinking diplomatic practice and representation abroad, Canada can both advance its interests, effectively pursue its policy goals and make a significant contribution to global peace and prosperity. Absent radical reform and a commitment to praxis, however, none of these outcomes are likely to eventuate. This commentary surveys the past 50 years of diplomatic history, assesses the current government’s record to date, and suggests eight preconditions for real progress.


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Canada veritably oozes soft power, which is earned rather than wielded, and has never been able to achieve its international policy objectives through the use of coercion. Today, however, that wellspring remains largely untapped. Rather than being strategically channeled in support of the advance of Canadian interests, policies and values globally, it is being wasted.

It has not always been thus. For the better part of the last half century – with the notable exception of the past decade – this country has managed its international image and reputation to rack up an enviable record of success. Creativity, cross-cutting partnerships, and effective diplomacy have been hallmarks. The work of a high functioning, adequately resourced foreign ministry played an indispensable role in achieving these results.

From Trudeau to Trudeau, there have been some significant accomplishments.

But not lately…


Once were diplomats

At a time when “development” was barely registering on the international policy itinerary, Pierre Trudeau tirelessly promoted, and then co-chaired the Cancun Summit on North-South Relations. His government was fully engaged in the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) negotiations, and later signed the treaty  Trudeau’s “Strategy of Suffocation”, although unrealized, had the admirable aim of slowing the nuclear arms race, and even the late Cold War “Peace Crusade”, if overly ambitious, was founded upon noble ends.

Brian Mulroney produced an admirable environmental record, including the Acid Rain Treaty with the USA, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. His government played a lead role in the organization of the “Rio Earth Summit” (UNCED), which produced a stunning range of outputs.  Spending on Official development assistance reached an apogee – .56% 0f GDP – in the late eighties.

Under Jean Chretien, and notwithstanding the deep cuts associated with the deficit-eliminating  Program Review,  Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin handily won the Cod War with Spain. Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy  rolled out what came to be known as the Human Security Agenda, which was tailored to meet the transnational challenges of the emerging, post-cold War, globalization era. While never packaged as part of that program, the relatively obscure, but nonetheless invaluable Global Partnerships Program  helped de-commission surplus nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and production facilities, and find new jobs for unemployed defence scientists and technicians across the former Soviet Union.

Paul Martin’s abbreviated term as Prime Minister did not generate these types of diplomatic initiatives, although on his watch that the disastrous decision was taken to undertake an impossible counterinsurgency mission in Kandahar. The costly misadventure in Afghanistan, with all-party support, was continued under Stephen Harper’s stewardship, a “decade of darkness” for Canadian foreign policy. His “War on Science”, demolition of public diplomacy, gagging of diplomats and deep disdain for DFAIT, mutilation of multilateralism, fumbling of relations with the rising Asia Pacific, and regression on climate change came perilously close to spoiling this country’s global image, reputation and brand.


A mid-term report card

That was then.

PM Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland are fond of asserting that “Canada’s back” on the world stage. But are we? Since the Liberal government came to office over two years ago, have adaptation and innovation been much in evidence? Is Canada – is GAC – equipped to deliver on that promise through effective management of New Threat Set which is imperiling humanity and will dominate 21st century, or prepared for the ongoing geopolitical power shift (from North Atlantic to Asia Pacific) and emergence of a heteropolar world order? While it could certainly be argued that the PM’s adoring international media and appealing rhetoric have advantageously positioned this country to follow-through, the proof will rest in the doing.

A review of the government’s record to date suggests that progress has been, at best, mixed.

There is both more – and less – here than has been revealed so far through the government’s much-maligned mandate tracking exercise. To begin with a survey of the most positive indicators:

  • Unmuzzling of scientists and diplomats
  • Enlightened management of the crucial bilateral relationship with a chaotic, foundering, disturbing and possibly dangerous)  USA by upping the ground game through a charm offensive in Washington, intensifying advocacy, and cultivating new partnerships with states, governors, mayors, opinion leaders and business
  • attempts at the insertion of references to environmental protection, labour rights, gender equality, and indigenous peoples into trade negotiations
  • Pursuit of mutually beneficial relations with China, India, Japan Korea; ASEAN summit attended and the TPP endorsed
  • Multilateralism has been warmly re-embraced
  • Modest rapprochement with Iran and restoration of funding to UNRWA
  • Acceptance of Syrian/Iraqi refugees, Haitians, LGBT Chechens

Make no mistake, this is a considerable improvement over the dismal record of the last government. On the other hand, the best efforts approach to dealing with “The Donald”  has yet to show concrete returns, and on trade, most movement has been backwards (failing free trade talks). Many other countries are courting the Asia Pacific; Trudeau has prevaricated on UN peacekeeping, and he delivered a curiously domestic policy oriented speech at the 2017 General Assembly. Canada has stood by silently as the State Department – an indispensable ally for GAC – has been savaged.

In that vein, the other items on the negative side of ledger are at least equally troubling:

So… Amidst these scatterings of diamonds and mountains of rust, where to now?