Part IV – 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.


In considering all of the above, it must be emphasized that there exists a direct, dialectical relationship between results and resources, yet federal spending on diplomacy has been in a pattern of decline for decades. In its first two budgets the Trudeau government has done next to nothing to address that situation. To perform effectively, diplomats need to be provided with access to all of the available tools of their trade, including training, personnel support and travel, and this cannot be done in the absence of sufficient finance.

Working smarter is necessary, but will be insufficient without re-investment.

Bridging the international policy performance gap

Unlike its predecessor, the Trudeau government no longer reflexively treats foreign policy opportunistically as a domestic wedge issue. Still, this has been expressed  more through a change in tone and approach than in content or direction, and in some respects resembles little more than “Harper-lite”. On Canadian observer close to senior UN figures reports that in NYC officials have “…expressed more than frustration: they’ve moved on!… The Government of Canada doesn’t get that the world is NOT waiting.” (private e-mail communication with the author, Oct. 08 2017). Much of the early momentum has been lost as the contradictions pile up and domestic ethical issues loom large. It is becoming increasingly obvious that saying does not equal doing, and that gestures do not amount to action.

The misallocation of scarce funds within the international policy envelope, if favour of defence at the expense of diplomacy and development, and the related inattention to the constellation of wicked, S&T-driven global issues is undercutting the government’s rhetoric. This should be the salient foreign policy and political issue of our times. It’s not.

Where, then, to begin? In the short-term, strike a comprehensive, cross-cutting international policy review, and use the findings as foundation for animating this year’s G-7 Presidency, for filling the empty vessel of our UN Security Council candidacy, as meat on the bones of our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and as grist for the 2020 electoral platform. The government has actively promoted its re-styled “feminist” aid policy. In fact, it has all the makings of a fully fledged feminist international policy right on the front bench, with ministers Freeland, Duncan, Payette, McKenna, Bibeau, and Taylor, supported by the recently appointed Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer. Why not put these women to work together crafting a variety of international policy joint ventures? Over the medium term, launch a volley of new initiatives – on Arctic governance, on the conservation and stewardship of fresh water, on management of the global commons… whatever makes sense. The raw materials are plentiful, and there is no shortage of talent or possibility. Only imagination.

Might a commitment to burnishing the diplomatic brand represent the best strategy for a government struggling to find its way forward?  Perhaps, especially given Canada’s strong internationalist traditions.  Showcasing diplomacy per se as the contemporary international policy instrument of choice seems ideally suited as a means to bridge from a noble, yet increasingly distant Pearsonian past to a still undefined, but quite possibly inspiring future.

Diplomacy’s greatest comparative advantage over other international policy tools resides in its tendency – through meaningful two way exchange, listening, and well-functioning feedback loops integrated into the policy development and decision-making apparatus –  to alter behavior on both ends of conversation. For diplomats, this means not only standing up for your country abroad, and, when necessary, to your country at home.

Abiding by the Geneva Conventions does not mean that diplomacy must of necessity be conventional. Indeed, 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. The free flow of ideas, including contending and dissenting views, represents 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, the infusion of a commitment to far reaching and intensive diplomatic discourse could make a real difference.

As  the Globalization Nation and with PM Trudeau’s adoring global media and still glistening personal brand, Canada is in a position to achieve much. To date, however, that potential remains largely unrealized, and will remain so as long as GAC’s diplomats remain dispirited and outnumbered by international policy bureaucrats.

Last words?

Mired in hypocrisy and beset by contradictions, the Trudeau government is thrashing about in a thorny thicket of unfulfilled commitments and broken promises, and is facing a crisis of legitimacy from which it will be difficult, and perhaps impossible to recover.

Co-hosting a summit on North Korea in tandem with the world’s wrecking ball, but without the participation of key players China or Russia, or helping to organize the escape of several hundred Syrian “White Helmet” rescuers, while certainly admirable, does not represent the kind of fundamental reset which is so urgently required.