Senate Testimony Foreign Service

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OTTAWA, Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met with videoconference this day at 11:30 a.m. [ET] to examine and report on the Canadian foreign service and elements of the foreign policy machinery within Global Affairs Canada.

Senator Peter M. Boehm (Chair) in the chair.


Colin Robertson, Vice-President and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute:

Thank you, Mr. Chair. My comments are based on 33 years in the Canadian Foreign Service and, since 2008, teaching U.S. relations several times a year to all new Foreign Service officers at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute. During my time in the Foreign Service, I also served on the executive of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, including a term as president.

It will not surprise you that I think Canada’s global interests are best served with a professional Foreign Service. More than most nations, our sense of self-identity is realized by how we act and are seen to act abroad. More than most, our prosperity depends on our ability to trade and invest abroad, and to recruit immigrants and refugees.

The Foreign Service delivers on these goals. They are Canada’s eyes, ears and voice beyond our borders. Thanks to immigration, we are also one of the few countries in the world that can build a Foreign Service that looks like the entire world.

Foreign Service officers require three qualities.

Adaptability — Shuffled around the globe and at headquarters like a deck of cards, officers must easily adapt to different cultures and pick up new skills.

Engagement — In a networked world, the ability to personally engage in single-minded pursuit of the national interest and then communicate, analyze and recommend to our foreign and domestic interlocutors is vital.

Empathy — With language, cultivating relationships is a lot easier, especially in getting to know those who think and act differently than we do in Canada. Understanding where our adversaries are coming from helps prevent them from becoming enemies.

In Policy Magazine, I recently made 10 recommendations to improve our Foreign Service. Let me focus on three.

The first is more Foreign Service — underlining service — sufficient that we have surge capacity for calamities and to allow for training, secondments, exchanges and personal leave. Our international interests have grown, with 175 foreign missions abroad. While Global Affairs Canada has expanded fourfold to nearly 13,000, the Foreign Service has only increased from 1,750 to about 2,400 — a little less than 25% since Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister.

A second recommendation is more Foreign Service — underlining foreign. Increasingly, we are homebound rather than foreign-based.

When I joined the Foreign Service, half of us were abroad and half were at home. Fifteen years ago, when Senator Harder was deputy minister, only 25% were posted abroad. Today, that figure is about 18%.

Foreign Service officers expect to serve in difficult circumstances. Like our military, we are compensated accordingly. If we want to bring a Canadian perspective to the top table, we need to be in places like Kyiv, Tehran and Pyongyang. Duty of care, a recent concept, must be secondary to our responsibility to represent.

My third observation is more public diplomacy. Outreach and advocacy, including use of social media, needs to go beyond the conventional circuit of business, bureaucrats and fellow diplomats to include innovators, faith leaders, mayors and civil society.

I heartily endorse this committee’s recommendations in its 2019 report, Cultural Diplomacy at the Front Stage of Canada’s Foreign Policy. Gary Smith’s new book, Ice War Diplomat, describes the diplomatic value achieved through the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series, itself an exercise in public diplomacy and one we’re probably going to have to do in a few more years.

Successive U.S. Secretaries of Defense have observed an ounce of early diplomacy is a lot cheaper than the application of a pound of armed force. It is estimated that it cost the U.S. $1 million a year to keep a marine in Afghanistan. It cost half of that to keep a diplomat there.

We need diplomats who can go beyond the headlines to see what is coming over the horizon and focus on the underlying trends and the bigger picture. Interpreting and understanding the ramifications and knock-on effects of events like the Ukraine crisis, including supply chain disruptions and societal rifts, is essential work for diplomats.

To conclude, our world is increasingly messy and mean. Diplomacy and foreign service matter more than ever. A quiet diplomacy remains the first line of defence. With the rise of social media and the growth of disinformation and misinformation fomenting conflict and destabilizing democracies, we need more public diplomacy.

Thank you, chair.

Senator MacDonald: Thank you to the three fine witnesses. I think I’ll direct my question to Mr. Robertson. I think the last time we spoke was pre-COVID on the plane going to Halifax. I believe you were going to the Halifax International Security Forum. We talked mostly about trade at that time with the U.S.

You authored an article last month. I read the article and really enjoyed it. I have some questions in regard to it. You recommended greater emphasis be placed on partnerships with provincial representatives abroad, which you said would complement Canada’s work, in particular in terms of trade and investment. Specifically, you said that Quebec is the most sophisticated provincial foreign service and is a model for other provinces as they expand their networks abroad.

How might specific partnerships between the Canadian Foreign Service and provincial representatives enhance the effectiveness of Canada’s diplomatic trade and development objectives abroad? As well, are there best practices of partnerships between the representatives of federal and provincial or state-level governments in other countries that Canada could learn from?

Mr. Robertson: Thank you, senator. Yes, I do think that the provincial governments play a vital role, particularly in trade development abroad, because they are closer to the reality of trade. That’s certainly been my experience. I say this as someone who participated in the negotiations of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and then the North America Free Trade Agreement.

My experience at posting was that the provincial governments were often the best equipped and able to get out there to actually put meat on the framework of the trade agreements that we had negotiated working with the provinces because they can often identify what their needs are, and that part works very well. Certainly, my experience both in Asia and in the United States was that with the actual, as I say, doing the deals, provincial governments were better placed to do so. Therefore, the synergy between posts and provinces is vitally important.

As I observed, I think the province that does it best because they’ve had the longest experience at it is Quebec. They have half a dozen plus offices in the United States. Certainly, I work closely with the Quebec delegation or wherever I was placed whenever there were Quebec interests at stake. Provinces are also extremely well placed because they know exactly what they want. They come in with a clear focus. At the national level, we are trying to often set up the framework, which is important, but again we need to have that complicity between our provincial governments and the national government.

As I said in my piece, I think Quebec has the best defined one. Other provinces I think could learn from Quebec. Ontario has vast interests. They have a representative in Washington. Alberta has long had a rep in Washington and they do are a very good job. It is usually someone who comes from political life. James Rajotte is their current rep who served in the House of Commons. In a place like Washington, my observation was that provincial reps who had political experience were extremely effective. They were playing mostly on trade issues, but would go larger than that.

The Chair: Thank you. We’ve run out of time in that segment.

Senator Greene: Winston Churchill once said that sometimes the truth is so fragile and important that it needs to be protected by a bodyguard of lies. Is it ever ethical for a Foreign Service officer in Canada to lie to further his country’s interests?

The Chair: Who is the lucky witness you would like to direct that to, Senator Greene? Anyone want to take a stab at that?

Mr. Robertson: I’ll just say no. That’s a misnomer. You don’t lie for your country because your credibility is everything. Once you have a reputation for deceit, it’s very hard for anyone to take you seriously. No, I don’t think that’s a good approach.

Senator Woo: Thank you Ms. Fortier, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Mank. It’s nice to see you all again. This question is for Mr. Robertson, but Mr. Mank may want to weigh in as well.

I agree with your assessment that adaptability, engagement and empathy are key qualities for Foreign Service of representing one’s country abroad. However, it’s not clear to me why these three qualities are limited to Foreign Service officers and why a specific stream is needed for these qualities to be nurtured and expressed. If your answer is that, well, these are the people who commit to working overseas and cultivating those skills, but only a fraction of them are posted overseas. In fact, some refuse to go overseas for a variety of reasons. Aren’t you undercutting that argument?

What I’m trying to get at here is whether we can take a broader view of Foreign Service for the country that is not the same as the Foreign Service stream that all of you served in and served admirably on, and whether maybe Mr. Mank’s idea of a variation of that stream may be one way to go.

Mr. Robertson: Senator, I think I’ve tried to identify three qualities, but they aren’t particular to those in the Foreign Service. As you heard in the last session with Mr. Shugart and Mr. Rosenberg, they pointed out that — and I do agree with this — bringing people in, as necessary, from other parts of government or governments or the private sector would also serve the Foreign Service, and that having Foreign Service officers serve in different provincial governments and in business makes a lot of sense as well. I don’t look at the Foreign Service as a caste or a class, but something that is permeable and people enter as appropriate. However, I do think you need a professional Foreign Service. There is a lot to be said for long service — that is, the knowledge of cultures and languages that you build on over time. I do think that’s absolutely valuable. In that sense, the Foreign Service is a vocation.


Senator Harder: Thank you to our witnesses. This question is probably for Mr. Robertson and Mr. Mank. I would like to explore the role of our locally engaged staff. Is there anything you would suggest to this committee as to how our inquiry could benefit from a better understanding of the role of the locally engaged and how that has evolved as there has been less Canadian-based presence? Are there risks to that or opportunities that we should be made aware of?

Mr. Robertson: Well, senator, increasingly, the locally engaged staff are the backbone of our diplomatic representation abroad. They represent the continuity. They often have the better networks and, bluntly, we couldn’t function without them. I would encourage the committee to invite a couple of locally engaged staff — there are a lot of long-service individuals in the United States and abroad — to appear using the marvels of Zoom before your committee. They need a champion. We take them more or less for granted, but we increasingly depend upon them to represent Canadian interests abroad. We’re fortunate, with a large Canadian diaspora, that many of those locally engaged staff abroad are Canadians. We are now starting to recruit some of those who have been long serving to bring them into the Foreign Service. In the examples I can think of, it’s all worked out extremely well.

I come back to where I began, Senator Harder. Because there are fewer Foreign Service officers abroad, because of cost constraints and the rest, we depend heavily on locally engaged staff. We are fortunate because we have a large overseas diaspora so we can recruit Canadians, but I think they are often people without a voice.


Senator Omidvar: My question is to any witness, but let’s start with Mr. Robertson.

Canada is increasingly becoming more and more a country of immigrants, and one way or the other, diaspora politics enters into our foreign policy considerations. As we all know, the push and pull of diaspora politics can be extremely tense, whether it’s related to security, trade or even international development.

I’d like to know how the Foreign Service is currently equipped to best respond to these tensions and whether there are some promising practices you can alert us to.

Mr. Robertson: Thank you, senator. Throughout my career, diaspora politics was always a fact of life, something you had to be conscious of and indeed factor into every policy recommendation you made to ministers. Ministers are particularly sensitive to diaspora politics. It’s what our country is about. So good Foreign Service officers have a kind of political nose and figure that part out. We are, after all — as has been said in the previous session — servants to our prime ministers and to the government, so we need to be conscious of that.

Again, it’s one of those skills you just have to adapt and take into account. It’s what we are. You’re not going to change it, and you build it into your recommendations.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you for being here. My question this afternoon is for Mr. Robertson. You recently wrote about a need for surge capacity. This is a subject that has come up in our study before. I wonder what it would look like. Daniel Livermore noted in an earlier meeting that junior surge capacity could be held in Ottawa economically and deployed when needed. I did worry and wonder when he said this, though. I didn’t imagine or picture recent university grads in Ottawa waiting for the call to be posted abroad — perhaps albeit briefly — only to return and wait until their next call. I suspect I might be misunderstanding this on my part and would hope that today you could elaborate on what this surge capacity would look like from a day-to-day point of view.

Mr. Robertson: I think at any time there are always Foreign Service officers on training, on secondment or on leave. I would think we can pull them back as we sometimes do, particularly when we have a consular emergency and there’s a requirement to get people on the ground, or if we have a particular crisis like Ukraine where there are consular immigration requirements to be able to get Foreign Services out there. However, you can only do that if you have sufficient capacity through your recruitment.

I think the point that Dan Livermore was getting at was that we haven’t been recruiting on a regular basis. We’ve been hiring contract staff and term employees. That doesn’t give us the capacity we need. You need to have regular recruitment of a foreign service — my view is annually, even if you only bring in a few individuals — so you have that surge capacity when the time comes. You’re not having to look for contract employees or, as you described at the outset, new students. That doesn’t work.

Senator Gerba: I would like to return to the study that my colleague Senator MacDonald mentioned, which stated that Quebec is in fact a model in several regards in terms of diplomacy. It notes that Quebec has 34 representations in 19 countries, with strong representation in French-speaking countries, especially in Africa.

My question is for all the witnesses who have served as ambassadors in various places in the world. How can the presence of the provinces, such as Quebec’s presence, contribute to achieving our objectives in the various countries in terms of economic and political diplomacy?


Mr. Robertson: I’ll give you an example. When I was in Los Angeles, we set about the goal of helping win a foreign language award for The Barbarian Invasions of Denys Arcand.

I worked very closely with the Delegate General of Quebec and, between us, we brought in the assets of Cirque du Soleil. We waged a full-out campaign, and used our residence as the platform for entertainment and to basically cultivate the votes. We ran it like a political campaign.

I worked, as I say, in complete complicity with my Quebec counterpart, with Denys Arcand and his wife — who was a driver — and we won. I think it’s the only time that Canada has won a foreign language award. Again, this was cultural diplomacy, but it did a lot for us.

At the receptions, we served Quebec beer that we were trying to get into the market. Trader Joe’s was there and said this was good beer. We were able to sell that beer into the California market, which is a bigger market than Canada.

There were all sorts of spin-off benefits, as well as the complicity of working closely together. As I said earlier, my experience in working with the provinces, they were much more attuned to the reality of their own situation. It works very well. I had this experience in other places as well

Senator MacDonald: I do want to return to our approach when it comes to dealing with our representatives abroad and developing trade and investment. Actually, Mr. Robertson, the experience you had in Los Angeles segues into this.

I’ve been on the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group for all my time in the Senate, and we just came back from three days of meetings with 11 senators in the U.S. after two years of not meeting face to face. Of course, we leaned on our embassy in Washington for most of our work across the border. We have many consulates in the U.S. I’m just curious: Do we use our consulates as well as we could?

From my point of view, we don’t have a lot of close interaction with consulates unless we’re in that city. Do we use them the way we could? Is there a better way to apply these consulates so we can develop our trade and investment in the U.S.?

Mr. Robertson: Thank you, senator. I think the consulates are used as well as you would wish to use them. Can you use them better? The one observation I’d make is that I thought, certainly, when I served at the consulates that we could better synchronize with the embassy in Washington, so I used to phone the ambassador every quarter just to find out what is going on.

I understand now that the consuls general report through to the ambassador. This is a bit arcane, but I think it’s important because the ambassador is the one figure in the United States who has the full scope, and when you have the consulates working with the ambassador, you get the dynamic you want. I think this began under Ambassador MacNaughton and continued under the current ambassador. I think that makes a lot of sense, particularly given the changes in the United States and the fact that we have such vital interests. We do need a Team Canada Inc. approach in which the consulates are key players, as are members of Parliament.

Certainly, when I was working in the Advocacy Secretariat, one of the things we strongly encouraged — which now takes place — was that you’re allowed to use your travel points to travel to Washington and, I hope, other places in the United States. My experience in the United States is that it’s peer-to-peer. I’ve said to you and others before, politician to politician, and it doesn’t matter in what party. You can talk to them in a way that a diplomat can’t, so it’s a vital role for parliamentarians, particularly for senators, because I think you have more leeway sometimes than members of the House to get down there. In my experience, certainly in Washington, where there were two senators in particular who came down and I would travel with them, and I met other U.S. senators — people we were trying to meet — thanks to the relationships you and your colleagues had developed. That’s vital to the work of our embassy and our consulates general.