Canada risks splitting from allies by not encouraging expertise in its foreign service, new report finds
A new report by a Canadian diplomat is raising a red flag over Canada’s use of a generalist model for its foreign service, instead to cultivating increased subject matter expertise.
Comparing and contrasting Canada to six other foreign ministries, the report finds that maintaining a generalist approach for its diplomatic corps would risk Global Affairs becoming an “outlier” compared to some of its allies and adversaries.
The study was authored by Canadian diplomat Ulric Shannon while he was on leave from the foreign service. Shannon was Canada’s ambassador to Iraq from 2019 to 2021 and was its consul general in Istanbul from 2016 to 2019. He specializes in conflict issues and stabilization in Arab countries.
“The Canadian foreign ministry remains wedded to the generalist model that has defined the ethos of its foreign service since it was created,” Shannon writes. “There is a risk that Canada will become an outlier among its peers and competitors and miss the opportunity to modernize its diplomatic service.”
“The experience of other foreign ministries suggests that it is possible to operate a diplomatic service with a generalist core, while nonetheless incubating cadres of rotational specialists at all levels of seniority across a range of regions and thematic issues,” the report recommends.
The report cites several historical examples to show that “major geopolitical blunders” have taken place in part due to the absence of expertise, such as the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban.
With a focus on a generalist model, foreign ministries around the world are ceding policy expertise to defence ministries, the report finds.
While there are sections that have built up subject expertise, such as the trade policy bureau, the generalist approach is seen throughout the department.
Another area where the foreign service has started to prioritize expertise is on China.
The “China Capacity Project” was initiated in 2021, which was “reputedly the brainchild” of former Canadian ambassador to China Dominic Barton, as the department was “deficient in the area of political and regional analysis” since expertise was focused on trade, Shannon finds. The project encourages diplomats to learn Mandarin, which has a compliance of 14 per cent, according to the report, and it recommended incentives for successive postings in China.
Not mentioned in the report is a step that past foreign affairs ministers’ offices have used to fill the gap on China expertise by bringing experts in to work as political staff.
Overall language competency is also a concern, with many foreign service officers not compliant with their positions.
Citing Global Affairs’ training department, the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, the report finds that foreign language compliance is at 23 per cent, which dips to 18 per cent for executive-level posts. The level of compliance is well below allies like Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom. All six countries have language compliance of more than 50 per cent.
Explaining the low level of compliance, Shannon points out that Canada is the only G7 country that doesn’t offer financial advantages for its diplomats to learn and retain a foreign language. He found that there is a perception that Global Affairs “did not value” language skills for career promotion.
The fact that 18 per cent of executive-level positions are foreign language compliant shows “further evidence of the perceived irrelevance of language skills to advancement” in the department, Shannon writes.
With “frequent delays and uncertainty” in the appointment of ambassadors and high commissioners, the report finds that the “unique and complex process” leads to heads of missions not being able to have the time to take “sufficient” language training before the posting.
As with language competency, expertise is also not rewarded through career promotion.
“The Canadian foreign service has … developed a tradition of word-of-mouth career guidance, which consistently stresses the virtues of a generalist trajectory as the surest way to get ahead—and conversely, the risks associated with being ‘pigeon-holed’ as a specialist,” the report states. “This advice typically goes on to advocate spending the bulk of one’s career at headquarters in Ottawa where promotion is perceived to be easier.”
The growth of expertise is also restricted due to limits on foreign postings.
Canada puts a cap on foreign service time at seven years before diplomats have to return to Ottawa. American diplomats can serve abroad for 15 straight years.
Only around 18 per cent of Canada’s diplomats are posted abroad.
The report also finds that the department has not “sufficiently emphasized” diplomatic skills in the promotion of senior managers.
Successive deputy ministers of foreign affairs have been put in the post who weren’t career diplomats. The last deputy minister who was a career diplomat was Len Edwards, who served as the top bureaucrat in the department from 2007 to 2010.
Requiring foreign posting experience for a senior-level position has been “overruled” because it was deemed to be “unfair” to candidates from other governmental departments.
Shannon ends his report noting that those he interviewed said the foreign service needs to “improve its public image and its reputation within government.”
“[Former deputy minister of foreign affairs] Morris Rosenberg suggested,” the report highlights “that the Canadian foreign service ‘needs to do some public diplomacy in Canada,’ for example by showcasing its ambassadors domestically so they can better explain how their work overseas serves the domestic agenda.”
Global Affairs Canada did not make Shannon available for an interview.
‘Time is urgent’ to reform foreign service
Canadian International Council president Ben Rowswell, a former diplomat, said it is “essential” that the government use ongoing reviews to address gaps in the foreign service.
Both Global Affairs and the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee are currently undertaking reviews of the foreign service.
“The international situation is so pressing right now with the rise of a much more hostile greater power in China, with the war in Ukraine, and the open defiance of the rules-based international order,” he said. “The time is urgent. … This is the time to drastically reform the delivery of foreign policy in Canada.”
Rowswell said Canada’s current foreign service is constructed for a “benign world,” but that world no longer exists.
He said one specific area of need is in technological expertise in the department, which he said will be addressed by recruiting different types of candidates.
Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he endorsed the findings of the report, noting there is a need for the foreign service to have both a generalist core and a core of specialists.
“We’re a relatively smaller foreign service. For us to achieve what is being suggested, the foreign service needs to grow,” he said, remarking that a larger foreign service would allow the development of more diplomats with subject matter expertise.
Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said the foreign service needs to be staffed “properly.”
She said that would require a big enough service where the government wouldn’t need to scramble to cover the latest crisis.
She said she hopes that the government is willing to make investments of funds and time.
“We’ve been in an era for quite a while where Canada needs to be at the top of its game diplomatically,” Isfeld said.