THe Budget and Foreign Affairs

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FroPruning and Clipping at Foreign AFfairs in the Ottawa Citizen, April5,2012

Diplomacy, according to former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, is like gardening. It requires continuing effort and perseverance and, on occasion, pruning and clipping.

Foreign Affairs, like the rest of government, has come under the knife. The recent budget promises to sell some official residences, extend time diplomats spend abroad, review their allowances, cut back on cars and examine Canada’s membership in some international organizations to see that we are getting value for money.

In doing so, we follow the lead of most other western governments. Internationally sanctioned stimulus having saved us from the calamities of economic depression, we now retrench public spending.

As in the past, there is fear and consternation about what this means for Canada’s international presence and our diplomats.

We are a people that derive a good part of what it means to be Canadian from our actions abroad. This is natural enough, especially in a country that celebrates the value of immigration and practices a pluralism that is the envy of the world.

So let’s look at the threatened cuts. Selling some residences could generate $80 million. But that choice must be made wisely, as a residence is an important diplomatic tool.

Taking inspiration from the playbook of Allan and Sondra Gotlieb, during the four years I was consul general in Los Angeles, we hosted more than 300 events at our official residence (compared to just one at our downtown office).

Most of our activity was in support of Canada’s film, television and music industry, usually in collaboration with provincial governments. Entertainment is a multi-billion dollar industry for Canada that we constantly strove to support. For example, in 2004, working with our Quebec colleagues, our campaign helped to deliver Canada’s first foreign language film Oscar for Denys Arcand’s Les invasions barbares. Our Canada Day celebrations focused on a province and helped their products into the Southwest U.S.

Selling the residence in Los Angeles would make no sense but recent audits reveal few residences get as much use. Decisions to sell need to be made on a case-by-case basis, mindful that we have a poor record of reinvestment.

Similarly, closing missions leaves a long-term bad taste in host countries. Far better to preserve a footprint. Keeping Canadian ears, eyes and a voice around the world is critical to our place in the world and, importantly, gives us standing in Washington.

Extending the length of diplomatic postings abroad will save the government money and, in most cases, is a good thing. It takes about a year and a half in situ — developing contacts and getting the lay of the land — before a diplomat is truly effective.

Diplomacy is about serving the national interest. Let’s remind ourselves what diplomats do abroad. They prospect for business, trade and investment; recruit immigrants, tourists and students; and in terms of peace and security, as Churchill observed “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

The last decade in the Foreign Service has been difficult. The divorce and then remarriage of trade and foreign affairs was followed by a series of so-called “transformations” that put process ahead of policy development and delivery. Bulking up on bean-counters and senior management at headquarters in the post-Gomery wave of accountability did not advance our diplomatic game. You don’t do diplomacy out of your basement, as Jean Chrétien once astutely observed. An entertainment budget is another important tool for doing business.

Throwing public diplomacy under the bus was unforgivable and the senior bureaucrats of that period have much to answer for in terms of speaking “truth to power.” Where once we led, today we are behind in our application of public diplomacy.

Globalization is obliging diplomats and diplomacy to adapt and re-examine how they do business. The contemporary diplomat is equally comfortable in jeans relying on a laptop and GPS-equipped BlackBerry, as Daryl Copeland has observed in Guerrilla Diplomacy.

Let’s use this budget as an opportunity to review our Foreign Service: its objectives and conditions of service. It has been 30 years and, in terms of technology, another era since the McDougall Commission looked at our diplomats.

In John Baird, we have our most activist foreign minister in a generation and he reflects Canadian values when he speaks about human rights and religious freedom. He has the confidence of a prime minister committed to making “Canada a meaningful contributor in the world.”

We have dozens of trade negotiations in play to open doors for Canadian business. We are rightly re-examining our aid policies recognizing that a job is more important than a handout and that security and good governance are essential to economic development.

To do this work requires a diplomatic service that is at the top of its game. Diplomatic practice is about the hard language of priorities, set against resources. It means trade-offs, and a recognition of limitations. Clipping and pruning are as much a part of diplomacy as seeding and planting.