Reforming Canada’s Foreign Service

OpenCanada.org asked asked seven former Canadian diplomats to name the most important changes or elements for Canada’s foreign policy going forward.

Completely reform Canada’s foreign service (and, here’s how)

Colin Robertson

I wish that the next Government spend money and effort to revive and reform Canada’s Foreign Service. In recent years, Canada’s global engagement — defence, development and diplomacy — has declined.

In the post-war period Canada’s Foreign Service was the best in the world. ‘Pearsonian diplomacy,’ as it came to be known, was creative, flexible and innovative.

Under the direction of successive liberal internationalist governments, Liberal and Progressive Conservative, Canadian diplomacy defined the terms ‘helpful fixer’ and ‘bridge-builder’ first through constructive architecture of institutions — notably the United Nations and its alphabet soup of agencies and the Bretton Woods financial institutions. Housed with the prime minister in East Block until it moved to the Pearson Building (1973) the Foreign Service enjoyed a special relationship with every prime minister but John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper.

Members of the service were regularly seconded to the Office of the Prime Minister: serving Brian Mulroney as chief of staff (Derek Burney), speechwriter (e.g. Paul Heinbecker), press secretary (Marc Lortie). On major initiatives, notably the human security agenda of Jean Chretien and Lloyd Axworthy, the Foreign Service delivered on the Land Mines Treaty and International Criminal Court.

That the RCMP is now called in to investigate Foreign Affairs over the unprofessional leak—reported on the eve of the recent Munk foreign policy election debate in September—of a classified transition document arguing that Canada’s influence “has declined or is under threat,” is indicative of a relationship between the Harper government and its foreign service that is best characterized as ‘mutual contempt.’

While the Harper government bears most responsibility for this condition, the Foreign Service itself needs both revival and reform.

Looking back nostalgically to the Pearsonian golden years would be a mistake. That era is over. Diplomacy needs to change and adapt.

Our allies, notably New Zealand, are experimenting with different ways to do foreign service using applied technologies, fixed term contracts, single assignments and more partnerships for delivery of services. In an era of wikileaks and distrust of Government, there must be greater emphasis on ‘public diplomacy.’ Let our ambassadors experiment: applying social media and developing best practices.

As for the Foreign Service, start with a look at its terms and conditions — a root and branch examination from recruitment to retirement. The last examination, begun under Prime Minister Joe Clark and implemented by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was conducted during the Cold War. For a model on how to conduct this examination, look to the Task Force on Canada’s role in Afghanistan, chaired by former Foreign Minister John Manley — short, sharp and focused.

A renewed Foreign Service should include continuous training, a balance between generalist and specialist, and the recognition that empathy, adaptability and teamwork are essential traits.

Consider the following:

  • Demands on the foreign service will always outstrip resources and budgets. Events happen and we need to be prepared. We need to prioritize, partner when possible and find our niche.
  • With the return of multi-polarity, international institutions needs re-examination. What memberships work for us? Are we in the ones that count?
  • We depend even more on international trade and recent agreements now need follow-through so that we reap the benefits. Can we more closely integrate the Trade Commissioner Service with, for example, the Export Development Corporation? And how does development assistance fit into the equation?
  • Reflecting our growing pluralism at home through global immigration, the Canadian diaspora has expanded significantly and it should be better utilized to advance Canadian interests abroad.
  • We also need to pay more attention to consular assistance and the implications of dual citizenship, most recently illustrated by the Mohammed Fahmy case.
  • The number of active international players — provinces, business, civil society — has greatly expanded. How can we better market our educational services and shouldn’t we resurrect reciprocal youth leadership programs?
  • So too has the playing field. While issues of peace and security — hostile, failed and failing states — are still vital, we now need applied expertise on mass migration, climate change, terrorism, space and cyber, pandemics and crime, agribusiness and energy, the Arctic. How do we develop and import expertise?
  • We need to do diplomacy differently and adjust according to local conditions. Selling off the official residences — which should be platforms for advancing Canadian interests — should be reconsidered. Presence is important recognizing that one size does not fit all. We need a thousand points of contact: using honorary consuls and mini-posts. We should shift the balance of deployments from headquarters to the field.
  • Within Ottawa the Foreign Service needs to define its role with other government departments and especially with the National Security Advisor and what is becoming a de facto National Security Council. We need to resurrect the cabinet system to give direction and coordinate and manage the intersect between the agencies responsible for diplomacy, defence, and development.
  • Hard and soft power are both essential. Diplomacy is much cheaper than the application of military muscle. While military muscle can stabilize a situation and underlines deterrence, diplomacy is best suited to achieving political solutions and reconciliation.

Canadians’ sense of self draws from what we do and how we are perceived beyond our borders. For the next government there will be many opportunities for re-engagement in responsible global citizenship while at the same time advancing national interests. To do so requires a Foreign Service that is ready and able for action.

Links to the pieces by my former colleagues follow and I especially commend the piece by my friend Jeremy Kinsman with whom I share common cause on North American integration. We both recently spoke on how to go forward at Ryerson University:
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Jeremy Kinsman

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Anne Leahy

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David Wright

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Jillian Stirk

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Glenn Davidson

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Christopher Westdal

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Canada’s Foreign Service needs fixing

No wonder diplomats are on strike: The foreign service needs fixing

Colin Robertson Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Jun. 12 2013

For a nation whose prosperity and growth depends on a strong, active internationalism, it makes no sense for our government to be at war with our foreign service.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, the bargaining agent for Canada’s diplomats, is now into a second month of active protest. This has included a series of rotating walk-outs that have affected visits abroad by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and ministers.

The PAFSO complaint is a growing pay gap between foreign service officers and more highly paid economists, commerce officers and lawyers who are doing the same job, often working side-by-side.

As the smallest of the public-service bargaining agents, PAFSO has gotten short shrift from the Treasury Board Secretariat. Treasury Board has probably made the calculation that there is not a lot of public sympathy for bureaucrats, especially those perceived to lead a ‘glamorous’ existence on the international cocktail circuit, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

That this perception is a myth is beside the point. The foreign service does not have a natural constituency. Yet its work is crucial to the government and the public it serves.

Get into trouble through injury or with the local authorities and need help? Want a lead on selling or buying a product? Want to sponsor your fiancée or parents for immigration to Canada? Call our embassy and who responds: a foreign-service officer.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have developed an ambitious international agenda. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is actively recruiting new Canadians; this requires careful screening and issuance of immigration visas. International Trade Minister Ed Fast is negotiating a series of trade deals. Foreign Minister John Baird is determined to advance the ‘dignity’ agenda.

The foreign service often designs and always delivers these initiatives. Without its active effort and involvement, government objectives would be difficult to achieve.

Within the civil service, the foreign service has traditionally been the closest to the Prime Minister. The foreign service was effectively an adjunct of the Prime Minister’s Office from its inception in 1909 until 1945, during which time successive prime ministers from Robert Borden to William Lyon Mackenzie King also held the portfolio of Secretary of State for External Affairs.

The foreign service was housed with the prime minister in the East Block until they moved into the Pearson Building in 1973. Even then, foreign service officers traditionally served on the staff of the prime minister and a senior foreign service officer accompanied the PM on travels abroad.

Pierre Trudeau once complained that he could read all he needed to know in the New York Times, but he came to rely heavily on the foreign service, especially in the promotion of his valedictory ‘Peace Initiative.’ Brian Mulroney promised ‘pink slips and running shoes’ in his first months of governing, but before long his chief of staff, lead speechwriter and communications director were all from the foreign service.

Today, there is a perception that, after seven years, the Prime Minister and the international portfolio ministers have no confidence in their foreign service even if they trust individual officers. If so, then now is the time to reform the foreign service rather than continuing to rubbish it.

The last serious look at the foreign service was a Royal Commission conducted by Pamela McDougall between 1979-80.

Prime Minister Harper has had success with task forces, such as that on Afghanistan, with clear objectives, a short time-frame, and designed to produce practical recommendations.

Mr. Harper should mandate a task force to determine what kind of foreign service we need for the future. Terms and conditions of service – including a more flexible approach to postings, improved language training, and better recognition of spousal contributions – should be a part of the inquiry. It would complement ongoing work on the government’s Global Commerce Strategy.

Both efforts need to bring us into the 21st century by also allowing our foreign service to use social media. If the foreign services of our U.S. and European allies can use the tools of public diplomacy – to blog, tweet and speak out in support of their national interests – why can’t we? Today’s foreign service long ago embraced the tenets of guerrilla diplomacy, exchanging pinstripes for a backpack.

For its part, PAFSO should lift its guild-like grip on lateral entry into the foreign service. In the future we are going to need the best talent we can find and this will require a creative approach to appointments.

In the meantime, the Treasury Board should look carefully at the PAFSO case and provide compensation commensurate with what it pays those doing the same kind of work. We need our foreign service back on the job.

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Excerpted from

Lee-anne Goodman, The Canadian Press
Sun, 30 Jun 2013

“There certainly seems to be no sign of any inclination from the government to find a resolution,” Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who was once the head of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers union, said in an interview.

“You’re also getting into a situation now in which good people are leaving, they’re just fed up and saying it’s not worth it because this government doesn’t value us. And so the government, by holding out, may win this battle but it’s likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, because they’re leaving a very unhappy group.”

It’s time for the Conservative government to make some decisions about the foreign service, Robertson added, given the strike is creating a lengthy visa backlog that’s having an impact on Canada’s tourism and education industries.

Tourism stakeholders have said it may cost the industry $280 million this summer, while some students have been forced to withdraw from Canadian university courses because they didn’t get their visas on time.

“The government needs to take a look at what they want from the foreign service; it needs to use the strike as an opportunity to figure out where they want the foreign service to be in 10 years.”

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Restoring Canada’s Foreign Service

We must restore our diplomatic core

Monday, Aug. 08, 2011 Globe and Mail

ALLAN GOTLIEB and COLIN ROBERTSON

With his election victory, Stephen Harper has achieved a new place among world leaders. Admired for his political skills as the leader of an insurgent movement and then, as a prime minister who jockeyed a pair of minority governments into a majority, he’s also recognized for steering Canada’s economy through recessionary waters that are still threatening his fellow G7 leaders.

So what role will international affairs play in his government?

In several recent statements, he has told us it will be a major one. Foreign affairs/foreign relations, he said, “has become almost everything.” In a world where “change is the new constant,” he declared, “our party’s great purpose is nothing less than to prepare our nation to shoulder a bigger load, in a world that will require it of us.” Accordingly, “strength is not an option, it is a vital necessity.”

If these words signal the government’s intentions, then there must be a match between our aspirations and our abilities to achieve them. For too long, our capacity to be a significant player on the international stage has failed to match our rhetoric. The Prime Minister’s declarations of intent have credibility, coming, as they do, from a government that has consistently supported the strengthening of our military capabilities. The Canada First Defence Strategy, including the new command structure for the Canadian Forces, has proved itself both at home and away – in Libya, Afghanistan and in the reconstruction of Haiti.

All the more welcoming, therefore, is Mr. Harper’s recent statement that “re-equipping the military is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making Canada a meaningful contributor in the world.” The implications of this for Canadian foreign policy are profound. Mr. Harper seems to foresee a highly active foreign policy, and a very independent one. “We also have a purpose,” he said. “And that purpose is no longer just to go along and get along with everyone else’s agenda.”

Implicit in Mr. Harper’s statements is a recognition that Canada’s national interests are at the core of our foreign policy and have never been more demanding than they are today. To do so requires rebuilding our diplomatic resources to the stature they had in the postwar era when it was widely acknowledged that the impact of Canada’s contributions far exceeded its size.

The negotiation of a new accord with the United States to reverse the hardening of our border, the need to protect the access of our energy exports to American markets, the need to create new markets for our oil sands, the negotiation of a free-trade deal with the European Union and India, the strengthening of our relations with China, the protection of our interests in the Arctic – all are of the highest importance for our national interest and all deserving of the most talented of our human resources.

“To shoulder a bigger load” will necessitate a foreign service at the very top of its game. If the 1990s were a decade of darkness for the Canadian Forces, both the ’90s and the noughts were equally so for the foreign service. Process took priority over policy-making. Public diplomacy, an area Canada pioneered, virtually disappeared.

Meantime, there’s been a revolution in the way information is acquired and transcribed. Far from the information revolution shrinking the role of the ambassador, it’s enhancing it. Out of the vortex of information and communication, the ambassador emerges as chief interpreter of data and events, chief analyst, chief intelligence officer, chief advocate and chief adviser, the central player in a field with an infinite number of actors, pursuing conflicting goals and agendas.

In this age of the Internet and WikiLeaks, the role of diplomacy needs to be assessed and understood. The Prime Minister should commission a task force on the foreign service, as he did for Afghanistan. It’s been more than 30 years since the McDougall Commission looked at our diplomats. There will be no new golden age of Canadian foreign policy unless we invest in the human resources that, in the Prime Minister’s words, are necessary “to making Canada a meaningful contributor in the world.”

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Canada must rebuild its diplomatic resources

Excerpted From Globe and Mail, Wednesday, October 13, 2010 by Allan Gotlieb and Colin Robertson

Canada’s failed pursuit of a seat on the world’s most powerful body – the United Nations Security Council – puts the spotlight on our performance beyond our borders, the strength of which depends on the quality of our diplomacy and the skills of our diplomats….

The ineffectiveness of our foreign ministry has become a cliché in Ottawa’s contemporary political culture. The government has cut the operational resources of Foreign Affairs, especially representational funding – forgetting that an embassy without an entertainment budget is like a frigate without fuel. Diplomats are no longer authorized to talk publicly without the prior consent of the PMO. These remote commissars undermine the very purpose of our ambassadors – to publicly advance the national interest.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made some excellent diplomatic appointments, his government is silent as to why a country needs an effective foreign service. Yet now, more than ever, we need skilled diplomats and a strong foreign ministry.

The international order of the 21st century is increasingly a world of decentralized sovereign entities and fragmentation among states. There is a deepening asymmetry between the structure of this order, with its 190 or so sovereign units, and the overwhelming transnational nature of the threats we face.

It is also a world of fracturing power within states. The explosion in the number of players – competing agencies in ever-expanding governments, narrow special interests, global activists, environmental crusaders, powerful multinationals, muscular NGOs, deep-pocketed lobbyists, legions of bloggers and self-declared experts – give rise to a single imperative: the need for interpretation.

The movements toward globalization and fragmentation place an enormous premium on the need for envoys of the highest calibre to fulfill four core functions. The first is as our chief intelligence officer in their country of accreditation. Second, the ambassador is the chief lobbyist for our national interests and chief promoter of our industry, trade and economic prosperity.

The ambassador is also our chief advocate, a role that goes in two directions. All input back home tends to come from domestic pressures, including special interests. Yet, decision-makers need to understand foreign political realities from their on-site envoy. Lack of knowledge, wrong information or mistaken beliefs can cause problems to escalate and endanger the national interest…

Successful engagement will oblige significant reinvestment in our diplomatic capacity at home, a strengthening of our network of missions abroad and a revitalized foreign ministry as the focal point for co-ordination. The rebuilding of our diplomatic resources will not be easily or quickly achieved. But if we don’t make the commitment, we’ll need to lower expectations about our role in the world.

For reaction to this piece see Brian Stewart on the CBC website and Barbara Yaffe in the Vancouver Sun

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Interview with bout de papier on Canadian International Council and diplomacy

bout de papier interview on Canadian International Council and Diplomacy

Excerpts from the interview that can be read in full above:

On life after the Foreign Service:

Retirement from the Foreign Service liberates you to speak your mind. As we baby boomers leave government service you’ll find there is a community of like-minded who share an appetite for policy debate and discussion like the CIC and other organizations – RHOMA is another obvious example. The academic community can make a contribution but with some notable exceptions, many don’t seem to realize the importance of policy relevance.  This presents an opportunity for those who have served in the Foreign Service. We understand government. We have developed networks of contacts, nationally and internationally.  We appreciate policy relevance and understand the importance of connecting the dots. We learned how to write and present policy options. I think we make a valuable contribution on issues of public policy – as did a number of our former colleagues last fall around Afghanistan in speaking out on the principle of independent reporting by officers in the field. Nothing is more debilitating for an organization as when the bosses are perceived as looking out for themselves and leave the junior officers hanging in the wind.

On punditry:

Just as government has hollowed out its policy development capacity, so the media have hollowed out their research staff, producers and reporters. This opens opportunities for those of us who believe we can serve the public interest by sharing our knowledge and experience. Mind you have to be comfortable sitting on a high chair in a dark room, speaking into a camera with no one behind it, listening for your cue through an earpiece to someone who might be thousands of miles away and then speaking in 10-15 second chunks to someone who often has no idea of what you are talking about. Then be hustled out without ceremony for the next guest. In short: Be Brief, Be Blunt, Be Gone. Briefing ministers was excellent training ground.

Any reflections on Foreign Service?

Yes. It matters more than ever. As we enter a multi-centric world, geography and demography gives Canada unique advantages. First, our proximity to the United States – if not the ‘hyperpower’ then the ‘default’ power and hungry for the kind of intelligence we can bring to the table because we belong to almost every organization going. Second, thanks to intelligent immigration policy ‘we are the world’. Most importantly, we’re part of the Indian and Chinese diaspora. Through a century and a half of hard work we understand pluralism.  We have the capacity. We have the talent. Now we have to apply it. It means resources. With vision and direction from management and our political leadership.

When I joined in 1977 it was like joining the Habs in their heyday. We were on the Security Council. Bill Barton was our ambassador – like Scotty Bowman, his quiet diplomacy had real effect. Basil Robinson was undersecretary.  Allan Gotlieb would follow a couple of years later. The place buzzed with ideas. Marcel Cadieux and Klaus Goldschlag holding forth in the Library where you were encouraged to spend time. Young Turks like Bob Fowler and Jeremy Kinsman. Officers with panache and an uninhibited elegance in putting forth ‘truth to power’. No ‘group-think’ in this band. A premium on ideas including a much-respected in-house journal, International Perspectives, in which officers were encouraged to write. Consorting with journalists and political staff (I would later marry one with both qualities) was encouraged because they brought intelligence and political nous into the equation. We played hard. We rocked. We made a difference for Canada.

Foreign service is ultimately about foreign policy. Ideas matter. Process and accountabilities are means, not ends. Bulking up on bean-counters and coaching staff doesn’t win games. And you have to keep bringing up new talent every year. Adjustment at the ministerial and political level of ‘Canada’s New Government’ accounted for some of the challenges but senior management also has much to answer. Throwing cultural funding and public diplomacy onto sacrifical alter without a squeak was unforgivable (Last time it was attempted we fought through PAFSO and RHOMA. The Senate  subsequently refused legislative passage). But when they cut post operational budgets last summer because they couldn’t count – in any other business they’d be shown the door. The enthusiasts for ‘transformation’ (remind me what version we are on) and the ‘New Way Forward’ should recall that ‘business process reengineering’ and Mao resulted in Enron and the Cultural Revolution. Brave ‘new’ worlds but not perhaps what the planners had in mind.

Sloganeering matters less in international relations than the hard language of priorities, requirements and resources, tradeoffs, and limitations. Knowing your ask. Knowing what you are ready to give to make a deal. Then, as Derek Burney famously puts it, ‘getting it done’.

I’ve spent the last couple of years at the university and I can tell you that this incoming generation is internationalist, green and believes in service. Really smart women and men. They’ll give you new ideas and improve your technique. And we need to get them out quickly and give them ice time to learn how to skate and play as a team – they’ll soon put the puck in the net for Canada.

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