Reforming Canada’s Foreign Service

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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: