Retiring G7 sherpa explains what every new diplomat should know
Be nimble and learn the local language: these are two pieces of advice Canada’s G7 sherpa Peter Boehm hopes to pass along to new diplomats before he retires from a 37-year career in the foreign service on Sept. 28.
Getting out from behind a desk and experiencing the culture of a posting, including learning the local language, is one of the best ways to develop interpersonal relationships, he said, which is key to diplomacy.
Learning the language “gets you more into the [cultural] aspect,” he said, and counterparts “will appreciate what you’re saying because you’re making the effort to speak their language.”
He spoke the local language when he arrived at his five foreign postings, he said, as he’s spoken German since childhood—having been born in a city with German roots, Kitchener, Ont.—and picked up Spanish in high school, which was refined by three Latin American postings.
“I told our local staff, certainly in Havana at the start, that I would insist that they speak Spanish with me even though their English and French was good. I really wanted to learn Spanish,” he said. “If you immerse yourself and you try hard, then it works.”
Representing a government doesn’t mean you can’t do some outside-of-the-box activities, said Mr. Boehm, adding that it’s okay to take calculated risks and young people should be nimble. He’s always found the cultural and sports side of diplomacy interesting, he said, and so when he was posted as the Canadian ambassador to Germany between 2008 and 2012, he brought over the Canadian women’s soccer team to play against Germany.
“We only lost by one goal, which had Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, who was sitting near me, biting her nails, but it was great,” he said.
The constant change in diplomacy—both in the work and in the country in which one is posted—means the career is never boring, he said. His approachable nature has led those in the foreign affairs community, including former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, to call him a “contemporary diplomat” because he combines old-world techniques with new technology, such as social media. Mr. Boehm has a very good grasp of detail and his implementation skills have allowed him to deliver final products effectively, said Mr. Robertson.
Mr. Boehm started his career in 1981 as a foreign service officer, and held various positions with both the foreign and trade ministries (which were separate at the time) until 1997 when he was made the Canadian ambassador to the Organization of American States in Washington.
In 2001, he became the minister of political and public affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., making him the third in command during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That day was significant in his career, he said, because his work changed completely but also “it was about the world changing” and becoming more security-minded.
In 2006, he helped evacuate 15,000 Canadians from war-torn Lebanon, and as deputy minister of international development from March 2016 until July 2017, he helped develop the Trudeau government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.
Of course, Mr. Boehm ended his already impressive career with a bang, heading the planning of the most recent G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que. The drama between United States PresidentDonald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) might have grabbed headlines (Mr. Trump called Mr. Trudeau “meek and mild, and “dishonest and weak”) but Mr. Boehm said he’s proud of the substantial commitments agreed upon by member countries.
“On the girls’ education piece … we were hoping to get $1.3-billion together, we achieved $3.8-billion,” he said. “Being there, it was tiring because negotiations…went through several nights, so a few sleepless nights, but that’s kind of normal for the G7.”
His position was elevated to a deputy-minister level by Mr. Trudeau when he was appointed in July 2017. The move was recommended by an auditor general’s report about the 2010 Muskoka summit, said Mr. Boehm. It makes sense when Canada is hosting, as it allows all aspects of the summit to be housed under one roof with one accountability officer.
Since the summit, he’s been winding down to retirement, he said, but even after Sept. 28, he plans to stay engaged on foreign policy issues, as well as mental health policy. Mr. Boehm has long championed the cause, being on Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick’s mental health advisory committee, and it hits close to home, as Mr. Boehm has a son who is autistic.
“A lot more attention is being put on mental health, and destigmatizing it, and certainly in the workplace,” he said, and he wants to stay involved.
Paul Moen, an Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal who worked with Mr. Boehm when he was a Liberal political staffer, said Mr. Boehm has gained influence in Canadian foreign policy because he “listens as much as he talks” and knows when to push and pull at the right moments.
“He’s able to gracefully navigate that boundary between policy and politics, while maintaining his objectivity and serving governments of different political stripes,” he said.
Mr. Boehm did make headlines, however, for perhaps straying a little too far into the political realm when said the previous Conservative government “suppressed” diplomats’ work during its decade in power. He was speaking during a panel discussion in Ottawa hosted by the United Nations Association of Canada earlier this year before the Charlevoix summit.
Of the idea that he’s politically savvy, Mr. Boehm said it’s learned through observing and “willing to be curious” as well as developing a network both within diplomatic and political circles. A strong network comes into play when important decisions need to be made in a tight timeframe, he said, such as during the 2006 Lebanon evacuations.
Mutual trust allows one to give fearless policy advice and implement a government’s decisions loyally, he said, and comes by being frank, open, and collaborative. One also can’t have too thin of skin because the advice might be rejected, he said, but “that’s the beauty of democracy.”
Not getting caught up in bureaucratic processes is also key, he said.
Boehm’s replacement named in DM shuffle
Mr. Trudeau announced David Morrison as Mr. Boehm’s replacement in a press release on Sept. 21. Starting in October, Mr. Morrison will retain his title of associate deputy minister of foreign affairs, but will add G7 sherpa.
Mr. Morrison was appointed the associate deputy minister in October 2017, and was previously the assistant deputy minister for the Americas. He started with the department in 1989 as a foreign service officer, working in Havana, Cuba.
DM Peter Boehm earns colleagues’ respect as mentor, mental health advocate
When I emailed Peter Boehm, the new deputy minister for international development, for an interview, he responded almost immediately. He’d be happy to speak with me, either over the phone or to meet me in person at his office. It was a pleasant surprise: high-level government officials such as Mr. Boehm are rarely so accessible and generous with their valuable time.
As Janice Stein, a friend of Mr. Boehm’s and founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto said, “When people become deputy minister, every five minutes counts.” She herself has not spoken to him since he assumed his new role, as acting deputy minister in November, and as confirmed deputy minister in March.
But open and approachable are exactly the words former colleagues and friends use to describe the career diplomat. He’s the “quintessential diplomat,” says former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, and “uniformly highly regarded,” says Tim Hodges, former head of the Canadian diplomats union Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, and a friend and colleague to Mr. Boehm.
He has a large presence. A tall man, he stands out in any crowd, but he also has the sometimes-intimidating aura of someone whose approval needs to be earned. “Professional, curious, well-read, well-travelled, and deliberative in his judgments,” is how Mr. Robertson described him in an email.
He has a dry sense of humour, and is quite soft-spoken, though he doesn’t hold back while answering questions.
Mr. Hodges, who worked directly under Mr. Boehm at Canada’s embassy in Washington, D.C., and regards him as a mentor, said as much. Mr. Boehm was minister in charge of political and public affairs there from 2001 to 2004.
“He’s a tough brief, in the sense that he will read what you send him, and he will digest it, and you had better be up to speed when you get back to have a discussion about what you’ve written,” he said. A demanding boss, but in a good way, said Mr. Hodges, because he doesn’t simply ask for the best, but demonstrates it. Above all else, he is a leader, he said.
“He’s been my mentor, whether he knew it or not, for many years. I think he’s been a mentor for many other people…He not only cares about people, but he cares about people moving up through the system. That is usually voluntary; it’s not required for the job. It usually is after-hours, or find time at lunch time to have a sandwich with someone and talk about a problem,” he said, speaking of the extra effort that Mr. Boehm has given the department over the years.
The DM has been with the department since he first joined as a foreign service officer more than 30 years ago. He is the only deputy minister in the department to bring first-hand experience within the foreign service—18 years worth, in fact—to the position.
Born in Kitchener, Ont., he grew up speaking German and English, and received a bachelor of arts in English and history from Wilfrid Laurier University in the region in 1977, according to biographies of him by his alma mater and his department.
His time at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he earned his master of arts in 1978, first sparked his interest in the foreign service. He applied then, but never heard back. So instead, he went to the University of Edinburgh on a scholarship, where he completed his PhD in history. At the time, teaching seemed to be the natural course of action for him, however, he wasn’t having much luck with his applications. He decided to try the foreign service again. This time, he heard back.
Next thing he knew, he was on his first posting in Havana, Cuba. He hopped after that to places including Germany as ambassador from 2008 to 2012, and San José, Costa Rica. He’s also been ambassador and permanent representative to the Organization of American States from 1997 to 2001, and from 2005 to 2008, he was the senior official responsible for the North American leaders’ summits. Along the way, he’s earned the Public Service of Canada Outstanding Achievement Award and the Canadian Foreign Service Officer Award for his help toward achieving peace in Central America.
“It’s fair to say he’s a very results-oriented person, and he wants to deliver. He’s focused always on: what’s this going to deliver? How are we going to execute this? I think that’s a very good combination, to be open at the front end and focused at the back end,” said Ms. Stein.
Aid program review wrapping up
Interestingly enough, “open at the front end and focused at the back end” seems to mirror the format of the international development review the department is in the process of wrapping up. Public submissions on the future of Canada’s foreign aid program stopped being accepted at the end of July, and Mr. Boehm said they are in a period of “internal assessment, and trying to see what are the policy thrusts we are going to suggest to the minister.”
It was the first review of its kind the department has done, he said. Both in terms of the technology used to conduct the review—the department had a portal on its website to accept input—as well as the format of the review itself: the department accepted thousands of submissions from “really anyone in the world.”
Mr. Boehm said “a number of trends are already emerging,” including a focus on women and girls, and their rights and empowerment. Education and climate change are also important themes, he said.
“It’s a very exciting moment because there’s never been a consultation that has been undertaken in this way in our history,” he said, “in terms of really trying to get the most input from as many actors as we can, and trying to come out with a policy that is very 21st century, that is very forward-leaning, and can serve as an example for other countries.”
He said in his capacity as G7 sherpa—representative of the prime minister to the G7 summit—he has also been consulting with his counterparts from other countries for the development review, and talking to them about their challenges and successes.
“There is an exponential need for humanitarian assistance. The needs are high, but we also have traditional development. There’s a squeeze there in terms of how we use the budget, the dollars, to greatest effect. That also suggests looking at new and creative ways of programming and addressing these challenges,” he said.
Mental health advocate
Mr. Boehm also has a reputation for advocating for mental health initiatives, and has made great strides within the department to provide a support structure for foreign service officers.
Ms. Stein said mental health “was an important issue for him long before it became an important issue for many people…He does it in a very quiet, but very persistent, way—which again, reflects who he is.”
Mr. Boehm attributes his determination to advance mental health initiatives and to reduce stigma to his own experience. One of Mr. Boehm’s sons, who was born abroad, is autistic.
“Just travelling with him, and making sure he gets the supports he needs was probably the greatest challenge of my life,” he said. “I’ve been pushing it and I’ve blogged about it internally in terms of my own experience. And if I can talk about it, and write about it, then why can’t others?”
He is the father of three other children as well, ranging in age from 12 to 33. They are all over the globe, from Vancouver to Budapest, doing “different things.” None want to follow directly in his footsteps, he said, though they all seem to have caught his interest in international affairs.
“My 12-year-old, I have a plan for her,” he said with a coy smile. “Prime minister.”
The 62-year-old was reluctant to admit his age, saying he doesn’t think like he’s 62. That’s what his 12-year-old daughter tells him, anyways. And, having only been in his current position since November 2015, Mr. Boehm said retirement is not on his horizon anytime soon.
“Oh I’m not gone yet,” he said. “I’d like to stay involved in international issues. I think I have contributions to make.”