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‘Diplomacy is all about being there’: former diplomats call for reassessment of foreign service global presence during GAC review

By NEIL MOSS      
‘We need human beings in these other countries, in these war zones, to give a genuinely Canadian perspective that’s not filtered through the internet,’ says former diplomat Ben Rowswell.

As Global Affairs embarks on a review of its foreign service work, former diplomats and experts say they want to see the concentration of envoys in Ottawa addressed in favour of more foreign service officers stationed in Canada’s missions around the world.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) and Foreign Affairs deputy minister Marta Morgan announced the review on May 30, which will look at the personnel Global Affairs needs to perform its duties, its capacities, technology and digital abilities, as well as its global presence.

In a townhall with Global Affairs officials, Joly spotlighted the changed world that Global Affairs finds itself operating in, especially after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

“Power is more defuse. We are no longer living in a unipolar world. Old alliances are being tested, and new alliances are coming to form. And most importantly, huge international crises that used to be truly the exception are now becoming the norm,” she said, according to a copy of prepared remarks.

Through the review, Joly said there is a need to take an “honest look in the mirror.”

“We will be looking forward, opening the windows and exploring how we can better ready ourselves for the challenges of the 21st century,” she said.

As part of the initiative, an external advisory council has been struck—filled with former diplomats and senior officials, as well as representatives of Canadians business and youth. Global Affairs is still in the process of confirming the members of the council, according to a departmental spokesperson.

A report is expected by the end of the year, according to Morgan’s prepared remarks, which will include “potential action items.”

Former diplomats and foreign policy experts told The Hill Times that the review is welcome and was long overdue.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute vice-president Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, said the review is “hugely ambitious.”

“I think it’s necessary,” he said. “It is useful to look at where diplomacy is going.”

While the department is performing a foreign service review, the government is stopping short of conducting a review of Canada’s foreign policy.

Robertson said that the announced review could be a first step towards a foreign policy review.

He said focus has to be given on addressing the concentration of foreign service officers in Ottawa.

“Diplomacy is all about being there. You have to be there. You can’t do it through Zoom,” he said.

He called the number of diplomats posted abroad—around 18 per cent—“abysmal.”

“I believe that Canada’s in a moment in our international relations where new ambition is required,” said Canadian International Council president Ben Rowswell, a former senior-level diplomat and ambassador to Venezuela.

While noting ambition has been demonstrated in Canada’s response to the Russian invasion, sustained ambition will be required, he said.

“There’s an overarching question on how the public service of Canada supports the new political leadership and the new political ambition and systemize it and sustain it over time,” he said.

Rowswell said one area he wants to see the review focus on is duty of care in conflict zones.

“There are more and more conflict zones. Those conflicts are more and more threatening to Canada. And, therefore, there are more and more requirements for Canada to have diplomats on the ground in those conflicts,” he said. “As the world gets more dangerous, for example, we need to have more diplomats out in harm’s way, not less, because Canada’s interest is at stake and diplomats advance Canada’s national interest.”

Canadian diplomats have been pulled out of a number of conflict zones in recent years, including in Ukraine and in Afghanistan. Canada’s embassy in Ukraine has since been re-opened.

Rowswell said there is an urgent need to reverse the trend of having so many diplomats in Ottawa.

“We need physical eyes and feet on the ground,” he said. “We need human beings in these other countries, in these war zones, to give a genuinely Canadian perspective that’s not filtered through the internet,” he said. “It’s more urgent than ever.”

Former diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove, whose head of mission postings included Pakistan and Egypt, said in areas of greater instability, there is a larger need for diplomats on the ground.

“We need to rejuvenate our foreign policy capability. We need to have [diplomats] abroad,” he said.

Unlike the current approach taken by Canada, de Kerckhove said the most capable diplomats need to be in capitals that are most hostile, instead of in the capitals of Canada’s closest allies.

“One should realize that you need quality in tough postings and you don’t need your best in postings that are so easy,” he said.

Progressive Senator Peter Harder (Ontario), a former foreign affairs deputy minister, said the foreign service’s trend of having more postings in Ottawa has been motivated by cost savings.

“The price of diplomacy is a lot cheaper than the price of armed conflict,” he said.

Harder said that attention needs to be on recruitment.

“If you don’t have the right administrative processes, if you don’t recruit in an appropriate way to advance the skills necessary for a modern foreign service, you are not going to have a foreign ministry that is better than the sum of its parts,” he said. “That’s a huge challenge.”

Harder said there needs to be a level of ongoing expertise in areas that may not be today’s priority, noting that when Afghanistan became central to the West’s interests, there was little experience in the foreign ministry about Afghanistan.

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said the review is a positive step and it needs to focus on the people.

“We are happy to see this happening, but we want to make sure that it actually delivers on what it says it will deliver and that it will really get at the issues,” she said.

“There’s a real need to take a fundamental look at what Canada is doing internationally, what the role of the foreign service should be, what tools we need, and how recruitment is being done,” she said.

Isfeld said attention has to be paid to the changing geopolitical nature of the world that has resulted in Canada’s foreign missions around the world becoming increasingly dangerous.

“That needs to affect the type of people we recruit. You have to be honest about the psychological demands, about the physical demands, in some cases. And I’m not sure that the department is yet getting its mind around that kind of thing,” she said.

University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, a foreign policy expert, said the department needs to look at budgeting.

“The review notes we’ll take a hard look in the mirror and I hope this includes assessing our declining influence and relevance in international diplomacy,” she said in an email. “Our spending on foreign policy initiatives and development aid is paltry and will need to be enhanced and strengthened if we want to be taken seriously and make a difference.”

Nordic countries, which outpace Canada’s foreign policy on a per capita basis and relative to its GDP, should be used as examples for Ottawa, she said.

“Having a seat at the table of influence costs money. Good ideas and intentions are simply not enough. The international environment is more fraught than ever and will only get worse as the global economy will have a difficult time recovering from [high] post-COVID debt,” she said.

Former Canadian diplomat Barbara Martin, now a Queen’s University policy studies adjunct professor, said without an understanding of what Canadian foreign policy wants to achieve, it is difficult to ascertain what is needed in terms of people, structures, and tools.

“This is not a foreign policy review, but rather a review of the capacity of Global Affairs Canada to respond to the international challenges Canada is facing now,” she said in an email.

“It is about ‘how’ to conduct international relations … it is not about ‘what’ Canada should be doing in response to the particular challenges of today, including rising autocracy, critical challenges to the international order, pandemic and outright war. Rather, the review is focussed on policy capacity, digital capacity and international presence, with an undercurrent of more money. But, it is not about policy,” she said.

At the same time the department is undergoing the review, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has started a study into “the foreign service and elements of the foreign policy machinery within Global Affairs Canada.”

Committee chair and Independent Senator Peter Boehm (Ontario) said the Senate and departmental studies will probably be “compatible.” Boehm is a past ambassador to Germany, former deputy minister of international development, and G7 sherpa.

He said the committee’s study is looking at whether the foreign service is “fit for purpose.”

“This is to look at how the foreign service functions, how it might be able to function better, how it would reflect a modern approach—in other words a 21st century foreign minister,” he said. “There hasn’t been an external study done since the Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service led by Pamela McDougall in 1981.”

Boehm said he expects the Senate committee to take a year for its work, which will include looking at the operations of comparable foreign services.

Harder, who serves as the vice-chair of the committee, said the study will take the time to develop recommendations that the government should consider.

“We felt that we had to be deliberate in our pace, but broad in our approach. Also take some time to do some comparative work that is necessary to positions our experience with those of likeminded foreign ministries,” he said.

The three Global Affairs deputy ministers—Morgan, David Morrison for international trade, and Christopher MacLennan for international development—will appear before the committee on June 9.

Behind Joly’s plan to modernize Canadian diplomacy

Cabinet minister says Canada’s foreign service needs to keep up to a rapidly changing world.

Melanie Joly said she wants to empower the foreign service “to be at more tables, with louder voices and better equipment to meet the moment.” | Marcus Brandt/Pool via AP


05/31/2022 05:00 AM EDT

OTTAWA, Ont. — Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly says Canada wants to better prepare its diplomats for an increasingly uncertain world.

“Crises used to be something that happened every once in a decade — but now they’re happening every year,” Joly told POLITICO in an interview Monday evening. “We need to keep up with these challenging times.”

Joly announced a review exercise on Monday during a town hall with staffers from the foreign affairs department, which is called Global Affairs Canada. The department has 12,000 employees and offices in 110 countries.

Joly said she wants to better equip her department with the tools it needs to operate in the rapidly advancing world of digital technologies. She noted how foreign powers are using the digital space to push their own narratives and interests.

The plan will also look for ways to strengthen Canada’s voice in multilateral organizations and ensure the country can attract top talent to its diplomatic corps, she said.

The department will survey its staff for ideas and draw input from an external advisory board, which will be made up of former heads of mission and senior officials, Canadian business leaders and youth representatives.

Canada, Joly said, will join partners like the U.S. State Department and other G-7 countries in launching a diplomatic modernization exercise. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered a speech on the U.S. plan in October.

In prepared remarks of her speech to Global Affairs Canada, Joly told the public servants that “indeed, the world changed profoundly” with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“But, you and I know that change started well before then,” she said. “Power is more diffuse. We are no longer living in a unipolar world. Old alliances are being tested, and new alliances are coming to form.”

Joly said she wants to empower the foreign service “to be at more tables, with louder voices and better equipment to meet the moment.”

“We will be taking an honest look in the mirror,” her speech said.

Marta Morgan, Canada’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, told Monday’s town hall that the department is increasingly asked to respond to situations and events that are without precedent.

“The environment in which we are now operating is increasingly complex, volatile and challenging, with new actors, technologies, a rule-based international system at an inflection point, and global issues intrinsically linked to domestic issues,” Morgan said in prepared remarks of her address to staff.

Morgan said the goal is to produce a report by next March with the findings and “potential action items.”

The rethink comes three months after the Senate committee on foreign affairs and international trade launched a study and called for a report on the Canadian foreign service and “elements of the foreign policy machinery” within Global Affairs Canada.

The Canadian government has been under pressure to revitalize its foreign affairs department and, for example, to send more diplomats abroad.

Experts, like former diplomat Colin Robertson, wrote in Policy this month that when he joined the foreign service half of the staff was abroad and half were at home. He said today only about 18 percent are posted abroad.

Robertson also said the last comprehensive study of Canada’s foreign service was the McDougall Report, launched in 1980 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

“In a world that is increasingly confrontational, diplomacy matters more than ever,” Robertson wrote.

Joly, who has served as foreign minister since October, said she approached the prime minister last fall with the idea for a review.

“Canadians understand that what is going on in the world has an impact at home and in their everyday lives. And so it’s important to have a strong presence abroad.”