Diplomacy, Globalization and Heteropolarity: The Challenge of Adaptation

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by Daryl Copeland - CDFAI Distinguished Fellow
August, 2013

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Table of Contents


Executive Summary  

Globalization is the defining historical process of our times, conditioning, if not determining, outcomes across vast swathes of human activity. At the same time, a heteropolar world is emerging, one in which various and competing sources of power and influence are based more on difference than on similarity. In the face of these transformative forces, diplomacy is struggling to evolve. To date, none of the key elements of the diplomatic ecosystem – the foreign ministry, the Foreign Service, or the diplomatic business model – have adapted well, or quickly enough. If diplomacy is to achieve its full potential as a non-violent approach to the management of international relations and global issues through political communications, then radical reform will be required. 

These observations are particularly apt in Canada, where diplomatic performance has in recent years been troubled. The foreign ministry (formerly DFAIT), still struggling to absorb the deep cuts contained in the federal budget of March 2012, finds itself in the midst of a complicated  merger with the aid agency (formerly CIDA). This unanticipated amalgamation has resulted in significant uncertainty and dislocation in both organizations, and is reminiscent of the disastrous split, and then re-integration, of the foreign and trade ministries 2004-06. Canadian public and digital diplomacy, widely considered to represent the leading edge of diplomatic practice, have been wound down as a result of the imposition of centralized control over all communications. The Foreign Service, for its part, remains locked in a protracted and acrimonious labour dispute over pay equity. Rotating strikes and working to rule have taken a toll on business and tourist arrivals, foreign student enrolment and high-level visits.

In short, Canada’s diplomatic ecosystem is in a perilous state, and Canadian interests are suffering. In the age of globalization and heteropolarity, this won’t do. 

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Introduction

The world is beset by daunting, seemingly intractable problems, ranging from political violence and religious extremism to climate change, environmental collapse, food deficits and pandemic disease. Many citizens, alarmed by the declining quality of their lives, have become cynical and dismayed as the downward spiral accelerates. National governments, frequently captured by special interests and trapped in old ways of operating, have failed to defend the public interest. Bereft of creative alternatives, the first instinct of many decision makers has been to reach for the gun when faced with trouble. Fears have been conjured and insecurity instilled; rights and freedoms have been circumscribed and inequality is on the rise.

There is, however, another way forward. The alternative to militarization proceeds from the observation that because long-term, equitable and sustainable development has become the basis for security in the age of globalization, diplomacy must replace defence at the centre of international policy. 

Diplomacy, however marginalized and misunderstood, warrants a closer look.[1] Today it matters more than ever, but diplomacy in most OECD countries is in serious disrepair. Rigid, disconnected and convention-ridden, the world’s second oldest profession is underperforming and faces a crisis of relevance and effectiveness, related mainly to its inability to change and adapt. In part as a result, diplomacy’s brand is decidedly negative, associated mainly with weakness, appeasement and caving in to power.

Like the cartoon caricatures of dandies and dames in pin stripes and pearls, both the image and the archetypes are inaccurate. More crucially, diplomacy’s deficiencies can be remedied. They have to be. The most profound threats facing the planet are not amenable to military solutions.

Bottom line? Security is not a martial art. Defence is about armed force, while diplomacy is about persuasion and influence. The military is both too sharp, and too dull a policy instrument to treat the vexing transnational issues that afflict us all. Hunger and poverty are not amenable to the application of hard power; they cannot be defeated by expeditionary interventions, drone strikes or special operations.

To better understand how diplomacy can address the issues inherent in the emerging heteropolar world, a “whirled” view is essential.

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Globalization Rules 

Globalization is a complex and totalizing force. Intimately related to neoliberalism, it finds expression in deregulation, integrated markets, financial and monetary interdependence and increased levels of trade and investment, travel and migration. 

Globalization compresses space and accelerates time. Powered by the revolution in information and communication technologies, and featuring ever-rising levels of digital connectivity, the Internet is its flagship. 

Globalization is a driver of economic integration and cultural homogenization, but it socializes costs while privatizing benefits. Globalization generates wealth and productive efficiencies, but not for all. Inherently unstable, it polarizes at all levels, producing winners and losers, social ferment and political fragmentation. Among those who find themselves on the downside, these consequences can generate anger, anxiety and resentment. 

Globalization cuts all ways. In less than a generation, it has erased many of the features that had defined world order in the wake of World War II.  The Cold War era’s division of the globe into a more or less static set of First (industrialized, market democracies aligned with the USA), Second (industrialized, “socialist” political economies aligned with the USSR) and Third (less developed commodity exporters of various political orientation) World countries has given way to a much more messy, complicated and dynamic mix.

Cold War comfort has been replaced by something far less predictable.   

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Heteropolis Rising

For the past few hundred years, high-level statecraft has been mainly concerned with attempts at balancing power.  From the age of European empires through to the end of the Cold War, the statistical vectors of national power – armies, navies, missiles, warheads, economies, populations, territories – were carefully calculated and measured, and then balanced and formally or informally codified in an attempt to engineer stability. Numbers were important; alliances were made and treaties entered into for purposes of expressing or extending agreed balances. When imbalances arose, as they inevitably did, negotiations were re-opened. If the talks failed, war usually ensued.  And so was world order, however punctuated by periods of great upheaval, fashioned. 

From the Congress of Vienna and the Concert of Europe through to the Treaty of Versailles and, most recently, to various arms control agreements, the search for international security turned on the efforts of diplomats to calibrate and balance power in a manner that produced a workable form of equilibrium.  The threat or use of armed force served as the international policy instrument of choice and remained the ultimate arbiter in dispute resolution.  For the likes of Metternich, Castlereagh, Bismark and Talleyrand, not to mention Churchill, Stalin, and Kissinger, power was essentially a function of the ability to compel your adversary to submit to your will. Stability was engineered by fine tuning relationships within and between alliances, first in a multipolar, and then, following World War II, in a bipolar system dominated by the US and USSR. 

All of this changed with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the advent of American unipolarity in the early 1990s. This was a triumphal, if fleeting moment when history was said to have ended and the Washington Consensus of decontrol and market freedom was imposed wherever it was not embraced. For large corporations, financial entrepreneurs, those with surplus capital, and more than a few felons, these were halcyon days. But nothing lasts forever. By the autumn of 2008, with the global economy heading into the worst recession since the 1930s, it had become clear that the one size fits all prescription of wholesale privatization, marketization, decontrol and deregulation was not going to end well. That realization, in conjunction with a string of disastrous strategic choices in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulted in the end of American hegemony.

Today, new poles are rising and America’s prestige and influence are haemorrhaging.

Among the commentariat, and in both the academic and popular press, the mainstream view is that today world politics are returning to some kind of a G-Zero, non-polar, or, more commonly, multipolar dispensation. The prefix multi suggests the renewed existence of multiple poles of more or less the same type, as was the case in Europe, for example, in the 19th century. From that observation it follows that traditional means can again be used to establish some kind of new balance, one based largely upon conventional, and widely-shared beliefs, about the nature of power and the use of influence.

As is so often the case with the received wisdom, however, there are good reasons to doubt this proposition

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Brave New McWorld 

With the advent of globalization, international power and influence have become both highly dispersed geographically and highly differentiated in terms of source: hard, soft, smart, and so forth. The old assumptions no longer hold and previously clear delineations have become blurred.  The days when well-acquainted negotiators came together around felt-covered tables with similar cards in their hands have gone forever. The very nature of power, its workings and its ends have been reconstituted. 

Like the obsolete formulation of First, Second and Third worlds, most thoughts of great, middle and small powers are best set aside, if not forgotten.  States themselves are of diminishing importance; while still significant, they now represent only one actor among many on a world stage now crowded with multinational corporations, NGOs, think tanks and celebrities.[2] Private philanthropy and remittances are displacing official development assistance; the Gates Foundation is spending more on HIV/AIDS research than most national governments. Given such numerous and varied units of international political agency and accounting, an entirely new way of seeing will be essential if our understanding is to be enlarged.    

To be sure, and as was the case with the earlier multipolar world, there will again be many poles. But this time around, divergent objectives rather than stability and shared goals will be the hallmarks. Differences between poles will far outweigh the similarities; today’s main players share little in common. 

Major new poles – China, India, and Brazil – are forming, while older poles – the USA, Russia, and the EU – are evolving, often in new or unpredictable ways.[3] And heteropoles are forming in all shapes and sizes. Certain countries, such as Turkey, Iran, South Africa and Mexico, as well as regions, such as Southeast Asia and the Gulf states, will almost certainly figure in this new dispensation.  Moreover, because economic activity, culture, social classes and political space have become increasingly transnational and de-territorialized, some of the emerging poles will not consist of countries at all - they may be supranational, sub-national, private sector, or related in some way to civil society. Some of the emerging heteropoles will be corporations, multilateral institutions or cities rather than states or regions.  

Unlike in previous eras, the heterogeneous quality of the power wielded by today’s competing actors renders comparison difficult and measurement even more so.

Complicating matters further, in an age when networks and connectivity are ascendant, perception can trump reality.

What to do when international policy assets are no longer comparable or compatible?

Start talking.


An Opening for Diplomacy 

In the heteropolitan world under construction, security and development will flow not from defence, but from diplomacy. That is, diplomacy made smarter, faster, lighter, and more supple. Dialogue, negotiation and compromise will be key, as will a capacity to engage in knowledge-based problem-solving, supple analysis and complex balancing. Intelligence generation will be central.

How, then, to fix diplomacy, to get from fighting to talking, from diktat to dialogue and from coercion to cooperation? The entire “diplomatic ecosystem” will have to be reconstructed from the ground up (examples of this can be found here, here, and here). And, like all ecosystems, heightened resilience will flow from increased diversity.

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From the Conventional to the Alternative

The essential elements of diplomatic practice, the majority of which have been in place for centuries, must be thoroughly reconsidered. Traditional diplomacy, featuring designated envoys engaging mainly in various types of set piece exchanges and transacting the business of government, will always have a place. But that domain is shrinking. In advanced democracies especially, public and e-diplomacy, featuring extensive use of social and digital media, has become the new centre of activity. Through relationship-building with businesses, academia, and think tanks, and by using tools and techniques borrowed from public relations, lobbying and advocacy, diplomats can now connect directly with foreign populations and opinion leaders with a view to influencing host government policy and decision-making through these partners. Convincing host country nationals to share objectives through the power of attraction (soft power) represents a sophisticated form of triangulation. It should be of particular appeal to the governments of smaller and medium sized countries – like Canada? – who lack the capacity to secure international policy outcomes through other means, such as coercion. 

In other contexts, including conflict zones, civil emergencies, or natural disasters – not to mention in the barrio, souk or favella – even more unconventional, fleet-footed and innovative approaches will be required. The main point here is that given the fast-breaking demands of globalization and heteropolarity, simply making a demarche and awaiting instructions from headquarters is no longer enough. Mastery of both new and conventional media, plus relentless innovation and experimentation will be essential. 

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From Vertical to Horizontal

In tandem with the movement of diplomacy away from state-centricity and the Gutenberg galaxy into civil society, cyberspace and beyond, the foreign ministry must be re-imagined

Foreign ministries are typically among the oldest departments of government. Tradition-bound and change-resistant, the institutional home of diplomats and diplomacy tends to be rigid and hierarchic. Silo-like organizational structures, authoritarian social relations and a heavy reliance upon established forms of interaction and patterned responses still dominate. Inherently conservative, most foreign ministries are struggling to bring their values and procedures into line with the demands of the laterally-connected workplaces of the 21st century.

With executive branches of government, specialized line departments, and other international policy actors playing an ever-larger role, foreign ministries must learn to become smarter, more lithe and more supple. Headquarters operations might be smaller, but provided with adequate resources the quality of working life could be improved substantially. Costly turf wars and competition for leadership on particular files could usefully be left behind in favour of a new, more strategic mandate intended to ensure international policy coherence across government.

Redesigned as a central agency located at the intellectual nexus of thinking about security and development, the foreign ministry would operate at a higher level of analysis than is the case at present. Core responsibilities, in addition to bi- and multilateral relations, would include the articulation of grand strategy and the management of globalization and heteropolarity. At home, this would entail engagement on a range of cross-cutting, inter-sectoral, whole-of-government issues such as trade policy and the promotion of democracy and human rights, good governance, and the rule of law. Abroad, it would mean experimenting with new forms of representation ranging from hub and spoke arrangements, to co-location with like-minded parties, to temporary accommodation. In some instances, a diplomatic mission could be portable and without lingering overheads: a brass plaque on a hotel room door, coupled with secure laptop communications. 

The vital connection to place is the asset which constitutes the foreign ministry’s comparative advantage vis-a-vis other government departments. That attribute should be reinforced through the deployment of more staff to an enlarged network of missions abroad. But that representational footprint would have to be less standardized and cookie-cutter like, more fluid and customized, designed in response to specific conditions on the ground. 

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From Old School to New Age

Finally, the Foreign Service, the occupational group that represents the human face of the profession, will have to be re-invented. As is so often the case with matters of personnel policy and administration, however, the process of building a better diplomat, and of transforming the diplomatic corps is likely to be fraught. 

Most foreign services do not typically reflect the demography of the national populations they serve. As a result of something akin to corporate cloning, women and visible minorities, among others, are often under-represented. Although some external assistance might be necessary in the search to find a suitable balance between the principles of merit and equity, this issue could be addressed through programs of affirmative action in recruiting and promotion. 

Perhaps even more troubling, the particular mix of skills, background and experience typical of many serving and, especially, senior diplomats is not well suited to the requirements of the contemporary operating environment. Territorial and ideological issues have in large part given way to transnational challenges, many of which – climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and resource scarcity – are rooted in science and driven by technology.  

How many serving envoys are sufficiently literate in these areas? Too few.

While formal knowledge and impressive credentials are not without value, life skills, such as cross-cultural communication, practical problem-solving, self-reliance, resilience and improvisation, are of at least equal importance in today’s sprawling diplomatic milieu. Abilities and attributes acquired through independent world travel or grass roots volunteer work may prove at least as important as years spent in the finest Ivy League universities.

How many senior diplomats began their careers as backpackers? Not many. 

Foreign services need a cultural revolution, featuring the encouragement of risk tolerance, innovation and dissent, an emphasis on continuous learning, and the provision of more opportunities for training and professional development. Failure would be assessed as a learning experience rather than a career catastrophe. Active secondment and exchange programs with other government departments, NGOs, universities, think tanks and business would be used to ventilate the ranks by bringing the outside in and turning the inside out. To ensure traction, promotion to the executive level would be made contingent upon the successful completion of such an assignment.

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Turning the Page

In the roiling precincts of the heteropolis, diplomats must be more than international policy bureaucrats, comfortable organizing visits, writing reports and talking to each other about what might be going on outside the chancellery, but disinclined to find out personally. Part street-smart policy entrepreneur, part tech-savvy analyst, and part network activist, today’s Foreign Service Officer needs the aptitudes and temperament of a guide and interpreter, a knowledge broker and a nation brand manager. He or she will enjoy swimming like a fish in the sea of the people, and will never be seen flopping around like a fish out of water when outside the embassy compound. Whether it is image projection or reputation management, engagement in meaningful dialogue with partners, or negotiating joint ventures with civil society, the new diplomat will be able to do whatever it takes to advocate policies, pursue interests, and promote values. The encouragement of greater country and regional specialization through education, professional development, and a more targeted assignment process would be a good place to start.

While the best diplomats are indeed a special breed, the Foreign Service is not a priesthood, and the foreign ministry is not a cathedral. These institutions must be made more open, accessible to, and valued by their domestic constituencies. Unless and until diplomatic practice, foreign services and foreign ministries can better adapt to the challenges posed by globalization and heteropolarity, and in so doing demonstrate their competence, relevance and effectiveness, the prognosis will remain grim.

If the diplomatic prospect is to be restored, the status quo is not an option.

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Implications for Canada

With its multicultural cities and large diaspora populations, and given the importance of trade, foreign investment, immigration, travel and tourism, Canada is in many respects the globalization nation.  This country needs to find its place in the heteropolar world; a failure to act would add to this country’s accumulated diplomatic deficit.[4]

For those reasons and more, the observations outlined over the preceding pages should resonate with particular clarity and force in Ottawa.

Yet all three elements of Canada’s diplomatic ecosystem are at present on life support:

Diplomacy. Centralized control over all messaging and public communications, unprecedented in the Canadian public service, has ended most unscripted conversations and hence crippled diplomatic practice. Because all substantive content must be cleared in advance by the political centre, even the most routine advocacy and outreach activities have been eliminated. Muzzling employees means that confidence, trust and respect, qualities that serve as the bedrock of diplomacy, are no longer in evidence.  From a position of international leadership in public diplomacy a decade ago, this country is now effectively out of the race.[5]

Foreign ministry. Canada has not undertaken a serious organizational reappraisal since the ill-fated separation/re-integration of the foreign and trade ministries in 2004-06.[6] Reminiscent of that disastrous exercise, last spring’s decision to merge DFAIT and CIDA was not shared with senior officials in either department until a few hours prior to its announcement. Whatever its virtues as regards the goal of policy coherence, news of the unanticipated amalgamation arrived at a time when DFAIT was still reeling under the impact of $168 million in cuts contained in the federal budget of March, 2012. This “double whammy” has imposed such onerous managerial and administrative overheads on the new DFATD that long-term planning has become difficult, if not impossible.

Foreign Service. At the time of writing, the government and the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) are embroiled in a particularly bitter, protracted and disruptive labour dispute. Canadian interests are suffering, especially in the business, tourism and education sectors as a result of significant delays in visa issuance. In the fiercely competitive environment for commercial opportunities, students, and visitors, those costs will accumulate and endure. They are all the more unacceptable because the government could address the union's pay equity grievance for a little over $3 million, which is minimal. PAFSO has launched a bad faith bargaining complaint against the employer at the Public Service Labour Relations Board, but that may take months to resolve.

Recommendations?  The comprehensive reforms set out in this essay may be necessary, but will not be sufficient to turn things around in the short term. Immediate measures should include:

  1. Lifting the extraordinary communications controls, and a full return to best practices in public and digital diplomacy. 
  2. Initiating a comprehensive review of the foreign ministry’s mandate and operations.
  3. Settling the foreign service strike, either through a return to the bargaining process or by recourse to unconditional and binding arbitration. 

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Conclusion

Once widely admired for its innovative leadership and internationalist activism, Canadian diplomacy is today unable to deliver election to the UN Security Council and instead attracts Fossil of the Year awards.  With underused diplomatic capacity and even larger potential, Canada can, and must, do better.

We will never be able to achieve our most important international policy objectives through the use of armed force; priorities and resources should be reallocated accordingly.

To ensure that this reinvestment produces a successful outcome, the adaptation of diplomacy to the exigencies of globalization and heteropolarity has become imperative.

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About the Author 

Daryl Copeland, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, is an analyst, author, educator and consultant specializing in the relationship between science, technology, diplomacy, and international policy. His book, Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations, was released in 2009 by Lynne Rienner Publishers and is cited as an essential reference by the editors of Oxford Bibliographies Online. A frequent public speaker, Mr. Copeland comments regularly for the national media on global issues and public management, and has written over 100 articles for the scholarly and popular press. His work has appeared in many anthologies, as well as in the International Journal, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy in Focus, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, Embassy, The Mark, iPolitics and elsewhere. He was awarded the 2010 Molot Prize for best article published in Canadian Foreign Policy (“Virtuality, Diplomacy and the Foreign Ministry”, 15:2).

From 1981 to 2011 Mr. Copeland served as a Canadian diplomat with postings in Thailand, Ethiopia, New Zealand and Malaysia. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was elected a record five times to the Executive Committee of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers. From 1996-99 he was National Program Director of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs in Toronto and Editor of Behind the Headlines, Canada’s international affairs magazine. In 2000, he received the Canadian Foreign Service Officer Award for his “tireless dedication and unyielding commitment to advancing the interests of the diplomatic profession.”

Among his positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in Ottawa, Mr. Copeland has worked as Senior Intelligence Analyst, South and Southeast Asia; Deputy Director for International Communications; Director for Southeast Asia; Senior Advisor, Public Diplomacy; Director of Strategic Communications Services; and, Senior Advisor, Strategic Policy and Planning. He was DFAIT representative to the Association of Professional Executives (APEX) 2001-06.

Mr. Copeland teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and is Visiting Professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy (UK) and Otago University (NZ). He serves as a peer reviewer for University of Toronto Press, Canadian Foreign Policy, the International Journal and The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, and is a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. From 2009-11 he was Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. In 2009 he was a Research Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.

Mr. Copeland grew up in downtown Toronto, and received his formal education at the University of Western Ontario (Gold Medal, Political Science; Chancellor’s Prize, Social Sciences) and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Canada Council Special MA Scholarship). He has spent years backpacking on six continents, and enjoys travel, photography, arts and the outdoors.

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Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute

CDFAI is the only think tank focused on Canada’s international engagement in all its forms - diplomacy, the military, aid and trade security. Established in 2001, CDFAI’s vision is for Canada to have a respected, influential voice in the international arena based on a comprehensive foreign policy, which expresses our national interests, political and social values, military capabilities, economic strength and willingness to be engaged with action that is timely and credible.

CDFAI was created to address the ongoing discrepancy between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically, Canadians tend to think of foreign policy – if they think of it at all – as a matter of trade and markets. They are unaware of the importance of Canada engaging diplomatically, militarily, and with international aid in the ongoing struggle to maintain a world that is friendly to the free flow of goods, services, people and ideas across borders and the spread of human rights. They are largely unaware of the connection between a prosperous and free Canada and a world of globalization and liberal internationalism.

In all its activities CDFAI is a charitable, nonpartisan organization, supported financially by the contributions of foundations, corporations and individuals. Conclusions or opinions expressed in CDFAI publications and programs are those of the authors and speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors, or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to CDFAI.

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Endnotes

[1] A comprehensive survey is found in Andrew Cooper et.al., The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013). 
[2] See Andrew Cooper, Celebrity Diplomacy (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).
[3] By way of example, and in terms of power sources and specialization, China is becoming the world’s mass market manufacturer; India the English-language back office, call centre and software incubator; Brazil the agro-industrial voice of the Global South;  Russia the natural resource  superstore; EU the cultural and artistic magnet, and so forth. While the descriptions are over-simplified, the point is that with such wide-ranging sources of economic, political, military and cultural power, comparison and communication among and between these many and very different poles will be challenging.   
[4] For a detailed account of Canada’s diplomatic decline over the past few decades, see Daryl Copeland, “Once Were Diplomats: Can Canadian Internationalism Be Rekindled?”, Heather Smith and Claire Turenne Sjolander (eds.) Canada in the World (Toronto: Oxford UP, 2013).
[5] For a wide-ranging critique of Canadian performance and a remedial prescription, see  Paul Heinbecker, Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2010).
[6] On the ill-starred FAC21 enterprise, see Daryl Copeland, “A foreign ministry for the 21st century?”, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, 19:1, 2013. 

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