In The Media

4 ways to repair the damage to our foreign policy

by David Carment

Embassy
February 11, 2015

Take it back and own it

With all the focus on John Baird’s departure, many might conclude that Canada’s foreign policy begins and ends with the foreign minister and a few hand-picked elites. And with the doors at Fort Pearson shut for almost a decade now, one might think there is some truth to the idea that Canadians simply don’t care enough about foreign policy to start demanding changes to the way policy choices are made and how they are implemented.

Perhaps with an aging baby boomer population more concerned about looming health care costs than global activism, there might be little interest in changing the way things are. In reality though foreign policy is not the domain of a few elites but belongs to all Canadians, young and old whether they live in Canada or are engaged citizens working, volunteering or learning abroad. 

When representative democracies like ours have become weakened and no longer function properly, there is still room for participatory democracy to make up for the losses in accountability and legitimacy. The idea of Canadians taking their foreign policy back means contributing to the process of foreign policy making and staying informed.

Canada it seems has forgotten that at one time we were envied around the world for the way our governments’ engaged citizens in the foreign policy discussion. It’s time to revisit the idea of a citizen-based foreign policy platform for foreign policy renewal. It’s  time we stopped thinking of foreign policy as a large envelope of discretionary spending for elites to constantly fight over.

Separate the wheat from the chaff

The destructive powers of the political staffer are difficult to pinpoint in a political system where members of the public service co-mingle with appointees from the Prime Minister’s Office. But it’s important nevertheless to be able to distinguish between the two and to understand they have competing responsibilities and roles in government. The murkiness by which political staffers present their credentials to the public poses an additional challenge because they are often described as advisers which might mean they are appointed by the government to monitor and react to actions taken by members of the public service or the public itself.

The political staffer serves at the request of the government and acts in their interests. They are not only an increasing presence in foreign affairs they also have a demoralizing impact on the FSOs whose job is to serve the public’s interests and not the Conservative Party of Canada. A leaked memo from several years ago documented the eroding effect these political staffers were having on morale among the staff at DFATD. 

Avoid the superficial

One clear and very discernible effect of the foreign policy pandering we have witnessed in recent years is that these policies are very rarely properly explained to the public. They are used more for vote generating purposes among particular constituencies and not much else. 

The net effect is that these policies become indefensible in the long run because they cannot be clearly linked to core Canadian interests and are not deeply embedded at the institutional level through which we make legal and binding agreements with other states. 

Our commitments to Ukraine, Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Israel stand out as examples where Canada’s foreign policy rhetoric has been substantially greater than the reality. In a fully functional democracy the likelihood that a particularly narrow foreign policy will be carried  out is a function of how much domestic commitment it has behind it. Unfortunately Canada does not have a fully functional democracy and so the foreign policy rhetoric and pandering is allowed to flourish with no discernible restraints to hold them in check.

It doesn’t help that accountability within the government has been in decline, access to information has been curtailed, foreign policy budgets have been pushed through without proper and full debate and international treaties are tabled with little parliamentary oversight.

Focus on problem solving

The world is facing several challenges that exceed the capabilities of any one foreign ministry, let alone any one foreign minister. Many years ago we got an idea of how difficult it was to solve a seemingly simple problem like the one posed by anti-personnel land mines. The complexity of today’s challenges seem overwhelming in comparison.

Perhaps our leaders might be forgiven for trying to avoid them or changing the conversation by blaming others for the world’s ills. But the world is not black and white. Climate change, failed and fragile states and rising economic inequality are all highly complex so-called wicked problems.

Wicked problems require a high degree of international coordination, political capital, and shared knowledge to solve. They involve multiple levels of consultation, coalitions and blocs standing in opposition to one another. They require diplomacy, skill and knowledge to fix. If our foreign policy is going to have measurable impact in the coming decades it will undoubtedly have to focus on problem solving. Generating the capacity to do so will entail building foreign policy capacity in partnership with academe and the private sector in developing each and every skill imaginable from mediation and negotiation to evidence-based policy making.

David Carment is editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. 


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