In The Media

Rebuilding Canada's international capacity: Diplomatic reform in the age of globalization

by Daryl Copeland and Colin Robertson

Canadian Government Executive
April 15, 2015

The world is an ever more complicated place and diplomacy, the world’s second oldest profession, matters more than ever before. But it is a different form of diplomacy – embracing the tools of technology and recognizing that globalization has both flattened the old hierarchies and added new complexities.

For Canada, diplomacy is more than a tool of statecraft. As a country that still puts a premium on attracting immigrants from abroad, a part of our identity is dependent on how we behave and how we are seen internationally. For those reasons and more, Canadian diplomacy is and must be a manifestation of our values, policies and interests.

Joining the Foreign Service over three decades ago was to enter what was still mostly a brotherhood. Women were few, and the atmosphere was almost clubby. Indeed, the hallmarks resembled in some respects those of a religious order, if perhaps more Jesuitical than Dominican.

Contemporary foreign service is not a priesthood, nor is the foreign ministry a cathedral. And diplomacy is not liturgy.

In Chapters and Indigo bookstores across the country, shoppers are encouraged to believe that: "The world needs more Canada." To deliver on that promise, a thoroughgoing process of secular diplomatic reform will be essential. The approaching election is a good time to consider our international policies, diplomatic practice and the foreign service itself.

Looking back, looking forward
External Affairs Minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and later Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson gave his name to the headquarters of Canadian diplomacy on Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Many of those who have been celebrated, even mythologized, as contributors to a golden age of Canadian diplomacy – Charles Ritchie, Norman Robertson, Alan Gotlieb – were active at that time.

In those days, Canadians were players: architects of the multilateral system and engineers in its operations. We were peacekeepers in Suez and Cyprus, major aid donors and large scale post-secondary educational providers to Colombo Plan recipients.

Our then avant-garde development and cultural policies reflected progressive values, diversity and bilingualism. Enunciated by Louis St. Laurent in his 1947 Gray Lecture, these attributes became pillars of Canadian foreign policy for over half a century.

Today, that international landscape – and Canada’s place therein – are radically different. The types and numbers of actors – states, corporations, NGOs, provinces, cities, even individuals such as Bill Gates, George Soros and Bono – have multiplied. Power has become more diffuse, with its sources and vectors now characterized more by difference than similarity.

In this increasingly heteropolar world order, China, India, and the ASEAN states have joined Japan and Korea as members of the rising Asia-Pacific region. Latin America and Africa have emerged and are asserting their influence. New institutions like the G20 help respond to these changes.

These transformative changes, in combination with a widening array of challenges to the status quo – in the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, North Africa, the East and South China seas – have put a premium on diplomacy. Even more vexing are the “globalization suite” of S&T-based issues, ranging from climate change and diminishing biodiversity to resource scarcity and pandemic disease.

In a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, there can be no substitute for dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and knowledge-based problem-solving. Diplomacy, in other words, has never mattered more. But, risk averse and innovation shy, it is underperforming.

Not the same old, same old
Poverty – at home and abroad – is a familiar ill with a new set of drivers. By way of example, globalization efficiently allocates resources, heightens productivity and generates wealth. But it also has a tendency to polarize, increasing inequality by privatizing benefits while socializing costs. For these reasons and more, conventional thinking about the root causes of development and underdevelopment has attracted critical attention.

Handouts may have eased the liberal conscience, but the overall impact and effectiveness of official development assistance has been questionable. Appeal after appeal directed toward problems which defy resolution has created donor fatigue at home while failing to achieve intended improvements in living standards abroad.

Equitable and sustainable development remain the fundamental objectives, but the means are evolving. Remittances, foreign direct investment, and private philanthropy now far outstrip the importance of aid flows as external contributors to GDP growth.

Our diplomacy must be adjusted accordingly.

Connectivity and networks rule
Much ink has been spilled about the existence of a transnationalized plutocracy, the one percent of the population who amongst themselves control an inordinate share of the world's wealth and resources. While that problem is real, there has been a concomitant development, namely the emergence of a global middle class empowered by the revolution in information and communications technologies.

Smart phone access and broadband Internet service are changing everything, with cross-cutting effects. Electronic devices and digital data flows open our minds to new ideas – both good and dubious – and foster the creation of virtual communities. Science and technology is a two-edged sword.

Addressing, and refuting, the virulent ideologies which give rise to religious extremism and political violence is a public policy and diplomatic imperative. Most of the 9-11 terrorists, and many of ISIL's foreign recruits are not the products of impoverishment. Worse yet, ISIL is arguably more skilled in its use of social media than most foreign services.

Security: more than a martial art
However unfortunate, threat or use of armed force is a fact of life. That requires being prepared – not just to defend sovereignty and contribute to collective defence, but to maintain the armed forces’ capacity as first responders when disaster strikes.

The military plays a crucial role in alliance politics, sovereignty protection and territorial surveillance. In the case of the Canadian Arctic, the latter elements are indispensable, if still largely unfulfilled. In other instances, the need to provide emergency relief requires that stability be established on the ground, often in a manner that only armed forces are able to achieve.

In order to succeed in diplomacy, you sometimes need the leverage which comes from retaining a credible defence. In terms of laying the groundwork for lasting peace, however, it is for diplomacy to address that “wicked” constellation of issues which are rooted in science and driven by technology.

Here there is an interesting, and for the most part unappreciated point of intersection.

Diplomacy could usefully adapt from modern military doctrine the concept of readiness, which translates into an institutional acknowledgement of the need to be fit, fast and flexible enough to deal with whatever comes up, wherever it appears.

Diplomats would be well-advised to adapt a similar notion in delivering on their responsibility for the promotion of national values, policies and interests through non-violent political communication. The implications would be sweeping and suggest a business model which is less rigid, sclerotic and conventional; more lithe, supple and responsive.

Bottom line? The debate over the relative virtues of hard, soft and smart power is one that Canadians should engage. This rings especially true in the wake of costly experiences in Afghanistan, Libya, and now Iraq. The military ought not to be the instrument of first resort – this is province of diplomacy – but it does have a legitimate and sometimes essential role in the international policy mix, both in conflict resolution and in creating the conditions for the application of diplomacy and development.

A national conversation about that mix, and the grand strategy which should underpin it, is long overdue.

The new diplomatic dialectic
The days of designated envoys speaking only with each other about the business of government have gone forever. Diplomats now have to engage with whole societies, creating partnerships and exchanging meaningfully not just with the usual suspects, but with strange bedfellows as well.

In short, public diplomacy has in important respects become the new diplomacy. In consequence, the epicentre of diplomatic practice must move out of the shadows and into the light.

That said, no amount of Twiplomacy, virtuality, digital dexterity or technological savvy will ever be able to substitute for face-to-face contact, cross-cultural communications, and the ability to cultivate relationships based on confidence, trust and respect. At its core, diplomacy will remain a contact sport.

A cultural and substantive revolution
Even by comparative bureaucratic measure, foreign ministries are conservative, organizationally silohed institutions. With their faces to the world but backs to their own citizens, they are friendless and isolated. Social relations are hierarchic, communications are vertical, authority is unquestioned and risk is averted.

In the 21st century that combination represents a dead end, a fast track to irrelevance.

Risk must be managed, innovation relentlessly pursued, and failure treated as a learning experience, all within an institution that values and provides continuous learning – again, something the modern military does very well.

In terms of content, political and multilateral relations will remain central features of diplomacy, but the articulation of sound trade, commercial and investment policies are equally important as keys to a prosperous and peaceful future.

There is also a need to reach international agreement on rules governing cyber and space – both enable globalization, but they also offer terrible possibilities for chaos and destruction. Finding effective ways to pursue the just and joint management of the global commons has become job one.

The human dimension
The most abiding, and unexpected impacts of the WikiLeaks/Cablegate episode was that the disclosures had the effect of burnishing the diplomatic brand. The work of (mainly American) foreign service officers was shown to be vigorous, varied, and valuable.

Diplomats were shown time and again to be hard at work, 24/7, all around the world, advocating policies and advancing interests while conducting analysis and advising their political masters on how best to overcome obstacles and attain objectives.

The efforts of Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin attract attention to the handling and treatment of Afghan detainees by Canadian authorities had a similar effect upon public perceptions. Colvin’s reports regarding the likelihood of torture after handover were unappreciated and treated with extreme prejudice by senior officials in Ottawa.

Equally disturbing were the attempts to muzzle Colvin’s input into the public discussions of possible war crimes, and later to malign his integrity and discredit his testimony before the Military Police Complaints Commission.

Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, reports in his forthcoming book that when political masters do not trust the advice of their foreign service advisors, informed public policy is the loser. We concur.

Pulling together
Canada’s Foreign Service is small – less than 2,000 officers – and Canadians get a very good return on their modest investment in this highly qualified occupational group.

Consideration is at present being given to a proposal to enlarge the diplomat’s professional association (PAFSO) by rolling-in all staff engaged in international policy work, regardless of home department or agency.

Amalgamation is a good idea. With careful attention to the vetting of individual files and the conduct of comprehensive interviews to ensure personal suitability, representational capability and the maintenance of professional standards, the creation of a larger grouping of diplomatic practitioners makes sound strategic sense. This broader, more dispersed unit could then function as an instrument of whole-of-government international policy integration and coherence.

Canadian prosperity depends on our ability to trade, and our Trade Commissioner Service, now well integrated into the foreign service, is showcasing new skills and technologies to help Canadians sell their products and services abroad and to expedite investments into and from Canada.

Advancement within the commercial stream of the foreign service should at some level be tied to obtaining experience within the private sector, especially in the areas of Canadian niche expertise: banking, insurance, pension fund, energy, engineering, food, mining or manufacturing.

Canada is still a work in progress, and there remains much scope for population growth. The search for the talent, skills and new ideas that comes with the recruitment of temporary workers, students, entrepreneurs and skilled workers has never been more critical to Canada’s future. It would therefore make sense to re-integrate immigration officers back into the mainstream of the Foreign Service.

While no nation is without its shortcomings, Canadian pluralism is rightly judged a global model. In that context, recruitment into the foreign service from a wider pool – all levels of government and the private sectors, plus a more active program of secondments, exchanges and short-term assignments – would bring in fresh blood, cross-fertilize between departments and ventilate the otherwise somewhat stuffy and unrepresentative precincts of the foreign ministry.

Turn the inside out, bring the outside in, and incent promotions and postings to encourage a demonstrated ability to function effectively outside DFATD. We also need to re-examine the conditions under which foreign service officers serve – the last comprehensive review took place in 1980.

While formal education and broad professional experience contribute, Canada could do more to develop a cadre of “guerrilla diplomats” working in a manner which is smarter, faster, and lighter, more agile and creative than has traditionally been encouraged. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, improvisation and survival skills all count in the less disciplined, more disorderly world of the 21st century.

Starting within, reflecting out
Canadians appreciate that good governance matters – it is essential to deal with our continuing struggle to overcome challenges related to geography and demographics. It has given us a talent for compromise and conciliation.

Canada can do more in the world. Years of cuts, administrative distractions, weak senior management and poor policy performance have taken a toll. To reverse that trend, DFATD needs to hone core diplomatic skills: languages, local knowledge and history, analysis and reporting, negotiation and effective networking. But training in public diplomacy and advocacy, social media use and collaborative intelligence generation are also crucial.

Ivy league graduates need to go backpacking.

In recent years there has been an unfortunate tendency, both within the foreign service and the public service generally, to focus on process rather than policy. The timid prefer to await instruction rather than proffer advice. When asked, they too often tell their political masters what they think that they want to hear.

Too little truth to power, too much ambitious careerism, bureaucratic self-service and specializing in “managing up,” making the boss look good.

To fix Canadian diplomacy political leadership will be essential, and given the importance of international policy to Canadians these issues should be tabled for debate in the forthcoming election campaign.

Still, the ultimate responsibility for remedial action rests with the foreign service itself. Renewal and reform is best started within.

Daryl Copeland ( and Colin Robertson ( are former Canadian diplomats and Fellows with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (

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