In The Media

In defence of diplomacy: Canada can, and must do better

August 21, 2013

The world is beset by a host of daunting, seemingly intractable problems, ranging from climate change and environmental collapse to diminishing biodiversity and pandemic disease.  These profound threats, unlike political violence or religious extremism, afflict everyone on the planet.

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 or trapped in old ways of operating, have failed to act remedially.

Bereft of creative alternatives, when faced with trouble the first instinct of many decision makers has been to reach for the gun.

Since the post-9/11 advent of the Global War on Terror, in many Western countries policy has become an instrument of war. Fears have been conjured and insecurity instilled, thus undercutting support for fundamentally different approaches to the construction of world order. Right wing think tanks have reliably provided ideological grist for the defence-industrial mill. The consequences have been calamitous, not only in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but on the home front, where privacy has been invaded, rights and freedoms circumscribed and inequality exacerbated. Society is increasingly militarized and the armed forces have become dominant national institutions.

There is, however, another way forward. That alternative proceeds from the conviction 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.

In other words, in an increasingly heterpolar world, security is not a martial art.

Defence is about armed force, while diplomacy is about soft power - persuasion and influence. The military is both too sharp, and too dull an instrument with which to treat the 21st century’s complex transnational issues. Hunger and poverty are not amenable to the application of hard power; they cannot be defeated by expeditionary interventions, drone strikes or special operations.

Diplomacy, however marginalized and misunderstood, warrants a closer look. Today it matters more than ever, but diplomacy 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 familiar cartoon caricatures of dandies and dames in pin stripes and pearls, both the image and the archetypes are inaccurate. That said, if diplomacy is achieve its potential as a non-violent approach to the management of international relations through dialogue, negotiation and compromise, then radical reform will be required.

These observations resonate with particular clarity in Canada. With its multicultural cities and large diaspora populations, and given the importance of trade, foreign investment, immigration, travel and tourism, this country is in many respects the globalization nation.

That said, although once widely admired for innovative initiatives and internationalist activism, Canada’s diplomatic performance has in recent years been abysmal, associated now with the failure to deliver election to the UN Security Council and attracting Fossil of the Year awards. All three elements of Canada’s diplomatic ecosystem are on life support:

  • Foreign ministry. Canada has not undertaken a serious organizational reappraisal since the ill-fated separation/re-integration of the foreign and trade ministries 2004-06. 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 bureaucratic “double whammy” has imposed such huge managerial and administrative overheads that long-term planning has become difficult, if not impossible. A comprehensive review of DFATD’s mandate and operations, ideally geared towards the articulation of grand strategy, is essential.

  • Foreign service. The Government and the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers are embroiled in a particularly acrimonious, 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, those costs will accumulate and endure. They are all the more unacceptable because the government could address the union's central issue of pay equity 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. The legitimate grievances tabled by the foreign service should be promptly addressed and judiciously settled, either through a return to the bargaining process or recourse to unconditional and binding arbitration.

  • Diplomatic practice. From a position of international leadership a decade ago, this country is now effectively out of the game. Unprecedented control over all messaging and public communications has ended most unscripted conversations and crippled public diplomacy. Because all content must be cleared in advance by the political centre, social media tools are off-limits and even the most routine advocacy and outreach activities have been eliminated. The muzzling of public servants means that confidence, trust and respect, the bedrocks of diplomacy, are no longer in place. That situation is unsustainable and must change.

As globalized political economy with underused diplomatic capacity and even larger potential, this country has much to offer the rest of the world. 

In the name of relevance, effectiveness and the national interest, immediate action is required to restore Canada’s diplomatic ecosystem.

Educator, analyst and consultant Daryl Copeland is the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat. Follow him on Twitter @guerrilladiplo.

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