Diplomats feel as though they are emerging from a decade of darkness

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
June 7, 2016

Canada’s top diplomats are in Ottawa this week for a pep talk about the country’s place in the world and what they can do to advance our interests and values.

Once the best in the world, Canada’s foreign service endured a difficult decade of cuts and contempt under a Harper government that perceived it as whiny, leaky, barely competent and untrustworthy.

With its renewed emphasis on economic diplomacy, the Harper government told diplomats to “take off your tweed jacket, buy a business suit and land us a deal.” The objective was sound, but the tone was insulting.

Mr. Harper’s government also oversaw the sale of official residences, some of them given to our country as reparations for Canadian sacrifice and valour during the Second World War. These historic and iconic residences were the best platforms to promote our trade and diplomatic objectives. It was all lost on the Harperites, however, who perceived them as grand living.

In short, the relationship between the foreign service and the Harper government was one of mutual contempt.

Now, with that decade of darkness behind us, we need a compendium of best practices – our own and those of other nations’ – to encourage traditionalists to think out-of-the-box. Canada’s diplomats need to change their mindset from that of compliance in just carrying out government orders to one of policy innovation and public diplomacy.

One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first initiatives was to write to every head of mission, abolishing the strict controls imposed by the Harper government. Mr. Trudeau said he would rely on our diplomats’ “judgment, insights, discretion, and work ethic.” He underlined their critical role in advancing a new era of Canadian international engagement “through direct contact, the media, and social media.”

Given his rapid immersion in international summitry, it was a smart move on the part of Mr. Trudeau and it has paid off.

Mr. Trudeau’s personal grasp of the zeitgeist accounts for much of his subsequent success on the multilateral circuit – G20, Commonwealth, APEC, Paris climate change conference, Davos, UN, G8 – and during his recent bilateral meetings in Tokyo and Washington. But having our diplomats enthusiastically advance, deliver and then follow up is critical in the continuing demonstration that “Canada is back.”

Canadian re-engagement will hinge on the embrace of public diplomacy. It will oblige our diplomatic missions to fully utilize the sophisticated 500-plus social media channels they operate in over 20 languages. In Tunisia, for example, our embassy flew the LGBT flag (a first for any embassy in the Arab world) and used its French and English Facebook pages to promote the end of the criminalization of homosexuality.

The heads of missions should leave their meetings this week with a clear idea of their role and what they are expected to deliver. Delivering on the commitments in the mandate letters is the Trudeau government’s self-imposed barometer for success. Key questions that need to be answered include:

  • How do we protect our interests against rising nativism and protectionism, not just the “Trumpism” in the U.S., but elsewhere, too?
  • What are the specific measures Canada should take to become an international leader in combatting climate change?
  • What is “peaceful pluralism” and how do we advance respect for diversity and human rights?
  • What are we doing to showcase Canadian culture abroad?
  • What is the game plan for each European mission to ensure CETA (Canada-EU trade agreement) implementation and then how do they expand development of trade and investment?
  • What is the Plan B if the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership fails?
  • How can we better attract investment and talented immigrants, and encourage foreign students to study in Canada?
  • What is our China strategy?

In a globalized world, power comes from connectedness and the ability to quickly mobilize coalitions to implement, support or protest. Traditional hierarchies matter less; we need new networks, enabled by technology, that include entrepreneurs, women and civil society organizations.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau will need to make it clear that there is a high tolerance for risk and experimentation. Letting our envoys be creative may have diplomatic repercussions; our diplomats need to know that these ministers have their back and that they will adequately fund public diplomacy.

This week’s meeting of our 130 heads of mission coincides with the annual Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers awards, celebrating their roles as consuls, trade commissioners, visa officers, cultural envoys, negotiators, and analysts. Their stories, captured in the foreign service’s publication, bout de papier, are moving tributes to their quiet professionalism on behalf of Canadians.

Diplomacy, the second oldest profession, is enjoying a comeback in the face of a shifting international order. Like the oldest profession, diplomacy also needs to learn new tricks. And, like the oldest profession, diplomacy is still as much art as craft.

Colin Robertson is a former diplomat, and currently vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Showing 1 reaction

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  • Sissiboo Smith
    commented 2016-06-18 11:20:32 -0400
    With all the intelligence and experience we have in the foreign service it is criminal not to use it. I would like to see more service to tourists and visitors abroad though.

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