On October 20, 2022, I testified before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade about "the Canadian Foreign Service and elements of the foreign policy machinery within Global Affairs Canada." Here's what I said:
I thank the committee for its invitation to testify.
I have never worked at Global Affairs Canada, so I plan to focus my comments where I do have some experience: thinking about, and writing about, the history of Canadian foreign policy.
The main message I hope that you take away from my comments is as follows:
Inasmuch as this committee can and should identify changes that might be made to (1) improve the culture at Global Affairs Canada, (2) to improve the experience of Canadian representatives abroad, and (3) to improve the ability of the Canadian foreign service to advance the national interest, I suspect that there will be serious limitations to the impact of your practical recommendations.
The challenge, as I see it, is more fundamental: too many of Canada’s political leaders no longer revere diplomacy, in its traditional form, as critical to the promotion and defence of Canada’s interests on the world stage.
It follows that the most important thing this committee can do is articulate, profoundly, a unifying vision of the role of diplomacy in Canadian foreign policy.
To explain how I have arrived at this conclusion, my comments will proceed as follows:
I’ll begin by explaining how the diplomatic process is supposed to work by providing an anecdote about the history of Canadian trade policy.
I’ll then outline how the lack of national consensus on the role of diplomacy in Canada’s foreign policy toolkit undermines the government’s approach to managing its diplomatic operation, which in turn undermines Global Affairs Canada as a national institution.
- How It’s Supposed to Work: A Very Brief History of Canadian Trade Policy
In 1932, the Canadian government hosted an Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa. Initially, the Conservative government of RB Bennett saw Canadian diplomats and trade negotiators as an impediment to his, and Canada’s, success.
In 1930, Bennett even said to the deputy minister of foreign affairs: “I’m not going to have you monkeying with this business. It is for the Prime Minister’s office and not for External Affairs to run these conferences.”
But the PMO and friendly industrial lobbyists proved to be in well over their heads, and Bennett ultimately had no choice but to empower his expert officials to rescue him from utter humiliation.
The experience caused the prime minister to conclude that trade policy was too complicated to be left to politicians, and too important to be left to industry. The public service, with its technical expertise and its commitment to loyally implementing the government’s agenda, was critical to long term policy success.
Ever since, Canada’s trade policy officials have functioned as among the world’s best.
Canada’s diplomats were similarly respected during much of the Cold War, but not so today.
2. The Lack of National Consensus on the Role of Diplomacy, and by extension diplomats
Contemporary diplomacy has become intertwined with the promotion of the government of the day’s party brand.
Diplomats have less freedom to use their expertise; instead, they are instructed to conform to pan-governmental, partisan norms.
In this context, one can understand why so many career diplomats have been replaced by partisan appointees.
Similarly, as diplomacy has become yet another a tool of political marketing controlled by the proverbial Centre, there has been less need for stability in the position of foreign minister; significant foreign policy decisions are made by the Prime Minister’s Office anyway.
3. Government-level Outcomes
This political environment explains how some of the very real problems identified by previous witnesses have come to be.
None of Canada’s 11 foreign ministers (2 acting) who have served in the position over the last 15 years have had either the power or the time in the portfolio necessary to provide Canada, and its diplomats, with real leadership.
As a result, successive governments have neglected to recognize and respond to two critical adminstrative failures that have decimated departmental morale at Global Affairs Canada:
- excessive partisan diplomatic appointments; and
- the appointment of a series of deputy ministers who have lacked the overseas experience necessary to lead a unique cohort of officials whose intrinsic motivation to serve bears little resemblance to that of the typical Canadian public servant.
4. Department-level Outcomes
As others have already testified, these failures have informed a departmental culture that is increasingly risk averse and an internal promotions structure that fails to reward diplomatic expertise, whether that be linguistic ability, cultural sensitivity, or merely the wisdom that comes from the combination of international experience, longevity, and specialization.
5. A Way Ahead
Where do we go from here?
I applaud this committee’s commitment to documenting the current state of affairs.
But I also encourage you to seek consensus around the role of diplomacy in advancing Canada’s national interests.
Without it, I fear that real, sustainable change at Global Affairs Canada will remain out of reach.
Canadian Forces College / Royal Military College of Canada
Ottawa, 20 October 2022
You can find a recording of the proceedings here.