To me, given (1) how little room Ottawa has to manoeuvre in the international realm; (2) the difficulty opposition parties inevitably face in explaining how they would do things differently without access to the top secret intelligence that only Canadian governments receive; and (3) the need to include the views of non-Canadians in any credible assessment of Ottawa’s global posture, I don’t see how we can anticipate the serious foreign policy debate called for by a number of experts during an election.
Take the current effort to rescue Afghans fleeing the Taliban, for example.
It’s easy to criticize what the Globe’s John Ibbitson has called the “debacle in Kabul,” but it’s near impossible for the Conservatives or New Democrats to explain exactly what they might have done differently.
Similarly, every reasonable political party is going to be concerned with China’s rise as an illiberal state; with Russia’s cyber aggression; and with a nuclear-armed North Korea’s instability.
But Canada cannot respond to such challenges on its own, and Canadian foreign policy will inevitably be shaped by the positions of our most significant allies.
To be fair, I applaud the Conservatives for identifying critical minerals, money laundering, and an international corruption court as policy priorities.
It’s unusual for an opposition party to acknowledge some of the less flashy global issues that face Canadians today.
But again, it’s hard for me to believe that they would tackle them much differently than the Liberals. (Indeed, without a commitment to increase the budget of Global Affairs Canada (GAC), I’m not sure that they could.)
On the other hand, there are at least three foreign policy-related issues over which Canadian governments do have more control, and no party has talked about them at all since the election started:
1. The selection of our foreign minister
Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives employed six foreign ministers over less than ten years.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been no better, with four ministers in less than six.
So both parties have consistently undermined our capacity to build high-level bilateral and multilateral relationships in favour of other political priorities.
2. Ambassadorial appointments
While in Opposition, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives criticized the governing Liberals for reserving senior postings abroad for their friends.
When they took power, however, they accelerated the trend.
At first, the Trudeau Liberals seemed poised to reinvigorate the diplomatic corps. Most of the Harper patronage appointees were replaced by career public officials.
But more recently, they, too, have chosen partisans for Canada’s most notable international postings.
Erin O’Toole’s failure to condemn the move suggests to me that a new Conservative government would likely mean more of the same.
So both parties appear to underestimate the value of the expertise that career officials – and Canada’s are among the world’s best – have to offer.
3. The management of our diplomatic corps
The Harper government’s attitude towards Canada’s foreign policy specialists was contemptuous.
Embassies were shut, budgets were slashed, and officials were silenced, leading to a wave of early retirements and a persistent decline in morale.
The Trudeau Liberals’ sins have been less deliberate, but equally devastating.
Today, GAC is led by four deputy ministers, only one of whom (to the best of my understanding) has formal diplomatic experience in a posting abroad, and he been working in Ottawa since 2012. [Note: The original version of this post suggested that none of the four deputy ministers had ever served abroad. I thank David Ljunggren for correcting me on Twitter.]
While I recognize the need for deputies who can navigate political Ottawa, given the unique professional culture of our overseas cadre, it behooves any responsible government to ensure the presence of at least a couple of officials with experience deploying on Canada’s behalf at GAC's highest levels.
Indeed, GAC personnel cite a lack of empathy from their superiors as a reason for their personal and professional dissatisfaction.
I don’t expect that the O'Toole Conservatives would do better.
Page 97 of their platform rightly commits to addressing “the challenges of deployments and postings,” felt by military families, but it says nothing about the similar difficulties faced by foreign service officers.
In sum, Canada is not a great power. We promote and preserve our interests on the world stage through skilled diplomacy, which has traditionally been made possible by treating our foreign policy mandarins with the respect they have earned.
Such reverence has all but vanished under successive Liberal and Conservative governments, and I see no indication that it will be returning any time soon.
So if we’re going to talk about foreign policy during the final days of this election, let’s talk about that.
For a summary of some of the defence and security issues that our next government will inevitably face, take a look at this press release from the CDA Institute. If you read French, Jocelyn Coulon is one of the few journalists with a history of taking foreign policy seriously. He generally writes for La Presse.
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