Oliphant noted that the personal relationships that Minister Champagne had established with his ministerial counterpart and officials in Morocco during a visit in January was critical to GAC’s ability to help more than 1,000 Canadians stranded there get home.
According to Oliphant, his own and Prime Minister Trudeau’s personal visits to Ethiopia earlier this year were similarly critical to GAC’s successful efforts to arrange flights out of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
It's worth recalling that those visits to Africa were initially controversial. Critics suggested that the Trudeau government was engaged in a vanity project to secure a seat on the UN Security Council.
In this context, Oliphant’s revelations illustrate not just the importance of effective diplomacy, but also the challenge of making that importance clear to the Canadian public.
Particularly in times of crisis, international relations is all about personal relationships. Our diplomats use the capital they have accumulated through their relationship-building efforts to advance and defend the national interest.
Put another way, world leaders don’t have a lot of time for favours during a pandemic. If you need something from them, and they don’t already know you, it’s probably too late.
The problem when it comes to building public support for diplomacy is that best diplomatic practices are a lot like insurance: the costs (embassies, receptions, official visits) are clear immediately, but the benefits are only incurred later, and typically when the average Canadian is too preoccupied to appreciate the work that was necessary to produce them.
To make matters worse, contemporary populist movements have promoted a disdain for elites and their expertise. Many Canadians have been conditioned to question the purpose and value of our diplomats and their efforts.
Nonetheless, diplomacy has proven time and again that it can save lives.
When we face the financial reckoning that is sure to arise in Ottawa when this pandemic is finally over, let’s hope that the critical work of Global Affairs Canada in getting so many stranded Canadians home is not forgotten.
The most convincing essay I’ve read on the value of diplomacy was written by the novelist and humourist, Sondra Gotlieb, as a chapter in Diplomacy in the Digital Age, a quasi-academic collection dedicated to her now late husband Allan, one of Canada’s foremost 20th century diplomats.
If you do take a look at the book, be sure to also check out “Professionals and amateurs in the diplomacy of the age of information,” by one of our finest scholars, Denis Stairs.
And a shout-out to the University of Toronto’s Brendan Kelly. His book, The Good Fight: Marcel Cadieux and Canadian Diplomacy was just awarded the 2020 Dafoe Prize, recognizing “the best book on Canada, Canadians, and/or Canada’s place in the world.”
Cadieux was another one of Canada’s great diplomats. His own book, The Canadian Diplomat, is another tremendous resource.
If those books aren’t enough, you can find some of mine here, here, or here.
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