In its heyday in the post-Second World War era, its active members included Canada’s most prominent foreign policy analysts and practitioners; it housed the best Canadian foreign policy library in the country; and it was (and remains) the publisher of International Journal, this country’s premier scholarly periodical in the field.
(Disclosure: I used to edit International Journal, and currently sit on its editorial board.)
The CIC has had its ups and downs, but under the direction of the former diplomat Ben Rowswell, it appears determined to reassert itself as “a platform for citizens to engage in discussions on international issues.”
To that end, the organization recently joined with the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health and Global Canada to launch Foreign Policy by Canadians, “the largest deliberative democracy exercise in our country’s history.”
(For more on deliberative democracy, see here.)
Between March and April of this year, almost 450 Canadians were assembled into 39 online groups and spent 8-12 hours discussing Canada and its place in the world.
Most of their priorities appear to be largely consistent with Ottawa’s: more funding for the military and for international assistance; a greater focus on the Arctic and on cyber security; an embrace of digital innovation.
(The full results of the exercise can be found here.)
I am quite concerned, however, by how they propose to pay for these investments.
“Canadians were markedly more uncertain about the value of diplomacy,” reads the report. Apparently, many would consider closing embassies to save money.
The report writers summarize the position tactfully: “citizens prefer to focus on the ends and not the means of foreign policy.”
Such a posture is fine in theory, but it becomes a real problem when a plane containing 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents is shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Ottawa lacks an embassy on the ground to coordinate the national response.
As the University of Ottawa’s Thomas Juneau noted at the time: “Without an embassy, it [was] more difficult for Canadian officials to support victims’ families, communicate with Iranian officials, cooperate with allies in Tehran, and gather information essential for optimal decision-making.”
Great powers can occasionally get away with ignoring the means of foreign policy. In a crisis, they can use their overwhelming strength to impose their will and manage the ramifications later.
Countries of Canada’s size and stature don’t have that option.
We are therefore best served by a system of international rules and laws that must be cultivated and maintained.
Embassies (and consulates and missions) not only coordinate expressions of Canadian national interests abroad, they also enable our diplomats to defend the system of global governance upon which we so depend.
We need officials positioned around the world to gather intelligence, to build relationships, and to identify emerging threats to the international system.
Relying on the generosity of other states to create so-called efficiencies is not only petty, it also risks compromising Canada’s capacity to effect change in the evolving international order.
In sum, I applaud the CIC for its efforts to bring more Canadians into the foreign policy conversation, but I deeply regret that so many seem to have emerged from their discussions without a proper appreciation for the critical work of our officials from Global Affairs Canada.
If Canada’s minister of foreign affairs draws anything from Foreign Policy by Canadians, it should be that his department is failing to articulate its value to Canadians writ large.
That has to change.
I cover a good portion of the history of the Canadian International Council in my biography of John Wendell Holmes. Holmes was the driving force behind what was then the CIIA throughout the 1960s and 1970s. For a depressing assessment of morale in the US State Department, see this Foreign Policy article by Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. I fear that the situation in Ottawa is not that different from the one they describe.
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