Seven foreign policy wishes for Canada’s new government

We asked Canadian diplomats to name the most important changes or elements for Canada’s foreign policy going forward. With Liberal Justin Trudeau elected as Prime Minister on Oct. 19, this wish list is now in his hands.

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20 October, 2015
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau gives his victory speech after Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

1. Repair the North American community and Canada’s reputation

— Jeremy Kinsman, former Ambassador to Russia, Italy, the European Union and Canadian High Commissioner to the UK

Justin Trudeau said in his debut campaign foreign policy speech he will rebuild mutual political confidence and cooperation at the top in Canada-U.S. relations, without jeopardizing our identity and national character. He aims to use President Obama’s remaining time to advance the case and support for strengthening our North American neighbourhood including Mexico, in ways that that can hopefully carry through to Obama’s successor.

In a more competitive and arguably less friendly world, North American partners can reinforce synergies for the 21st century, not just in our interests but as a cooperative example for the international community logjammed on vital overarching transnational issues like the climate change/energy swirl. The big test of our credentials will be the Paris climate change conference in December where I hope to see Canada again actively in the forefront of nations working for productive international outcomes, instead of hunkering down in disapproving isolation.

My lyrical wish is that travellers again will wander around the world with maple leaf flags on their backpacks. Until a decade ago, this was a sign the bearer (not always Canadian) identified with our earned reputation for interested outreach and aspirational commitment to international problem-solving. 

That emblem channeled to less fortunate peoples Canada’s exemplary record of tolerance and inclusivity. Our balance was knocked off course by xenophobic and divisive government tactics in this election campaign. I wish us success in repairing the hurt so we recover our balance and re-engage internationally and backpack maple leaves are again badges of honour.

2. Be credible and coherent

— Anne Leahy, former Ambassador to Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Poland, Russia, the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Holy See

Canada’s relevance as a credible nation is the best protection for our interests and the best contribution to making the world a better place. Our voice counts when the world sees that our way of living works. It’s not about military assets or relative economic weight. It’s about good governance, socially caring policies and respectful society.

Coherence between policies at home and our stance in international fora is a pre-requisite to our influence in the world. A government that disrespects the foundations of its own country, such as Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Public Service, and that has no regard for independent sources of evidence loses the respect of its partners.

A federal government must work in partnership with First Nations, provinces and cities towards a healthy and secure environment at home. This increases the credibility of its advocacy for global policies e.g. on migrants, minorities, resources management and nation-rebuilding. 

Our strengths are also our vulnerabilities and we need to build alliances to preserve our assets. Obvious ones include a welcoming society, the integrity of our northern territory, preserving our large share of the world’s water resources and the creation of the post-carbon economy. We need to build alliances and we need the protection of the international legal system, just as we believe in the rule of law at home.

Acting as if the world presented two-dimensional good-bad choices is simplistic and not sustainable.  Understanding the complexity of issues and the need for open channels of communication as actors and issues do evolve is a strength that Canadian diplomacy has contributed internationally. Restoring the wherewithal to the professional diplomatic service is a must. Investing our diplomatic efforts in what works and making it work impacts on Canadian well-being as each one of the global issues mentioned affects us.

3. Be a better ally — to China, the U.S., the UN, and others

— David Wright, former Ambassador to Spain and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Canada and its economy depend on the health and stability of the rest of the world. We must always strive for a relationship of deep friendship and trust with the United States. We must also be consistent in our ties with China, the dynamic Number Two power in the world. Both of these relationships require the direct personal involvement of the Prime Minister.  

We must also engage the world more effectively through multilateral diplomacy. I would like to see our new government embrace multilateral institutions, an approach sadly lacking in recent years. We should be highly visible at, and supportive of, the United Nations. With all its imperfections, the UN is still the indispensible body for world affairs. We should carry our weight at NATO and in the G7, matching words with deeds and resources. Canada has been a laggard on issues like climate change and Syrian refugees.  This is so uncharacteristic of our wealthy country and its generous and sophisticated population. 

In implementing this new focus in our foreign policy, I would like to see a restoration of our professional Foreign Service. We should be inspired by the legacy and courage of Ken Taylor. For years now, our ambassadors have been silenced and our government has discounted and discouraged professional foreign policy advice. Short-term political gain with targeted interest groups has trumped a clearheaded assessment of our national interests based on our well-established values. We must invest the resources, financial and human, to make a difference on international security, combating poverty, supporting human rights, promoting trade and sustaining our global environment. 

The role of the Prime Minister is crucial, not to micromanage talking points for the whole government, but to establish personal relationships that matter when our interests are at stake. Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien all understood this and Canada benefited as a consequence.

 Canada is an important player in world affairs. We must send a clear and early signal that “Canada is back.”

4. Bring back Canada’s pluralist tradition

— Jillian Stirk, former Ambassador to Norway

Foreign policy is the face we show to the world. It says something about who we are, our values, and our vision for the future. So what might a new foreign policy look like?  My hope is for a foreign policy that draws on Canada’s tradition of pluralism, that sees pluralism as a foreign policy asset, and a form of soft power. 

Pluralism—the willingness to embrace differences—is a fundamental Canadian value, even if from time to time it comes under threat.  Our pluralism is a unique Canadian story admired by others, and a model for those grappling with issues of governance or human rights. Pluralism serves as a magnet for investment and talent, both of which are increasingly important in a competitive global economy.

Pluralism is also at the heart of multilateral diplomacy. For years, Canada leveraged influence through multilateral organizations, advancing ideas and interests, while respecting differences and building consensus to achieve common goals. I recall from my time at the United Nations and at NATO, it was often Canada who could cut through the idée fixe, or sometimes the amour propre, to find solutions. Those instincts are still there, even if they haven’t been much on display in recent years. With international institutions under pressure to change and respond to new challenges and dynamics, there is a tremendous opportunity to put Canada back at the centre of the multilateral agenda.  

Canadians, and especially young Canadians, are more connected than ever, through ease of travel, work and study opportunities, and the technologies that link people and ideas around the world. A foreign policy rooted in pluralism would engage the more and more Canadians who are building global networks and advancing our interests in an increasingly diverse world. Foreign policy and diplomacy are no longer the purview of politicians and diplomats. Business people, foundations, scientists, aid workers, and our cultural icons are all shaping the world in ways we had not imagined, building bridges and contributing to the millions of interactions that make up international relations.

If Canada is to advance its values and defend its interests, Canadians need to embrace globalization and global citizenship in a way we have not yet done.  We must harness our diversity and learn to see transnational identity as an asset not a liability. We must find ways to push the next generation out into the world to develop new skills and build intercultural fluency. 

My hope is that the new government will see our diversity and the value of pluralism as a springboard to the world.  No longer turned inward, this is the time to seize the moment and offer a new vision of internationalism, and an ambitious, inclusive definition of who we are and what we aspire to be.  

5. Loosen the grip on DFATD

— Glenn Davidson, former Ambassador to Syria and Afghanistan

My observation lies not in any specific sector of Canada’s foreign policy, or what any of these are or perhaps should be, but rather in the fundamental issue of how foreign policy is managed. Simply stated, the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development has been marginalized and weakened for several years. This does not serve Canada well, as the Department has an enormous depth of talent, knowledge, competence and experience. 

I sincerely hope that the next government of Canada will appreciate the value of this Department, loosen the grip of ‘The Centre’ on the management and conduct of foreign policy and allow the responsible Department to fully resume its normal role.  

As part of this, Departmental and other political staff should, of course, respect their role in advising and supporting their Ministers and avoid direct intervention in Departmental operations. 

6. Unmuzzle our diplomats

— Chris Westdal, former Ambassador to Ireland, Russia, Ukraine, the United Nations, South Africa and Bangladesh

I hope that our new government will be not only more progressive than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have been, but also more conservative, with more respect for established institutions — whether parliamentary, judicial, civil, scientific or governmental — including that old establishment, the Canadian foreign service.

I hope that the wounds a decade of abuse has inflicted on our diplomatic corps will be healed, that our diplomats will be unmuzzled and unblinkered at headquarters and in the field, that our diplomatic capabilities will be revived and sustained, playing more to our strengths in the world — and doing more of our duty there.

I hope as well that our new government will look beyond the particular outlooks of ethnic diasporas to conceive and to serve national Canadian foreign interests with better balanced, more constructive foreign policy and action, including renewed cooperation with international organizations, especially the UN.  

Such rehabilitation will require material resources for DFATD capital and operating budgets at home and abroad. More important, whatever the funding, it will require change in attitudes at the top: less ideological certitude; more probing questions, fewer preconceived answers; and above all more respect for public servants devoting their professional lives to the provision of sound, non-partisan advice.

7. Completely reform Canada’s foreign service (and, here’s how)

— Colin Robertson, former Consul-General in Los Angeles, Vice-Consul in New York, Consul in Hong Kong, and current vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute 

I wish that the next Government spend money and effort to revive and reform Canada’s Foreign Service. In recent years, Canada’s global engagement — defence, development and diplomacy — has declined.

In the post-war period Canada’s Foreign Service was the best in the world. ‘Pearsonian diplomacy,’ as it came to be known, was creative, flexible and innovative.

Under the direction of successive liberal internationalist governments, Liberal and Progressive Conservative, Canadian diplomacy defined the terms ‘helpful fixer’ and ‘bridge-builder’ first through constructive architecture of institutions — notably the United Nations and its alphabet soup of agencies and the Bretton Woods financial institutions. Housed with the Prime Minister in East Block until it moved to the Pearson Building (1973) the Foreign Service enjoyed a special relationship with every Prime Minister but John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper.

Members of the service were regularly seconded to the Office of the Prime Minister: serving Brian Mulroney as chief of staff (Derek Burney), speechwriter (e.g. Paul Heinbecker), press secretary (Marc Lortie). On major initiatives, notably the human security agenda of Jean Chretien and Lloyd Axworthy, the Foreign Service delivered on the Land Mines Treaty and International Criminal Court. 

That the RCMP is now called in to investigate Foreign Affairs over the unprofessional leak—reported on the eve of the recent Munk foreign policy election debate in September—of a classified transition document arguing that Canada’s influence “has declined or is under threat,” is indicative of a relationship between the Harper government and its foreign service that is best characterized as ‘mutual contempt.’

While the Harper government bears most responsibility for this condition, the Foreign Service itself needs both revival and reform.

Looking back nostalgically to the Pearsonian golden years would be a mistake. That era is over. Diplomacy needs to change and adapt.

Our allies, notably New Zealand, are experimenting with different ways to do foreign service using applied technologies, fixed term contracts, single assignments and more partnerships for delivery of services. In an era of wikileaks and distrust of Government, there must be greater emphasis on ‘public diplomacy.’ Let our ambassadors experiment: applying social media and developing best practices.

As for the Foreign Service, start with a look at its terms and conditions — a root and branch examination from recruitment to retirement. The last examination, begun under Prime Minister Joe Clark and implemented by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was conducted during the Cold War. For a model on how to conduct this examination, look to the Task Force on Canada’s role in Afghanistan, chaired by former Foreign Minister John Manley — short, sharp and focused.

A renewed Foreign Service should include continuous training, a balance between generalist and specialist, and the recognition that empathy, adaptability and teamwork are essential traits.

Consider the following:

  • Demands on the foreign service will always outstrip resources and budgets. Events happen and we need to be prepared. We need to prioritize, partner when possible and find our niche. 
  • With the return of multi-polarity, international institutions needs re-examination. What memberships work for us? Are we in the ones that count?
  • We depend even more on international trade and recent agreements now need follow-through so that we reap the benefits. Can we more closely integrate the Trade Commissioner Service with, for example, the Export Development Corporation? And how does development assistance fit into the equation?
  • Reflecting our growing pluralism at home through global immigration, the Canadian diaspora has expanded significantly and it should be better utilized to advance Canadian interests abroad.
  • We also need to pay more attention to consular assistance and the implications of dual citizenship, most recently illustrated by the Mohammed Fahmy case.
  • The number of active international players — provinces, business, civil society — has greatly expanded. How can we better market our educational services and shouldn’t we resurrect reciprocal youth leadership programs?
  • So too has the playing field. While issues of peace and security — hostile, failed and failing states — are still vital, we now need applied expertise on mass migration, climate change, terrorism, space and cyber, pandemics and crime, agribusiness and energy, the Arctic. How do we develop and import expertise?
  • We need to do diplomacy differently and adjust according to local conditions. Selling off the official residences — which should be platforms for advancing Canadian interests — should be reconsidered. Presence is important recognizing that one size does not fit all. We need a thousand points of contact: using honourary consuls and mini-posts. We should shift the balance of deployments from headquarters to the field.
  • Within Ottawa the Foreign Service needs to define its role with other government departments and especially with the National Security Advisor and what is becoming a de facto National Security Council. We need to resurrect the cabinet system to give direction and coordinate and manage the intersect between the agencies responsible for diplomacy, defence, and development.  
  • Hard and soft power are both essential. Diplomacy is much cheaper than the application of military muscle. While military muscle can stabilize a situation and underlines deterrence, diplomacy is best suited to achieving political solutions and reconciliation.

Canadians’ sense of self draws from what we do and how we are perceived beyond our borders. For the next government there will be many opportunities for re-engagement in responsible global citizenship while at the same time advancing national interests. To do so requires a Foreign Service that is ready and able for action.

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