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The sorry state of Canada’s foreign policy debate

Master buzzwords and be rewarded — is that the Canadian way? A call for more substance and innovative thinking in policy discussions and practice

By: /
7 August, 2015
Valerie Percival
By: Valerie Percival
Associate professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

Much of the debate about foreign policy is directed towards the elected government, and the political positions it takes on current international issues. These positions deserve public debate and scrutiny, particularly given the upcoming October election. But what about the machinery behind the elected government? Much of foreign policy actually revolves around the day-to-day performance of unelected leaders within the bureaucracy. Do we encourage these leaders to develop and maintain skills – the knowledge base, the willingness to assess available research and evidence, and the intellectual curiosity necessary to be innovative in the face of new challenges? Perhaps this should also be an issue for debate during our election campaign.


To effectively teach in the field of international affairs, professors face several challenges. The field covers pretty much everything these days, from the traditional — conflict, security, trade, and development — to the more novel — health, environment, energy, finance, and more. The field is also prolific; new ideas and ways to view the world constantly emerge. Moreover, the world itself continually changes — the unexpected is always around the corner and tomorrow will not be like today. Explaining current events can be difficult. Yet explanation is definitely easier than predicting what will happen next year, or even next week.

Such fluidity and complexity sets international affairs apart from other disciplines. My brother is a Professor of Horticulture. Plants are a little more predictable than people, so his syllabus for Plant Physiology doesn’t change much from year to year. In programs like his, material taught in the classroom is of immediate relevance when graduates enter the workforce. Not necessarily so in International Affairs. Our objective is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

To build the foreign policy leaders of tomorrow, professors must therefore strive to address the complicated relationship between the academy and the real world. We must teach the basics in methods and theory, and show students that these are not boring pre-requisites for graduation, but tools to create better policies. For example, understanding the complexities of health systems will contribute to improved Canadian development programs. Being aware of the various dilemmas of humanitarian assistance will allow Canadian engagement to be more effective in conflict environments. Building a strong foundation in theories of conflict prevention and management will guide Canadian diplomacy in fragile states.

By the time our students graduate, we hope they recognize that while they can’t always predict what will happen in the future, they will have the analytical ability to understand it. We want our graduates to believe that this analysis can contribute to better policies to help build a better world. Politics and stupidity inject themselves into policy processes all the time. Despite that, our students should be well positioned to advance their careers when they keep abreast of relevant research and debates, acquire knowledge through experience, and maintain their intellectual curiosity.

Yet are we deluding our students? And ourselves? I’m beginning to think so. Discussion about foreign policy has focused on the Harper government’s positions – which is obviously important. But few students will run for political office, while many will be engaged in the daily foreign policy grind – developing and implementing various elements of Canada’s global policy. And many will be disheartened by what they find.

I’m fortunate to currently live in Mozambique, a recipient of millions of dollars in development assistance, including from Canada, and the site of anticipated wealth from future natural gas development. Given that practitioners are on the front line of policy implementation, I expected discussion on the ground to reflect, and be more advanced than, the debates raging in foreign policy publications. I anticipated I would hear views on how to avoid the resource curse; how to achieve more equitable economic growth; how to navigate the influence of the BRICs; how to build government capacity and not empower a parasitic elite; how to ensure that civil society is not left behind in the era of the Paris Principles; how to balance the need for primary and secondary education while simultaneously developing the tertiary training necessary for Mozambicans to engage in the global economy; the causes and implications of Mozambique’s lack of demographic transition, and much more.

I have been disappointed. Most development talk is about management processes, not substance. Log frames and tracking money and accountability mechanisms and approval processes. Analysis is out-sourced: Canada’s contribution focuses on the administration, rather than the design, of development assistance. We have become dependent on multilateral agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and consultants to provide the content of our programs. Instead of encouraging our leaders to demonstrate expertise to direct our engagement, we stifle them with paperwork to manage that engagement.

While management tools are widely embraced, some like-minded countries still cultivate and reward expertise. At the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), a friend explained that she needed to pass a test to prove her competency in development economics prior to promotion. The health sector is the same – DFID experts advance based on their knowledge of health and health systems. USAID experts introduce innovations such as randomized control trials in development programming. Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, despite limited resources, also seem to punch above their weight, ensuring their officials master their sector of engagement and embrace innovation.

Not so in Canada.

Years ago when working for the government on HIV, I applied for a position on African health systems. The Director who interviewed me later complained that I discussed health systems financing, human resource challenges, pharmaceutical procurement, and managing the role of the private sector, rather than the Paris Principles. I demonstrated too much knowledge of substance and too little knowledge of multilateral processes. I assumed competency in health systems was an important pre-requisite for the job, and my work on HIV demonstrated that I could navigate complicated multilateral messes with the best of them. I didn’t get the job – which turned out for the best – but the experience was revealing.

Our public service seems to value people who can master process. What you actually accomplish with that process is not so important. Build a Canadian mission from the ground up, work in difficult posts, spearhead policy consultations with global experts, implement a successful social media strategy and effectively utilize social media tools to advance Canadian interests, be innovative with your ideas or resources, effectively lead a team – none of that seems to count for career advancement. Master management buzzwords, feed the process machine, engage in relentless self-promotion, and you’ll be rewarded.

Given this environment, should professors at Canadian schools of international affairs throw our hands in the air? Should we advise our students to head to business schools to beef up on their management knowledge? Stop their subscriptions to Foreign Policy and focus their attention on the Harvard Business Review?

No. All leaders must understand effective management techniques, to ensure efficiency and value for money. But management tools were developed to facilitate the implementation of ideas, not as a replacement for them. Management processes are instruments, not the end goal.

Canada is a G7 country. We should demand foreign policy knowledge from our foreign policy professionals. The executive cadre that implements Canada’s foreign policy needs to be ready and willing to engage in intellectual debates on key foreign policy issues. The incentive structure must exist to reward innovation, creativity, knowledge and experience, not just management rhetoric.

How do we create this incentive structure? Perhaps we – the academy – are part of the problem. Perhaps some of us are not sufficiently provocative, we do not confront Canada’s foreign policy leadership – both elected and non-elected – with our opinions and advice. Perhaps we don’t want to offend – Ottawa is like a small town, government tentacles are far-reaching, and memories are long.

But as a wise friend once told me, where there is no light, there is no shadow. Let’s up the ante. We have an election coming up in October. Now is the time to inject a rigorous discussion of foreign policy into our public discourse – not just for officials vying for votes, but also for our unelected foreign policy leaders.

To do my part, in the pre-election period I will write about the following topics: How should Canada approach global health challenges? How can Canada help ensure that the world never again responds as slowly and ineptly to an outbreak like Ebola? Does our approach to maternal and child health match the evidence base? How could Canada play a more active role to protect the rights of women and girls? And how can Canada promote more equitable development in Africa?

I challenge my colleagues, as well as students, at schools of international affairs to do the same. There are many forums to air your ideas – institutional blogs, online publications such as this one, and opinion pages. In your subject area, promote a debate on future directions for foreign policy. Cast a few shadows. Have a little fun in the process.

And we’ll hopefully inject more substance into our foreign policy debates and practice.

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

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