What to expect from new ambassadors out of Canada and the United States

As Canada and the U.S. change up key diplomatic appointments, Colin Robertson lays out the challenges — and opportunities — for today’s diplomats.

By: /
24 January, 2017
New U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman speaks to journalists after presenting his credentials at Rideau Hall in Ottawa April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
By: Colin Robertson
Vice President and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

The recent appointment of John McCallum as Canada’s ambassador to China and the recall of all of Obama’s political appointees has put the role of the diplomat back into the spotlight.

The McCallum appointment by the Trudeau government is a smart move.

An increasingly confident China believes it is due the same respect as the United States. It is no secret that the Chinese wanted an envoy commensurate with our ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton. A confidante of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, MacNaughton has close relationships within the Prime Minister’s Office, the cabinet and the Liberal Party, as well as deep knowledge and experience in governing and managing strategic relations with the private and public sector.

Likewise, as an experienced parliamentarian and senior cabinet minister who held diverse portfolios, including Citizenship and Immigration and Defence, and as former RBC Chief Economist, McCallum has place and standing. His family connections to Asia, through his wife, Nancy Lim, herself an immigrant to Canada, are not lost on the Chinese.  

With the appointment of McCallum, Canada raises the likelihood of the as-yet unnamed new Chinese ambassador to Canada having the confidence of President Xi Jinping and the senior party leadership. 

The previous Chinese ambassador, Luo Zhaohui, was cross-posted from Ottawa to New Delhi last year. Now the ball is in the Chinese court to appoint a replacement. 

McCallum will likely arrive with a mandate to negotiate a closer economic relationship with Canada. From the Chinese perspective, their asks will include better access to our resources, especially energy and agriculture, as well as improved investment access for Chinese state-owned enterprises. We have to ensure McCallum has a clear mandate on what the Canadian asks are.

A new U.S. ambassador in Canada

As Canada attempts to strengthen its ambassador appointments, the major U.S. embassies await new appointments from President Donald Trump. (Some are starting to be made, notably Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) 

Former president Barack Obama followed convention in asking his appointees, on the day after the Nov. 8 election, for their resignation, to coincide with his own last day in office (Jan. 20). George W. Bush had done the same with his political appointees. Trump’s decision to accept the resignations of all the political appointees named as ambassador by Obama — about one-third of U.S. top envoys, including most of those to the G7 and G20 nations — should have come as no surprise.

And so, just days before last week’s inauguration in Washington, U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and his wife Vicki bid farewell to Canada at an elegantly friendly reception at the U.S. Embassy on Sussex Drive. 

Ambassador Heyman, a former Goldman Sachs executive from Chicago and an early supporter of then-Senator Obama, spoke to the accomplishments of the Obama administration, including his own work as ambassador. He underlined the trade, people-to-people relations and cultural diplomacy in which Vicki Heyman took a lead role. Ambassador Heyman spoke, for example, to the pre-clearance agreement to expedite passage of goods and people across the border. When positioned well, this is what ambassadors do.

Heyman’s successor as ambassador is likely to be of a similar mould: someone who has the confidence of Trump. U.S. ambassadors require Senate confirmation and this can take some time. In the interim, the chargé d’affaires will be the deputy chief of mission, Elizabeth Aubin, a career foreign service officer.

From the Canadian perspective, a political appointee is a good thing: an ambassador with the personal confidence of the president, who can pick up the phone and get through to the White House or cabinet secretaries and agency heads. Canada has been fortunate in having a run of political ambassadors who understand the levers of power and know how to get things done. 

What kind of ambassador will Trump choose? 

If history is a guide, then it is likely to be someone with a business or political background.

Obama’s ambassadors to Canada, David Jacobson and Bruce Heyman, were both from the private sector in Chicago. 

George W. Bush named experienced politicians: Paul Cellucci, a former Massachusetts governor, and then David Wilkins, a former Speaker in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Bill Clinton’s choices were a blend: Jim Blanchard, a former governor of Michigan, and then Gordon Giffin, an Atlanta lawyer, organizer and member of Clinton’s electoral college.

All of them were effective representatives for their president. Canada-U.S. relations were well served. While none of them were career diplomats, they quickly adapted to the diplomatic role.

Doing diplomacy in a tech-savvy world

Canada’s senior men and women in the field — ambassadors and high commissioners, consuls general and consuls — are mostly career diplomats.

While the professional foreign service still provides the backbone for our representation abroad, our diplomats increasingly come from a variety of backgrounds — other government departments, our Armed Forces and the private sector. This diversity gives us additional depth and necessary bench-strength.

While the ability to listen, analyze and report in a timely fashion has not changed, advocacy, increasingly public, is now an essential skill. Our diplomats need to use the tools of social media — notably Facebook and Twitter — to get the job done. In one of his first instructions, Trudeau encouraged our diplomats to use these tools. Canada’s foreign service should aspire to, once again, become a leader in public diplomacy. 

Successful diplomats need be comfortable with public diplomacy.

Canada once led in public diplomacy, as Evan Potter describes in his book, Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power Through Public Diplomacy. We can lead again by developing the kinds of skills that Daryl Copeland outlines in his book, Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations. 

The Canadian Embassy ‘tailgate’ party around the Trump inauguration is a good example of outreach. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and cabinet colleagues entertained the 1800 plus guests from the three branches and different levels of governments as well as those who make Washington work — the lawyers and lobbyists.

Public advocacy involving a Team Canada approach, not just in Washington but in all 50 states, will be necessary if we are to safeguard our interests as Trump puts “America first.”

For centuries diplomats had a near monopoly on analysis and there was time for reflection. But with the coming of the fax (Tiananmen Square) and global broadcast (the CNN effect around the first Gulf War), cheap and digital telephony (Skype, Facetime etc.) and the Internet, there is now a diversity of sources.

Today, the question is the reliability of sources. This puts pressure on our diplomats to ascertain what is true and what is false and, in the glut of information, to parse between what is noise and what is truly relevant.

Protocols, politesse and tête-à-tête with official interlocutors still have their place but successful diplomats also need be comfortable with public diplomacy.

This means developing the skills of a good saloon-keeper and impresario. It also takes creativity. Increasingly diplomats are expected to deliver a champagne-class event on a beer budget.

Aside from the requisite analytical skills, what also has not changed is a familiarity and comfort with foreign cultures, knowledge of languages, and especially empathy with one’s host nation. Adaptability has always been a necessary characteristic. And in a world in disarray, diplomacy matters more than ever.

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