Why Diplomacy Matters More Than Ever

Daryl Copeland reflects on the prospects for public diplomacy at a time when DFAIT has become rather undiplomatic.

By: /
14 January, 2013
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

A burning platform

London cabbies are a great source of received wisdom. Over the past several years, whenever an opportunity has arisen, I have queried them about the reputation of diplomacy in general, and their impressions of diplomats in particular.

Their answers bring to mind cartoon caricatures in pin stripes or pearls, riding high at public expense – and serve as a reminder that any vestigial prestige and mystique once associated with the profession has long since worn off. 

More worrisome is that since at least Chamberlain’s ill-starred visit to Munich in 1938, diplomacy has come to be associated with weakness and appeasement – with caving in to power. In other words, diplomacy’s debilitating image problems are matched by serious misunderstandings concerning the substance of the work.

That said, however misleading the archetypes, popular perceptions of diplomacy are not entirely unfounded. Neither the profession nor its institutions have adjusted well to the exigencies of the globalization age.

It doesn’t help that so few foreign service officers have a clear sense of just how their work fits into the bigger picture. Simply put, diplomacy is a non-violent approach to the management of international relations that relies upon dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. Doing it well requires empathy and understanding, a keen intellect, a capacity for political communication, and a very particular set of personal aptitudes. Book learning may be necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. Adaptability, self-awareness, and life skills, most more easily acquired through world travel than through years of formal education, are crucial.

It took me a few postings – and decades – to develop a real appreciation for diplomacy. No one at DFAIT ever talked about it much. It is not on the curriculum at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute. It is largely ignored by Canadian universities and in the press. Yet the idea of diplomacy should be at the core of most everything that a foreign ministry does.

At DFAIT these days, it seems nothing could be further from the truth. Policy initiatives? Strategic advice? Intelligence generation? Innovative thinking?

No, as we all know a sidelined and marginalized DFAIT spends most of its time talking to itself rather than reaching out at home or abroad. The transactional has triumphed – at great expense.

Rethinking security

Diplomacy is crucial to running our world, but it is in crisis. As in most OECD countries, our political leaders have developed an unfortunate habit of reaching for the gun as the international policy instrument of choice. Defence departments receive the lion’s share of international policy funding, while foreign ministries and development agencies struggle. This makes no sense in light of global circumstances and gives rise to serious distortions and misallocations. Western governments failed to learn the main lesson of the Cold War, namely that militaries work best when they are not used. Take the sword out of the scabbard, and it usually makes a dreadful mess.

Defence is primarily about power. Diplomacy is about influence. Generals and admirals, bombs and guns have their place, but at this point in the 21st century, it should not be centre stage. The most profound threats and challenges engendered by globalization – and in my view religious extremism and political extremism do not make the A-list – are not amenable to coercive military solutions. The best army cannot stop pandemic disease. Air strikes are useless against climate change. Alternatives to the carbon economy cannot be occupied by expeditionary forces.  

The unresolved, transnational issues that today imperil the planet are neither territorial nor ideological. Diminishing biodiversity, resource scarcity and a collapsing physical environment afflict us all. In contrast, the probability that anyone reading this article will be caught up in a terrorist incident is slightly lower than that of drowning in the bathtub.

Bottom line? Security is not a martial art. Under prevailing circumstances, the military is both too sharp, and too dull an international policy instrument. Diplomacy, linked integrally to development, is our best hope.

Greasing the skids…

Prior to the current round of reductions, more people were finally being moved into the field – which was clearly needed. Yet this modest shift was accompanied by a new corporate design intended to migrate certain headquarters functions out to missions, a development which will almost certainly have the unintended but pernicious effect of forcing diplomats to behave even more like international policy bureaucrats. If limited numbers of DFAIT staff are called upon to write background and scenario notes, organize meetings, and provide services not only to travelling Canadians, but also internally, there will be precious little time for actually doing diplomacy. Instead, those posted abroad will be consigned to their offices – exactly where they shouldn’t be – pushing paper and talking to others of their ilk about what might be going on outside. The vital connection to place is wilting on the vine. One colleague commented to me recently that current approach looks like a plan for turning DFAIT’s facilities into a global door mat, and its personnel into a corps of overseas concierges, a slightly refined equivalent of the greeters at Walmart.  

That is a poor substitute for first hand experience, and a formula for turning allegations about the irrelevance of the foreign service into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Substantial policy work has given way to the transactional. This has been expressed through the imposition of reorganizations, regulations, audits, performance and publications reviews, access to information and privacy requests, and so forth. Swathes of time are devoted to tasks such as the preparation of media lines and routine communications, briefing materials, and parliamentary Q&As, not to mention the planning, coordination and implementation of incoming and outgoing visits. The provision of travel advice and consular assistance has become a boom industry in the wake ever more Canadian nationals travelling and living abroad, as has crisis management (SARS, BSE, H1N1, evacuations, natural disasters) in our increasingly inter-connected world. The need to maintain the physical and information technology infrastructure, with special attention to communications security, and to support the employees of other government departments has become a significant resource sink. And while there remains a skeleton crew devoted to policy work and the minimal maintenance of bilateral, multilateral and international legal obligations, today the centre of gravity has clearly shifted.

Whatever their merits, the preponderance of these sorts of activities is eclipsing the high end of DFAIT’s diplomatic potential. It is not so much that the mainstay of the business – relationship management with states, international organizations and global civil society – has disappeared entirely, but rather that it is being lost in the contemporary mix. DFAIT’s network of missions abroad should provide the basis its comparative advantage vis-à-vis other government departments. Instead, local knowledge and regional expertise have been devalued.

The most recent “reform” project, Strategic Review II, whatever the packaging, has proven to be little more than code for further cuts. Resource reduction masquerading as reform is disingenuous, if not dishonest, and in my experience almost never generates positive change.

In pursuing such “reforms”, DFAIT has greased the skids for its long slide down.

…and a case unmade

Part of the responsibility must be borne by those who have held senior management positions. This group was apparently unaware of the need not only to stand up for their country abroad, but – when required – to stand up to their country at home. DFAIT executives, for the good of all, must make their case to decision-makers. The wholesale retreat from public diplomacy (PD) is perhaps the most egregious example of the damage Canada is doing to itself internationally.

DFAIT was once a pioneer and a leader in the PD field. Now, through the imposition of the “Message Event Proposal” pre-clearance requirement in advance of all public communications, DFAIT staff have been effectively gagged. This almost Orwellian requirement is especially debilitating as regards to the use of social media platforms to connect directly with populations. Among the world’s leading foreign ministries, digital, or e-diplomacy is front and centre. Not so in the Pearson Building. Whereas a decade ago DFAIT was way out in front – remember the online Foreign Policy Dialogue? – today it trails the pack internationally.

Clearly, something has been missed. Diplomacy can produce results by fostering genuine dialogue. When fed back into policy formulation and decision-making loops, the fruits of meaningful exchange can affect thinking and behaviour at both ends of the conversation. So it is that differences are narrowed and problems solved. Without the capacity to engage unscripted dialogue, however, diplomacy cannot deliver, and its comparative advantage over competing international policy instruments is lost.

I have seen no indication that this argument was forcefully put at a time when it might have made a difference. So, too, with the failure to articulate and advance a vision for the foreign ministry in the 21st century. Why not leave behind work on files better handled by specialized line departments in order to focus on the large, cross-cutting issues such as climate change, distributive justice and management of the global commons? DFAIT could do something that is no one else’s job,

But that is not on the table. With so much of its budget fenced off or attached to specific programs, across the board reductions such as those contained in the March 2012 Federal Budget can only come from the operating funds. In a department already cut to the bone, this means amputating body parts – staff, missions, representational work, and the terms and conditions of service.

Quite apart from the fact that the economies are false, it is not a formula for engineering a supportive work environment, let alone for doing more and better diplomacy.

So, too with regards to patronage appointments, but political appointees don’t have to be disasters, and their impact need not be corrosive. The best have contacts, experience and a skill set which can add much to achievement of larger national objectives. Two of the best bosses that I have ever worked with – David MacDonald and Stephen Lewis – were appointees, but both were very effective as advocates and able as public servants. They were not timid, had excellent personal networks at home and abroad, and – critically – knew both how the system worked and how to work the system. They were never afraid to pull strings in order to get things done.

Like so much else in diplomacy, the sensible and judicious use of such mechanisms is very much a matter of judgement and discretion.

Continuous learning?

I found out – usually the hard way – that about half of the decisions that really count in terms of career aspirations and outcomes can be ascribed to factors perhaps best described as personal and situational – who knows whom and what is going on where. Another 30 per cent or so of what happens tends to turn on matters of chance, luck, and timing. That means that typically only 20 per cent of decisions are taken primarily on the basis of objective circumstances or the strength of a business case. The so-called “performance management” process for executives, from which flow the coveted bonuses, works more like a popularity (or beauty) contest, and is highly dependent upon who is present during the division of the spoils. Meritocracy, while not unknown, is not necessarily the defining feature.

A hierarchic structure and resistance to change were defining characteristics throughout my tenure. At a time of organizational flattening, there are today as many levels in the corporate structure as there were when I started out in 1981. In this rigid, cloistered environment, process inevitably dwarfs substance. Dissent is discouraged – often with a vengeance – risk averted, unquestioning loyalty and faithful service rewarded. A focus on looking inward rather than looking out means that ideas are often judged more on their provenance than their quality. Unless very senior officials are involved, failure is not treated as a learning experience. In contrast, blessing the received wisdom and running with the herd, often under the guise of team playing, leads reliably to advancement.

Consider DFAIT’s inadequate preparation for its stewardship of the Afghanistan file offers particularly powerful testament. The Canadian International Council published a series of interviews on the theme of “What went wrong in Afghanistan?”. That organization, and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute have launched initiatives on “Lessons Learned”. Has DFAIT meaningfully addressed these issues? The full story may never be told – with so many parties implicated there is no appetite for a searching retrospective – but it is clear that by any reasonable measure, the objectives of the mission were not achieved. Books will never be written about the enduring legacy of the Kandahar PRT, or the innovative leadership displayed by Canada in pursuing alternatives to defence-dominated counterinsurgency and pacification. In such a militarized environment, insecurity thrived and diplomacy was near impossible. Scarce resources were diverted, self-service rampant, and criticism, for instance concerning the handling of Afghan detainees, was blatantly stonewalled. Whistleblower Richard Colvin did not suffer the same fate as Peter Van Buren at the U.S. Department of State, but by any measure this was not DFAIT’s finest hour.

Tough questions go unanswered: did DFAIT officials carefully assess the disastrous implications of long-term involvement in the “graveyard of empires”, and hence to recommend against the plan being pushed by the military; if not, why not? Did they warn of what joining the global war on terror might mean for the security of Canada and Canadians, or of the damage to this country’s once-admired internationalist brand? We certainly live with the results.

Finally, it is often remarked that some large organizations have a tendency to bend, fold and even mutilate those within them. While it is quite possible that there is something inherently twisted about bureaucracies in general, I believe that this observation is particularly apt in reference to foreign ministries. Long service and an insular culture result frequently in employees taking on the values, voice and affectations of the institution.

Turning the page

A new narrative is needed, as is an improved prescription for a smarter, faster, more supple approach to the way we work.

Happily, there are many items on the positive side of the ledger. The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers has made enormous strides, and now clearly serves the interests of its membership rather than those of management. Salaries, benefits, and many of the terms and conditions of foreign service have improved markedly as a result. Fascinating issues and smart people abound. And the opportunities to travel, live, work, and represent Canada abroad are priceless. It was all of this, and more, that kept me coming back for three decades.

As we move inexorably into the messy, dynamic, asymmetrical world order that  is heteropolarity, governments will need diplomacy – and diplomats – more than ever. There simply are no military solutions to the vexing range of transnational issues that constitute the globalization threat set. To address these sorts of challenges, complex balancing, knowledge-based problem-solving, and genuine dialogue remain the best tools in the shed. Tempus fugit: I hope a new generation of Canadian diplomats outperforms my own – we need it.

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