The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has initiated a review of the Canadian foreign service, the first such focused examination since the Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service, which reported in 1981.
While the work of a Senate committee is rarely the basis for enthusiasm, much less an optimistic prognostication, there is reason to think that this review will be a serious piece of work. The chair of the Senate committee is Senator Peter Boehm, a former foreign service officer, G7 sherpa, ex-ambassador to Germany, as well as a former Deputy Minister of International Development. The vice-chair is Senator Peter Harder, also a former foreign service officer and former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. The committee has an impressive membership with considerable international experience. Moreover, the issue itself is unlikely to elicit partisan divisions. It’s been clear for years that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is incapable of developing a credible plan for rejuvenating the Canadian foreign service. With no one else stepping forward, the Senate has filled the leadership vacuum.
Three questions might dominate the committee’s discussions: what’s wrong with GAC, the road forward, and why Canadians should care.
The problems of GAC are so profound that they defy easy diagnosis, and they are compounded by a lack of experience, vigour and transparency in departmental senior management, compounded by a rotating cast of ministers that has resulted in limitations on our access and leverage abroad. A colleague who has left GAC recently has described its situation in the following way: an antiquated bureaucratic system marked by risk-averse decision-making, limited empowerment to those on the ground, ineffective and counter-productive human resource policies, and complacency and non-comprehension in senior management. Policy has been subordinated to sound-bites, and GAC has been reduced to a briefing note factory.
Possibly the committee’s first challenge will be getting access to basic data about GAC and its constituent parts. Over the years, amalgamations and reorganizations have resulted in an enormously top-heavy beast, prone to timidity and caution and incapable of quick action. Internal management consumes a disproportionate share of its resources, and an astonishingly low share of its personnel are deployed abroad, which is supposedly the point of the department’s existence. Too many senior managers have no international expertise. Where once we were strong, for example, in international security, we’re now spouting platitudes that have left our allies wondering about our seriousness of purpose.
Several problems bedevil the Canadian foreign service. First, although Canada has a large network of embassies and other offices abroad, many are too small to do anything but the most minimal representational activity. Second, the tools of effective diplomacy have been cut to the point that Canada has no well-conceived information program or any substantive support for international cultural affairs. GAC has yet to act on a rich 2019 Senate study on “cultural diplomacy.” The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives has been both reduced in scope and smothered by over-management. Canada’s development assistance programs abroad have been narrowed to a small set of countries. Third, the expertise that is the real basis of foreign policy has been eroded through two decades of misguided and incompetent human resource policies that have left the foreign service short-changed on foreign language training and experts in a variety of crucially-important fields. There are enormous gaps in foreign service capabilities in virtually every stream of the foreign service.
The repair job ahead is neither easy nor quick. GAC has to address a host of issues: recruitment, training, assignments abroad, promotion, and retention, for which it has no credible answers. On recruitment, for example, where modest progress has been achieved after two decades of inactivity and missteps, the current numbers are woefully inadequate to the requirements.
GAC has been saddled with an unmanageable gaggle of priorities and mandate letters that blur the distinction between the urgent and the important, the essential and the desirable. Its traditional function and unique rationale have been lost over time, namely, as the centre of foreign policy advice to the Government.
It’s not coincidental that many of GAC’s problems are echoed in other departments. The list of government failures is growing. The root causes of current difficulties are undue centralization, a denigration of expertise, a breakdown in the cult of management among deputy ministers, and a system-wide calamity in human resources. The Canadian public service is in crisis in many departments and agencies, and the media should be asking some basic questions: what’s going on, and what are the common elements? We should be debating the remedial measures.
Canadians should care about GAC’s current fragility and the crisis of the foreign service. Canada is internationalist in outlook because of its history and economics, and we live and prosper based on international trade and our foreign policy relationships. We need a robust, influential foreign policy to advance our interests, and we can’t afford either failure or marginalization. We can’t allow our embassies abroad to atrophy through abysmally short-sighted policies, whether towards Canadians serving abroad or towards our locally-engaged staff, who do the lion’s share of the work at most Canadian embassies. And we can’t allow our embassies to close at the first sign of trouble, leaving Canadians in the lurch.
A solid Senate report that identifies the problems, proposes corrective actions and pinpoints the importance of a thorough reform effort at a time of international crisis would do an immense service for all Canadians. It would be much more significant in the long run than a purported foreign policy review, which would create more light than insight and more expectations than it would possibly satisfy.
The Ukraine crisis should underline that we’ve entered a newer, tougher world, where our actions have to live up to our words. If we want to respond wisely to global events in the next two decades, wherever they may arise, we need to right the ship of state. Let’s hope the Senate committee hearings and the committee’s eventual report will provide the appropriate starting point.