The Future of the Canadian Foreign Service

The Future of the Canadian Foreign Service

In the last several years, and in particular since Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in June 2020, numerous critiques of Canadian diplomacy have been published, including some written by prominent retired ambassadors, former ministerial staffers, and other well-intentioned commentators (including on the CIPS blog).  

These think-pieces generally paint a picture of a foreign ministry weakened by years of sporadic recruitment, a revolving door of ministers, and an erosion of traditional diplomatic skills.

Perhaps in reaction to this drumbeat of concern, on February 24, 2022, the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs of Canada’s Senate announced the launch of a major study on Canada’s diplomatic service.  The brainchild of Sens. Peter Boehm and Peter Harder – former deputy ministers of International Development and Foreign Affairs, respectively – the year-long study will examine whether the Canadian foreign service is “fit for purpose” and has the necessary skills for future success.  Three months later, on May 30, Foreign Minister Joly announced the launch of a review exercise of her own, titled The Future of Diplomacy, which will map ways to “modernize and strengthen Canada’s capacity to engage globally.” A preliminary report and recommendations are expected by the end of this year.

Read the full report: Competitive Expertise and Future Diplomacy: Subject-Matter Specialization in Generalist Foreign Ministries

Over the last two decades, there has been a raft of similar inquiries and reports in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the Netherlands, questioning the skills profiles of their respective diplomatic services.  All have sought an answer to the perennial debate between “generalists versus specialists”: is the 20th century model of the ideal diplomat as a well-rounded, classically educated problem-solver still valid given the more complex, fluid, and immediate nature of contemporary diplomacy?  As the international agenda is increasingly dominated by global issues such as climate change, public health, migration, and cyber-security, as opposed to traditional matters of state-to-state relations, do we need a foreign service that can offer ministers deeper subject-matter expertise on a wider variety of issues?

Watch a short summary of the report

The last official study of Canada’s foreign service, the Royal Commission on Conditions of Foreign Service (1981), was largely unconcerned with these questions; it was primarily interested in matters of pay and benefits.  In the four decades since, there has been little attention paid to the professional skills of Canada’s foreign service and whether they are well adapted to the needs of a nimbler, and at times more expert, diplomacy of the future.  Given the renewed interest of the Senate and Minister Joly’s initiative, it is timely, therefore, to take stock of how Canada has traditionally addressed talent-management of its diplomatic corps and to compare it critically to the approach of our major allies and some of our competitors and adversaries.  

The purpose of the new CIPS report, Competitive Expertise and Future Diplomacy: Subject-Matter Specialization in Generalist Foreign Ministries, is to highlight the best practices that other foreign ministries have developed, and which could be adapted to the needs of the Canadian diplomatic service as part of a future reform agenda, perhaps in response to the findings of the Senate or of Minister Joly’s Future of Diplomacy initiative.

In sticking to a ‘generalist’ model that has deep roots in its founding ethos, Canada’s foreign ministry risks becoming an outlier among its peers and competitors

Based on more than 60 interviews with diplomats and academics on four continents as well as a review of the literature, the report finds that, while Global Affairs continues to ponder the perennial “generalists versus specialists” question, other states are taking deliberate steps to incubate greater subject-matter expertise among their diplomats. Although most foreign ministries intend to preserve a generalist core of rotational personnel, the research reveals a strong trend toward encouraging the development of more profound subject-matter expertise and creating specialist cadres within foreign ministries, whether on specific regions or themes such as multilateral relations.  The diplomatic services examined in this survey either already prioritize excellence in foreign-language proficiency or are taking steps in that direction.

In sticking to a ‘generalist’ model that has deep roots in its founding ethos, Canada’s foreign ministry risks becoming an outlier among its peers and competitors.  Although there are certainly pockets of expertise within the Canadian foreign service, the organizational culture of Global Affairs Canada often discourages specialization by treating it as incompatible with advancement into senior leadership.  This phenomenon is not unique to Global Affairs. It reflects a broader trend toward ‘managerialism’ within the Canadian Public Service in the last two decades, which has devalued the role of subject-matter knowledge as an attribute of leadership.

CIPS Director Rita Abrahamsen is joined by career diplomats Kerry Buck and Ulric Shannon (also a CIPS Research Fellow) to discuss his new report, “Competitive Expertise and Future Diplomacy: Subject-Matter Specialization in Generalist Foreign Ministries”

As a veteran diplomat with more than two decades of experience – most of it focused on conflict environments in the Arab and Muslim worlds – I am not neutral on the questions addressed in this report (although I hope that I have managed to be objective).  My belief that Global Affairs Canada should aspire to build at least a small cadre of experts on most, if not all, regions and themes, including in anticipation of crises and opportunities not yet visible, is not just the result of personal experience.

I believe that the growing pressure on the rules-based international order – of which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is but the most recent and violent example – as well as the more transactional approach to international relations occasioned by the rising tide of populism in the West, suggests an increasingly competitive global environment (even among allies) where states will require the knowledge to pursue their interests unilaterally.  If it expects to remain competitive with its peers and adversaries in the fight for global influence, Canada will need a credible foreign service.  This means being represented worldwide by people who can speak authoritatively by exhibiting broad knowledge of a range of global issues and deep subject-matter knowledge of priority regions and themes.

Given its unique advantage of having one of the world’s most diverse populations as its talent pool, there is no excuse for the Canadian foreign service not to grow into one of the world’s most interculturally savvy, knowledgeable, and networked diplomatic services.  But this level of ambition is a choice, and it will not happen by mere dint of immutable demographics. Instead, it will require purposeful human resource policies and planning and, more importantly, a shift in corporate culture that acknowledges the unique competencies needed in the diplomatic profession.

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