The Senate has weighed in on the reform of Canada’s foreign service. Its Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s report of early December owes much to the experienced hands of its chair and vice-chair, Senators Peter Boehm and Peter Harder. And it has given the Trudeau government a prudent, sensible roadmap for conducting a complete revamp of Global Affairs Canada’s personnel, programs, and administration, aimed at bringing the Canadian foreign service into the 21st century. It complements the “Future of Diplomacy” report published earlier this year by GAC. The two documents push the government in a common direction for change. The question now is: Is this enough to get the government to act?
The Senate report notes that the pressures for change are numerous and from all directions within Canada and abroad. Some are uncontrollable, such as the evolving dynamics of international relations. Others are the logical consequences of a technological and communications revolution that has altered time and the distance between states, and changed the communications needs of governments. Some challenges are eminently manageable, like adjusting hiring practices to reflect the diversity of Canada. Some are tough, like securing greater expertise in GAC on functional issues, like arms control and post-conflict reconstruction, and through increased language competencies, particularly in the difficult languages, like Russian, Arabic and Japanese.
Many readers will argue that the recommendations are bland and general, offering GAC all necessary guidance short of real solutions to its current problems. Others will want specific answers or more fundamental change. Some within GAC will be disappointed that the grievances of each of GAC’s occupational groups – like development assistance – haven’t been tackled in depth.
But the strategy of the Senate report is clear: give the Government latitude in weighing its path forward. And the result is three important benefits to those deciding upon next steps. First, it’s a consensus assessment by the Senate committee that foreign service reform is an important issue, one on which other countries besides Canada are also working. We’re not alone in needing to rethink fundamentals.
Second, it provides a baseline narrative for the depth and breadth of the problems in GAC and beyond. GAC’s problems aren’t exposed in gory, historic detail. Solving the problems is the point of the report, not scratching at old wounds.
Third, and most importantly, the report provides a generic framework for tackling GAC’s essential problems, without insisting on any single mode of redress. And the range of problems is indeed large, from those of locally engaged staff in embassies abroad, to the non-rotational contingent in headquarters, who are the essential anchors for international programs while the rotational officers come and go. All of the issues aren’t rehearsed in depth and detail, but the Senate report provides GAC’s leadership with the essentials to move down the path of reform.
More than 40 years ago, the McDougall Commission report examined the Canadian foreign service in a ponderous document that few bothered to read and the government didn’t feel compelled to implement with any vigour. The Senate report is both easier to digest and more comprehensible in both scope and idiom.
Yet two key problems remain. The first is the Senate report’s objective: trying to ensure that GAC is “fit for purpose”. In many quarters, and on too many issues, however, we simply don’t know the “purpose” of Canada’s foreign policy. To what extent do we intend to be players in the Indo-Pacific region? Do we want to return to a role as Western champions of African development? Are we committed to another foray into the Western Hemisphere? And the nub of the problem is resources, which must be inextricably tied to our policy ambitions. What we have now is an emaciated foreign service, trying to achieve policy goals in which ambition far exceeds capability.
The second issue is a practical, simple question: Can the same GAC that allowed itself to fall into this morass be trusted to undertake a reform effort? The Senate report suggests that the answer is “no”. While the department must obviously be reshaped by current leadership, there is an important suggestion for a supervisory committee to oversee the reform effort. And that supervision should include a timetable for change that is practical and achievable, tied into the government’s austerity plans. That means tough choices if the foreign service is to have a future.
The second issue is a practical, simple question: Can the same GAC that allowed itself to fall into this morass be trusted to undertake a reform effort?
The Senate report doesn’t address all of these issues. But it has come out with a sober, capable report that presses the case for an effective, flexible, dynamic and skilled foreign service, able to address the challenges of the next few decades.
It’s not the answer. But it’s the green light the government needs. It’s time to get on with the job.
This blog was first published on The McLeod Group Blog on December 14, 2023.