Did the liberals promise better foreign policy?

It’s not often that a speech from the throne made me pause and rewind. This week, like many others before it, was filled with boring pageantry and endless trivia: “go further, faster,” “no worker or region will be left behind,” “rebuild better.” There was nothing conspicuously out of the ordinary about the speech, either, except for the fact that it was delivered in three languages ​​by Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General.

But then there was this little fact: “A changing world requires adapting and expanding diplomatic engagement.”

For foreign policy experts, it was like an oasis in the desert. Could be? After decades of neglect, could a Canadian government finally be waking up to the fact that Canada’s foreign service is in crisis? Or is it just another mirage of the liberal government?

The statement did not actually commit to “adapting and expanding” the foreign service, although more diplomatic engagement is supposed to mean more foreign service. And more may sound good, but in itself it is not a solution, in the same way, investing money in a problem may not produce the expected results.

But let’s pretend for a moment that liberals may be planning serious foreign policy reform. What would it look like?

According to Daniel Livermore, a retired diplomat and senior fellow in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, more does not mean more money. “The problem is not financing,” he wrote in February last year. “Its [Global Affair’s] The Byzantine structure and the incompetence of management, which defy almost all modern precepts of public administration. Mismanagement of human resources over two decades has destroyed much of the Canadian foreign service, and the GAC is now weak in analytical capacity, woefully lacking in linguistic and regional expertise, and virtually incapacitated by a propensity for meetings, consultations, and discussions. endless, where problems are talked to death without decisions “.

Staffing shortages, Livermore tells me, have left embassies scrambling to fill positions. “You can’t develop proficiency when you’re constantly trying to fill mission gaps,” he says. “Ideally, you would have an expert on Russia stationed in Moscow, and then be reassigned to Eastern Europe and then dispatched to Brussels or the UN. There needs to be continuity and logic in the way posts develop a person’s skills. Instead, you have an agricultural expert suddenly sent to an embassy in a major capital where Canada has no agricultural interests, simply because that embassy is understaffed. “

The world is complicated and every day it is more so. A foreign service made up of people who are passionate about the work they do and the skills necessary to do the job well is more important now than it has been since the Cold War. The Global Security Reporting Program (GSRP) is a fascinating model, developed in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, to rapidly adapt to a world that had suddenly changed. The goal then was to send the most talented diplomats, those with the language skills and creative thinking to deepen their positions, to regions of particular strategic interest to Canada.

These were, theoretically, the greatest exponents of the foreign service. As a GSRP officer once told me, his job was to “collect information by other means,” that is, all open source, which meant going beyond the explosive walls and barbed wire that surrounded diplomatic precincts and engaging relationships with “unusual suspects”.

The program has had its challenges, one of which was an institutional clash with CSIS, which accused GSRP officers of stepping on its territory. But it has survived and remains a powerful tool in Canada’s foreign policy toolkit.

It was the GSRP, for example, that exposed Canada’s disastrous strategy in Iraq in 2016 under the leadership of Ambassador Bruno Saccomani, Stephen Harper’s former bodyguard. The Liberals were able to change course because the GSRP officers spoke.

Since then, the world has changed again. The war on terror has failed; The United States has spectacularly lost the war in Afghanistan; the US-led world order is fragmenting into a multipolar free-for-all based on transactionalism and increasingly led by authoritarians; and climate-related disasters, with all the associated consequences (hunger, migration, war), are on the rise.

Canada, for its part, has not carried out a comprehensive foreign policy review in more than half a century (the last one was ordered by Justin Trudeau’s father in 1968). During its six years in power, the Liberal government has appointed six foreign ministers, including an astronaut, a businessman and now a business lawyer. Only the businessman makes a modicum of sense, although his previous position as trade minister was more in his lane. Changing him to foreign minister only showed that Trudeau’s liberals still clung to the fantasy that a trade-based foreign policy would somehow produce a better world, or at least a better world for Canada. China put the kibosh on that silly notion.

So what would it be like then to “adapt and expand”? A foreign policy review is obviously the bare minimum, although Livermore is skeptical of the impact such a review could have. “We already know what the problems are,” he says. “Doubling the number of GSRP officers would help, but it would not solve the problem either. The GSRP is a specialized program that addresses financial and security issues. What is needed is a major review of how human resources are managed in Global Affairs. The foreign service has been decimated in the last two decades. It will take years to rebuild it. “

In 2016, Sven Jurschewsky, one of the architects of the GSRP, lamented the sorry situation in the foreign service, which he said had become such a bureaucratized mess that it had stopped attracting talented people. He came from a much more romantic diplomatic past, from the Kenneth D. Taylor and Canada Caper generation. He idolized men like Peter Bakewell, the Canadian diplomat in communist Prague who risked his life to help the dissidents of Charter 77.

“Being a diplomat used to mean something back then,” he told me. “We were committed to the world and we believed deeply in what we were doing. These days, too many diplomats … come to their positions keeping their heads down and causing no waves. Those guys shouldn’t be in leadership positions. They have created a culture of incompetence that is alienating the best talent from below. And I tell you: Canada will suffer for it ”.

Sadly, Jurschewsky passed away in 2018. I have no doubt that he would have rolled his eyes at this week’s Speech from the Throne; He was never one of those who liked pomp and circumstance, and trivialities infuriated him. But like many other former diplomats, he may have been encouraged even by the hint of a stronger foreign service. For those who have been to the world, Canada has lost its way and there is growing concern about whether it will ever find its way back.


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