A foreign service worth fighting for

Somewhere between ‘golden age’ and ‘culture of complaint’ lies the state of Canada’s foreign service. OpenCanada’s Catherine Tsalikis interviewed nearly two dozen diplomats and experts to discover a gradual tarnishing of the diplomatic corps over the years — but many are rooting for its restoration.

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July 26, 2017
Illustration of Global Affairs Canada headquarters in Ottawa. Credit: Sami Chouhdary.

Like the Great Sphinx of Giza, from which its headquarters at 125 Sussex Drive took inspiration, Canada’s foreign service holds many secrets — the building’s nickname, ‘Fort Pearson,’ speaks to the opacity that surrounds many of its inner workings.

The exterior is clad in uninviting horizontal, concrete slabs. Through a canopied front entrance, and past security, is the wood-panelled Robertson Room, where Canada’s government hammered out its response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and where leaders from Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union met to discuss German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In an homage to one of Canadian diplomacy’s signature moments, prominently displayed by the lobby’s windows is a perfect replica of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize — the original now relocated to the new Canadian History Hall, which opened as part of the Museum of History’s Canada 150 exhibit.

While Confederation brought the colonies of Canada together 150 years ago, the foreign service isn’t quite that old. When Canada’s first Department of External Affairs was created in 1909, it was housed in a ramshackle office above a barber shop at Queen and Bank streets, and its main responsibility was to manage the flow of correspondence between Ottawa, London and foreign capitals. Though then-Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had wanted to give the work of foreign affairs “the dignity and importance of a department by itself, as [was] done in other countries,” its beginnings were less than auspicious. Five blocks away from the East Block on Parliament Hill, where the prime minister and several ministries had their offices, the department was made up of only a handful of employees and had hardly any capacity to shape Canada’s relations with other countries. 

The department did make it to the East Block a few years later, and over the first half of the 20th century its size and scope — and its diplomatic corps, the foreign service — grew modestly as Canada itself gained more autonomy from Britain over its international dealings. During the period following World War II through to the mid-1960s the department expanded rapidly, with Canada playing a leading role in the development of multilateral institutions like the United Nations and NATO, in what came to be seen by many as the ‘golden age’ of Canadian diplomacy — its zenith being Pearson’s Nobel Prize for the creation of a UN peacekeeping force during the Suez Crisis in the Middle East.

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau came into office, however, he brought with him a distrust of professional diplomats. “In the early days of the telegraph,” he told a reporter, “you needed a dispatch to know what was happening in country A, whereas now, most of the time, you can read it in a good newspaper.” Despite protest, in 1973 the department was moved to its present location, about a 10-minute drive from Parliament Hill, on the banks of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.

Over the next few decades, the department’s makeup underwent much shape-shifting, with trade, immigration and development at various times consolidated under the foreign affairs banner or not. Most recently, under Justin Trudeau, the department’s designation became ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ which includes foreign affairs, trade and development.

Canada now has 1,174 foreign service officers and 179 diplomatic missions in 109 countries, up from 101 foreign service members and 22 missions at the end of WWII.

Behind these outwardly visible changes, however, there is a battle for the soul of the diplomatic corps unfolding, with fundamental questions about the role of a diplomat and the future of the service giving rise to, at times, fractious disagreement, according to interviews with almost two dozen current and former foreign service officers. 

Glamour to grit

The foreign service has always had a bit of a challenging story to tell. Throughout the years, the idea of the ‘professional diplomat’ has for many conjured up visions of “dithering dandies” in pearls or pinstripes “lost in a haze of irrelevance somewhere between protocol and alcohol,” as former foreign service officer Daryl Copeland likes to say. That perception of course isn’t new; as one “riled career man” told The New York Times in 1970: “If I see one more caricature of a Canadian diplomat in striped pants sipping from [a] martini glass holding a maple leaf olive pick, I'm going to burn my credentials card.” 

But even in the 21st century, the average Canadian might find it hard to describe what the purpose of a foreign service officer is. Within the service, there is also existential angst about the role. While working for the diplomatic corps still holds a certain amount of prestige in the popular imagination, the reality on the ground is more than monogramed calling cards and canapés. 

The foreign service is meant to be the government’s strongest advocacy instrument for defending Canada’s interests abroad — and the first line of defence when it comes to conflict prevention. The key elements of its mandate include working for international peace and security, promoting trade, investment and business opportunities for Canada’s economic benefit, and improving human rights around the world. 

A few contemporary examples: helping to rebuild Bosnia after the 1992-1995 war; responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti; championing the cause of maternal and early childhood health in the developing world; and working to prevent the spread of Ebola in Africa.

The benefits that come from personal diplomacy — the nurturing of relationships with key international decision-makers to protect and advance Canadian interests — may be nebulous, but can tell in a crisis.

The last year has put into stark focus the importance of a strong diplomatic team abroad. When, following the election of Donald Trump, Canada’s most valuable trading relationship seemed in jeopardy, the diplomatic corps activated a network of influencers across the United States who had a stake in trade with their northern neighbour, setting up a dramatic 11th-hour reversal by the White House, which abandoned a pledge to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and agreed to renegotiate the pact instead. 

“The benefits that come from personal diplomacy may be nebulous, but can tell in a crisis.”

It was perhaps the biggest diplomatic coup to date for the new foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, who was appointed to the post after throwing herself as trade minister into the task of rescuing a pact between Canada and the European Union from near defeat with direct personal appeals to decision-makers in Brussels.  

Career foreign service officer Colin Robertson served at the Canadian embassy in D.C., among other posts, and was part of the team that negotiated the original NAFTA treaty. He said in-person dealings are still just as necessary as ever. “You need someone on ground to provide you with trusted perspective. In Washington, I spent all my time wandering around Capitol Hill. Nothing beats being there — face-to-face is still the best way to transact business.”

Robertson defends ‘cocktail diplomacy’: “I always went to cocktail parties, for two reasons: one, to see and be seen, and two, as the Romans say, in vino veritas — truth comes out over a glass.”

David Edwards, who spent three decades in the foreign service and retired in 2011, says he hasn’t heard much waxing on about “dithering dandies” in recent years: “People are actually on the frontlines, a lot of people have been shot at, we have people in Baghdad, in and out of Libya, Haiti…I think it has moved from glamour to grit.”

Former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine Abbie Dann, who retired in 2013 after 33 years in the foreign service, likens being a foreign service officer to a calling, such as serving in the military, or feeling compelled to become a doctor or a human rights lawyer. “It’s not even a profession,” she said, “it should be considered a vocation. I’m Catholic, so I can use words like that.”

“I have lost 20 percent of my lung capacity, from pollution in Sao Paulo, Bombay and Kiev. And I've never smoked — lots of us are like that. Real foreign service officers are brought up a bit like the army: don’t explain, don’t complain, just get it done,” Dann said.

Michael Kologie, outgoing president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), agrees, and points out that the officers themselves are often not the only ones making sacrifices. “As diplomats, we have to remember that we are not just working from 8:30am-6pm — we’re representing Canada abroad 24/7. And it’s not just foreign service officers doing it, it’s their families that are doing it.”

One of the main purposes of the foreign service is to provide fearless advice and loyal implementation when it comes to the government of the day’s foreign policy, which necessitates close cooperation with Canada’s foreign ministers.

Lloyd Axworthy, who served as minister of foreign affairs from 1996-2000, says that when the Chrétien government was working on developing an ambitious treaty to ban landmines, Canadian embassy staff around the world “worked the streets,” in diplomatic parlance, with the goal of pulling off a treaty at the UN.

Thanks to the foreign embassy network set up under Pearson in the post-war years, Canada was able to draw on infrastructure in every region: “There have always been [those] in the Treasury Board saying oh, why do we need embassies in Patagonia, or something, and I said well, because they vote at the UN, they’ve got interests, and we never know when we’re going to need them.” In Axworthy’s opinion, the strength and ability of the foreign service has been one of the reasons why Canada has been able to play, when it wants to, an effective role on the international stage. 

Barbara McDougall, Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs from 1991-1993, offers a more mixed assessment. 

“There’s no question in my mind that the foreign service is the most professional of all the public service…That doesn’t mean that I thought they were always on top of their files,” she told OpenCanada.

In 1992, McDougall was the first Canadian foreign minister to visit South Africa for 30 years, timed to follow Nelson Mandela’s release from prison as a gesture of support for South Africa’s reforms following apartheid — though negotiations over the lifting of Canadian sanctions were just beginning.   

In a kind of reverse example to Axworthy’s, McDougall said: “I don’t think our high commission there was at the kind of strength that it should’ve been. And you really notice when that happens, which tells you how good the foreign service is, when they’re at their best. Because when they’re not there, you notice.”

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Tellingly, many of the current and former foreign service officers interviewed by OpenCanada pointed to Axworthy’s tenure — which saw the landmines treaty become binding international law — as the last ‘high point’ for Canada in international diplomacy.

By contrast, many said relations between the foreign service and its political masters reached a nadir under the government of Stephen Harper. 

Of the atmosphere in the years before she retired in 2013, Dann said, “You could really feel it — they had an anti-elitist attitude. But it’s not an elite, it’s a profession first. Does it have some elitist aspects to it? Yeah — so does medicine, so does law, so does being a long-haul truck driver. You have to be really qualified to do it. That’s not elitist; that’s just being qualified.”

John Graham’s career with the foreign service spanned many decades, from spying for the Americans in Cuba in the 1960s to eventually being appointed ambassador to Venezuela and non-resident ambassador to the Dominican Republic. He sees an erosion of the service’s esprit de corps as starting earlier. 

“You’re getting the voice of the dinosaur,” he told OpenCanada, “but this dinosaur has the impression that there were higher professional standards — the sense that it was a distinctive profession, with a culture of professional knowledge that you acquired as you moved through.”

Graham refutes the notion that the foreign service pre-Harper or pre-Chrétien was a “splendid, a well-oiled machine that most people were happy with — that was not the case. It’s important not to have a myth, a shining tower.”

Still, he is of the opinion that an “erosion” did indeed occur during the Harper years, and is concerned about the lasting effects.

“It’s very discouraging to note that a lot of the damage that was done by Harper is not being repaired,” he added. “That, I think, is an area really deserving of investigation.”

So, what have been the lasting effects of the Harper years? After almost a decade of cuts, has funding been restored? Has morale? And what gets lost when Canada isn’t playing at full capacity on the battlegrounds of diplomacy?

‘Yes men’ and ‘yes women’

Canada’s foreign affairs department is known to have taken a hit under the almost decade-long government of Stephen Harper, from severe personnel cuts to the muzzling of diplomats to the selling off of properties abroad. The 2010 failure to win a seat at the UN Security Council was a major diplomatic setback, and was held up as emblematic of the Harper government’s rejection of multilateralism. While many foreign service officers interviewed, like Graham, were careful to point out that Canadian diplomacy had seen low points before — the 1970 Times article also mentioned Pierre Trudeau’s “practice of depending on his own aides rather than professional diplomats for important advice and information” — Harper and successive Conservative foreign ministers seem to have left a mark on the psyche of the foreign service.

“I think they came in with a mistrust of the foreign service,” Axworthy said. “You heard all these horror stories. On the lecture circuit or while travelling I would hear ambassadors saying that they were told they couldn’t go to meetings, and if they were going to meetings their speeches had to be checked by the PMO or the PCO.”

While Axworthy said he never heard much outward sign of “rebelling or revolting,” the foreign service “went into a little bit of a fetal crouch for a while…they definitely lost a lot of good people, because they were just not being given much scope to advance.” 

David Edwards remembers a dramatic shift in tone under the Harper government, with a pivot towards a projection of militarism. “We weren’t peacekeepers, we were warrior wannabes,” he said of Canada during the period, noting there was a change in the face and voice of the country when it was abroad. “If you were a soldier, you could speak to the press, but we couldn’t.”

Edwards gives the example of the 2010 Haiti earthquake: “The only people being interviewed were soldiers who had arrived 24 hours later. What about our people, who were there during the earthquake itself and during those first critical hours, who were actually living there?”

On top of tight message control, the government’s relationship with the civil service was perhaps put under even more strain by, as Graham puts it, “an absolute refusal to continue with the traditional culture of consultation with senior members of the public service. This certainly applied to the foreign service — senior people were not encouraged to consult with ministers. It was, ‘this is the policy and don’t ask questions.’”

This translated, Graham argues, into senior officials in the department being hired “at least in part because they were seen to be people who would not rock the party boat — they would be, to use a disparaging term, ‘yes men’ and ‘yes women.’”

“The foreign service ‘went into a little bit of a fetal crouch for a while.’”

This is a recurring critique offered by many who have served recently and by PAFSO. 

Tim Hodges, who spent 25 years in the foreign service and served as president of PAFSO from 2014-2016, said there was “in effect a decade where you had management being promoted not just because they did the government’s bidding, because that’s our charge anyway, no matter who the government is, but [because] when asked to jump, they asked, ‘how high do you want me to jump?’”

Over time, Hodges said, bureaucrats from other departments were brought in at foreign affairs “in part to infiltrate the department, but [also] to bring it more in line.” While “not necessarily a bad thing,” Hodges thinks it had a negative result in this particular case. “Non-risk takers, centrists, were promoted up through the organization…talented personalities, yes, but that’s not the kind of people who would naturally think out of the box or think about new initiatives. And I think that’s a major downside currently for the department.”

Enter Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau came to power promising a restoration of Canada’s tradition of multilateralism and, in a Nov. 2015 letter to the ambassadors and high commissioners of Canada's foreign missions, a “new era” in international engagement. 

“My cabinet colleagues and I will be relying on your judgment, insights, discretion, and work ethic in advancing our interests. I have every confidence that your reporting and our interactions when I am abroad will provide a critical, factual basis for our policies,” Trudeau wrote.

Diplomats working for the newly renamed Global Affairs Canada at ‘Fort Pearson,’ where a siege-like atmosphere had set in, greeted their new political leaders with applause. One historian recently described it to OpenCanada as Trudeau “walking into the Pearson building and being received by the starving inmates with outstretched hands.”

The prime minister repeated his message at a rare meeting with 135 ambassadors and heads of mission in Ottawa last June. But while the tone coming from government with regards to the foreign service has definitely shifted back to a more traditional one, and while almost all of the diplomats who spoke with OpenCanada for this piece were happy to go on the record, interviews indicate that more than a year and a half since the Liberals took office, many are still waiting for the restoration of the foreign service to its former strength, standing and influence.

Abbie Dann now sits on the board of the Retired Heads of Mission Association. “All of us, the sort of ‘elders’ of the tribe, were very encouraged by the prime minister’s letter,” Dann said, “and from the type of ministers that have been put in, we’re hopeful. The [question] is, is that political will being really systematically pushed down through the department?” 

Shift in tone aside, one publicly available metric by which to assess whether or not the foreign service is being built back up under the Trudeau government is funding. While total department spending is up slightly from the last year of the Harper government, Global Affairs’ Report on Plans and Priorities for 2017-18 suggests that more money for the foreign service is unlikely, given a projected drop in spending from $6.3 billion in 2016-17 to $5.4 billion in 2019-20.

And despite the Trudeau government’s “Canada is back” rhetoric, it has continued the Harper government’s strategy of selling off diplomatic properties. According to The National Post, as of June, 29 diplomatic properties have been sold since the Liberals were elected.

Michael Kologie, the outgoing PAFSO president, says he hasn’t heard of any new resources being allocated to the foreign service under Trudeau’s Liberals. In terms of personnel and positions abroad lost under the Harper government, Kologie “hasn’t seen any new life there,” nor has he seen financial increases to make up for rising costs of operating missions abroad and salaries increasing with inflation. “What that translates into is having to do more with less,” he said. 

A Global Affairs spokesperson declined to comment specifically on whether additional funds have been allocated to the foreign service, and instead asked readers to refer to the departmental plan, which details funding for the entire department.

Daryl Copeland, who has written at length on his ideas for reforming the foreign service, points out that, as Canadians saw recently with the 2017 defence policy review, the “lion’s share” of international policy resources are going towards defence rather than diplomacy and development.

Copeland blames a timid service.

“It’s the department’s fault — they didn’t ask for any money in the budget,” he said.

“There are ways that the department can support the foreign service, either by building up the department’s budget so that they’ve got program money so that they can take initiative, or by applying for new funds to hire more new recruits, and there just hasn’t been any of that.”

Indeed, some view the apparently slow pace of rejuvenation under a more open-handed regime as a sign that the senior leadership of the service has yet to adjust to being let off the leash and is not yet inspiring the ranks to greater ambition. 

There is debate, typical of political transitions, about whether senior managers brought in under Harper are the right people for the job.

“I think there’s a big disconnect at the moment between the Trudeau government’s ambitions and the senior levels of leadership in Global Affairs Canada,” Copeland said.

The folks at the top now are those that got promoted during the Harper years — that means that they were rewarded for stifling dissent, keeping the lid on, muzzling the staff. These are not the people who can deliver an activist foreign policy agenda or bring us the kind of creative, imaginative policy leadership that’s going to be required. It’s a bit like asking a patient that has been on life support and in a coma for 10 years to get up and run a marathon. It just can’t happen.”

“There’s a big disconnect at the moment between the Trudeau government’s ambitions and the senior levels of leadership in Global Affairs Canada.”

The impression of inertia is echoed from inside ‘Fort Pearson.’

One Global Affairs Canada executive who preferred not to be named told OpenCanada the message from the political class has been “very clear about: ‘We want to free you so that you can fly.’” 

But, “there’s a hesitation at senior levels of the bureaucracy.”

The executive pointed, by way of example, to everyday issues that seemed like things an assistant deputy minister should be able to address: “So you talk to the ADM, and they’re not sure what authority they now have, and they kind of err on the side of caution.” 

We used to have in this department very strong, sometimes quite eccentric senior officials, like [former Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom] Jeremy Kinsman. These people were not necessarily very by-the-book when it came to all the admin and process stuff, but they had views, opinions, and they helped drive a governmental agenda. I dont sense that now — I sense that maybe the type of people who have been put in behave as managers more than leaders…kind of more [focused on] process, management, a lot of administration.”

The idea of a focus on process over substance is one that comes up repeatedly in conversation with former members of the service.

Valerie Percival, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, worked for the department early in her career. “Over the years it’s become abundantly clear to me that it doesn’t really matter what you do, it matters how you do it,” Percival said. “It’s all about process, all about oiling the wheels of the machine. It’s not really about tangible results.”

As a result, according to Percival, the individuals who move up through the ranks are those who know how to work the system, rather than those with the most relevant CV.

Not one of us

Percival takes issue with the appointment of senior officials without international experience, pointing out that the current deputy minister of Global Affairs, Ian Shugart — while a respected and accomplished civil servant — has never been a diplomat or served in other capacities internationally. “Living and working abroad improves your analytical skills and heightens your diplomatic abilities. This experience is valued in the diplomatic services of other countries — it should matter to Canada.”

Shugart is a post-Harper appointee, made deputy minister by Trudeau in May 2016, having previously held senior government positions in health and environment portfolios. Speaking to OpenCanada, he offered a spirited defence of the idea that managers without foreign service experience can still make significant contributions to the department.

“I think it is not fair to say that, as a general rule, the department is more focused on process, rather than substance. I have not seen that,” he said. “The world of trade negotiations, the world of multilateral diplomacy — the reality is that these things are, of necessity, process-heavy.”

Shugart emphasized that in a 21st century world, managers who come from various fields or different arms of government can be extremely valuable. “I came to this department knowing from hard personal experience an awful lot about global health. Why? Because I did it,” he said. “I came to this department knowing an awful lot about one of the top current issues, interestingly enough, that the government is facing: climate change. Why? Through hard personal experience in international, multilateral climate change negotiations.”

“I'm not just an import from some other department, as a senior deputy minister. Do I know the details of international diplomacy? No, but I know some things that some people in this department don’t know, and it’s useful for them to have access to that.”

Many foreign service officers place great importance on the time served abroad by those in their senior ranks. Graham is of this school of thought, especially when it comes to leaders understanding the particular kind of lifestyle challenges that come with serving abroad. “What about all of the issues that arise about life in difficult circumstances, problems of kids, problems of spouses?” he asked. “People who have not experienced this — it’s not to say that they’re clowns or indifferent, but it is not the same if you don’t know it.”  

Dann said that when she arrived in Sao Paulo in her late 20s, her boss at the time took her under his wing and took an interest in her professional development. “I don’t get the feeling that happens the same [way] anymore,” she said, after observing young officers through her work teaching courses on protocol and networking at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute. “You need people at senior levels who are themselves professional foreign service officers.”

diplomacy
Credit: Sami Chouhdary

The previous service of senior officials aside, there is a perception that excessive caution and lack of imagination have seeped down the ranks of a service whose purpose is meant to be the offering of fearless advice.

Inside 125 Sussex Drive, the executive who asked not to be named says a period of restrained ambition may account for a tendency towards self-censorship that has also affected newer entrants to the service.

“I thought well, maybe it’s because their whole experience in government has been waiting to be tasked with doing something, as opposed to, this is the framework the government has proposed, but now they want the bureaucracy and the foreign service specifically to step forward and find opportunities.”

“But also I think for young people maybe it was that nobody had said to them: ‘Think big, come up with ideas. The worst thing that can happen is it won’t go anywhere, because it just isn’t the right time, or there aren’t resources to support it or whatever.’”

The deputy minister offered a careful response to each of the frustrations expressed by those within and without his department.

“What appears to be a failure to think outside the box is, sometimes, you look at the substance of the issue and the constraints, and there really is very little that one can do. You continue to think about possibilities, and it is true that sometimes people need to be nudged or shoved to think more creatively. I think that’s a tendency that we always have to be alive to.”

Shugart said the burden for shifting the department’s culture onto the front foot ultimately rests with senior managers within the foreign service.  

“Sometimes it may be true that the political arm of the government will constrain the policy options,” he said, “but other times, it doesn’t matter what stripe of government it is, it’s the foreign service itself, it’s the bureaucracy, it’s the institution — sometimes vested interests within the institution — that are thinking very conventionally themselves.” 

An unattainable ideal

Of course, the sentiment often heard from long-serving officers and retirees that the foreign service needs to return to a more professional body and embrace an ‘elite’ status may in part be a byproduct of the realities of operating in a different, information-saturated world.

For some context, OpenCanada turned to the head of the historical section at Global Affairs Canada, Greg Donaghy, co-author of a new book on the department under Pierre Trudeau. He says that while there “is a small kernel of truth in some of this stuff” — for example, that process is valued over substance — many diplomats are yearning for an environment that doesn’t exist anymore.  

“If you go back to the 1940s and 1950s, people made their careers on dispatches from missions and policy briefs. Robert Ford, our guy in Moscow in the 1950s, wrote a series of really compelling reports on the post-Stalin Soviet Union and what Canada and Western policy should be. Mike Pearson read them, they shaped his view, and shaped Canadian policy towards the Soviet Union for a couple decades. That’s the way you made your reputation.” 

Nowadays, when emails are sent instantaneously and communications are 24/7, “people aren’t sitting down to read 30-page dispatches anymore,” Donaghy said. “So where does a successful person have an impact? In a committee meeting, moving something up the ladder, being able to adjust new policy prescriptions to the tenor of the times, or shaping policy that meets the needs of the minister, and doing that in a quick briefing note.”

Donaghy recalled that former Canadian Ambassador to the UN Bob Fowler once told him that he made his money “in the 10 minutes from the airport to the meeting.”

“He had the minister or the deputy or the prime minister, and that’s where he’d give his pitch. Process guy. He’s not sitting down the way Robert Ford did, to write a 30-page reflection on the state of poetry in the Soviet Union and what that meant for Canada.”

Who should serve

Aside from differing reflections on how the role of diplomats may have changed over the decades, there is a heated battle underway within Global Affairs over who should serve.

“If you were to look at the department in 1950, it would be 90 percent foreign service officers,” Donaghy said. “That’s simply not the case anymore.”

Indeed, out of a total of 10,020 employees working for Global Affairs Canada, the number of foreign service officers stands at 1,174.

PAFSO, which represents employees with the foreign service, or ‘FS’, designation, has been at loggerheads with management for the past three years over a set of demands that include formally ensuring these staff have priority for assignments abroad. 

“What we’re seeing now is that, more and more, non-career diplomats, non-career foreign service officers are filling those positions — the stat is something like 20 percent,” Kologie said. “That’s concerning to us, because the intent of the foreign service was to develop a corps of excellence, where foreign service officers would spend half of their career abroad, come back and go abroad again. When that 20 percent, and it’s creeping up there, is introduced, we’re spending less time abroad. We did an internal survey and foreign service officers have told us 48 percent of them struggled to actually get abroad.”

“Diplomacy isn’t ‘get a smart person, add water and stir.’”

This is partly a turf battle. But it is also a central bone of contention in the running debate about who should serve.

The need for a ‘professional’ foreign service is one Dann brought up many times in conversation. “Diplomacy isn’t ‘get a smart person, add water and stir,’” she said. “There are lots of smart people, for expert files, science behind climate change, etc. — okay fine, get them in on a single assignment or for a period of time, or even to be experts within the larger diplomatic corps. But you need in a country a professionally trained, professionally identified, constant corps of people who are diplomats.”

This view of foreign affairs as the exclusive preserve of a career corps of officers is not shared by the deputy minister, particularly when it comes to the most senior roles.

I affirm the right, and I would even say the responsibility, of the government of Canada to decide who will be the representative of Canada around the world. Sometimes they make decisions that enrich our capacity around the world, [choosing] people who bring skills and experience and understanding that professional FS officers, brilliant as they may be, will never have to the same degree,” Shugart said.

“Now, the core of our international representation in my view has to be the FS. It’s got to have depth, and it’s got to have breadth of experience, and we’ve got to provide a career path to our foreign service officers. If we want to attract the best, and want to develop and retain the best, we’ve got to be able to provide people with a career path. But that, in my view, does not mean that senior appointments and senior international appointments have to be reserved for foreign service officers,” he added.

This does not just hold true for the senior ranks. Shugart concedes the distinction between a foreign service officer and someone without the FS designation doing foreign work for the department is blurring.

“I think compared to the past it’s true that it’s a somewhat more elastic concept, in that people who come from the development stream or the trade stream or the traditional foreign service, which is more, you could use the synonym ‘diplomats,’ all have access to postings and so on,” Shugart said. 

In reality, Shugart said, at Canada’s missions abroad, “people from immigration, the security agencies, the defence attaché, the development team, and so on…are all working together as a team.” 

“And while we fully recognize and maintain the, you might call it, business lines or practices of these specialized communities — development and trade and diplomacy — organizationally they are together in one department for the purpose of ensuring that Canada acts with all its instruments in a coherent and coordinated way internationally.” 

Boosting morale

When it comes to the foreign service's esprit de corps, present and former officers aren’t shy about offering up their suggestions for reforms that would, in their view, bolster morale and the service itself. Ideas range from a shift in hiring and promotions practices — reinstating official language training to widen the pool of applicants, increasing job security by relying less on temporary contracts, or making it easier for new intakes to get abroad more quickly, for example — to revisiting the 1973 relocation of the department and moving it closer to the newly renamed Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council on Wellington Street.

As Percival and others noted, it will be up to the Trudeau government to articulate its foreign policy vision in a way that inspires the foreign service to go deep on substance. A large part of why Axworthy had notable successes as a foreign minister was that he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish. But day-to-day, enduring changes to the foreign service and the department as a whole will need to come from senior leadership within Global Affairs Canada. 

And despite a proliferation of NGOs, think tanks and country experts, the case for personal diplomacy in the 21st century is made convincingly and robustly by those who have seen it at work. 

“You can’t bomb Ebola, you can’t call in an air strike on a warming climate, or send out an expeditionary force to occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy,” Copeland said. “Our only chance is to talk our way out of these problems. That’s the province of diplomacy.”

Current Canadian diplomats from Atlanta to Australia would agree. Louise Blais, Canada’s consul general in Atlanta, says that in anticipation of NAFTA renegotiations, her staff has been part of the Trudeau government’s coordinated campaign to utilize policymakers at all levels to emphasize to key American players how closely intertwined the two countries are economically.

“At the end of the day, we open doors for our government…leveraging those personal relationships that we are paid to develop on the ground,” she said. “You look at how they’ve recruited [Brian] Mulroney, but they also have us.”

Blais gave the example of Sonny Perdue, Trump’s secretary of agriculture, who was reportedly instrumental in urging the president not to withdraw from NAFTA. Blais said Perdue is “a good friend to the consulate. We have worked with him closely — just last year, we awarded him the governor general’s award, I have his personal phone number. You can’t buy [that kind of relationship].”

Angela Bogdan, the Canadian consul general to Sydney, said that it’s important for Canada to address any “diplomatic deficit” left over from years of cuts under the Harper government. 

She underlines the opportunity embedded in the current historical moment, with heightened uncertainty about an international order that has fewer champions.

“Never before have I seen the Canada brand be so embraced and emulated — this government and this prime minister have really propelled Canada as a brand on the international stage,” Bogdan said.

“This is an incredible opportunity for us to use this to full effect, not just for the sake of prosperity at home, but in terms of promoting the values systems that we hold dear, the kind of inclusive approach to diversity, refugees, tolerance on LGBTI issues…We’ve never been better positioned to advance Canada’s agenda, and we want to have the tools and the resources to use that to full effect.”

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Though many would say the foreign service, and the department itself, have a ways to go to build themselves back up to the fabled ‘golden age,’ Canada’s diplomatic corps has been constantly recreating itself throughout its short history, and will continue to do so, wherever its headquarters happen to be stationed — whether on Sussex Drive or once again a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill.

Donaghy emphasized that the ‘golden age’ of Canadian diplomacy can refer to various periods throughout the 20th century, depending on who is doing the reminiscing. He noted there are two forces at work when foreign service officers look back wistfully at the past: one is the “spectre of golden-ageism” and the other is a “culture of complaint.”

“I think they’re both true but neither reflects what is actually happening — which is that the department is changing in response to shifts at home and abroad,” Donaghy said. 

“The fact that you get these reoccurring golden ages suggests that [the department] is pretty good at doing this, because if it wasn’t, it would be a recurring set of dark ages.”