The Risks of Cohabitation

Merging Canadian and British embassies is not without risk says Jennifer Welsh.
By: /
September 25, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird stood “shoulder to shoulder” with British Foreign Secretary William Hague to announce what is apparently only – to quote Baird – a “small, administrative agreement”: the co-location of Canadian and British consular services in a select number of embassies around the world. Both countries are trying to economize on diplomatic functions at a time when big emerging markets (like China, India, and Brazil) need greater focus but government budgets won’t allow for expansion. The “smart” solution, then, is to share space in locations where one of the two countries doesn’t currently have a presence. Taxpayers should be pleased that they are getting more bang for their buck.

On one reading, this really should be no big deal. Canada and Britain already have similar arrangements in Mali and Myanmar, and a British diplomat is about to share space in the Canadian embassy in Haiti. Canada also has such agreements with Australia in select locations around the world, which, by all accounts, are working quite well.

Moreover, one would like to think that Canada is confident enough about its global status and influence that it doesn’t need to fear a loss of sovereignty, or a false association of Canadian foreign-policy goals with those of our former colonial masters. In short, let’s not sell ourselves short here.


It is undeniable that, in Paul Heinbecker’s words, Canada and Britain have different “brands.” Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council and possesses nuclear weapons. In concrete terms, the two countries have also pursued different policies in crises such as apartheid in South Africa or – more recently – the war in Iraq. But the change announced earlier this week doesn’t convince me that Canada’s foreign-policy independence is necessarily under threat. We will continue to have separate ambassadors, and separate trade commissioners. And we will continue to formulate a “made in Canada” foreign policy. (Although, in an era of globalization and immigration, it’s hard to say that anything is really made solely at home any more.)

What is of greater concern, however, is how this is viewed on the ground, particularly in locations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Diplomacy, and the structures that house diplomacy, are highly symbolic. That is the very nature of the beast. As a result, perception is hugely important. The mindset of the accountant (who is striving for greater efficiency) cannot have the final word. This is particularly so when we consider the full range of tasks diplomats pursue (i.e., it’s not all about issuing passports and visas; it’s also about protecting citizens from real emergencies or advocating on their behalf.)

What these changes mean, in practice, is that British and Canadian flags will hang together, and that in certain cases, British diplomats will be “going to bat” for Canadians in trouble. That kind of association may very well hurt Canada’s image and influence in regions of the world where colonialism is not a faint memory, but still a living wound.

The British are well aware of the colonial legacy, and its continuing impact. During the air campaign over Libya in 2011, British and French policy-makers were acutely aware of the dangers of having the intervention appear as a western, neo-colonial adventure – akin to the Suez debacle of 1956. That is why a week after the authorization of the no-fly zone, the mission was absorbed by NATO (which has a much broader membership), and was augmented by the forces of a few key countries from the Arab world.

The decision announced on Monday also has to be seen in the context of two other trends. The first is the general degradation of the diplomatic function under the Harper government. Funding for DFAIT’s activities has been steadily cut, and the independence of diplomats has been compromised. At the same time, much greater emphasis has been placed on more muscular aspects of our foreign policy – contributing to what some have described as an attempt to transform Canada into a “warrior nation.”

The other trend is the elevation of all things “royal.” Portraits of the Queen have been rehung in our foreign missions. Our army has reassumed the royal label as part of its name. It’s no secret that Stephen Harper is an anglophile. He was much more comfortable, early in his tenure, with reaching out to India (a fellow member of the Commonwealth) than to China.

That’s why it was so enticing to stage a joint press conference with the British Foreign Secretary in Ottawa. If these changes are really so minor, why the fanfare? This question is particularly pertinent if we consider the re-election of the Parti Québécois in Quebec. PQ leader Pauline Marois must be salivating at the thought of leveraging the new policy of cohabitation to reassert the need for Quebec to have its own voice internationally.

Finally, we need to remember that this policy involves two players, with two sets of motivations. Britain, too, is interested in cost-saving and greater reach in emerging markets. But then, why cohabitate with Canada, rather than with fellow members of the European Union (a body that has formal structures for devising a common European foreign policy)? Some British papers hint that William Hague (known to be more skeptical of Europe than previous Labour foreign secretaries) is attempting to create a Commonwealth structure to rival the European External Action Service, which pools the resources and efforts of diplomats from the European Union. Under this scenario, Britain would seek to expand cohabitation to include Australia and New Zealand. While no explicit mention was made of this broader objective on Monday, Canadians will need to consider whether they would wish to invest in the strengthening of Commonwealth co-operation.

Cohabitation no doubt has its benefits. But it also has significant risks, especially at a time when the symbolic power of embassies has translated into real and present danger for those who inhabit them.

Jennifer Welsh discussed this topic recently with Paul Heinbecker and Allan Gotlieb on CBC Radio's The Current. You can listen here.

Photo courtesy of Reuters