If the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade didn't get bad press these days, it might not get any at all. That wouldn't matter if, in this world of accelerating globalization, asymmetric warfare, cut-throat competition, environmental pressures, globe-trotting pandemics and humanitarian catastrophes, Canadian interests abroad did not need protecting. But that is the world we do live in and the department is Canada's forward defence.

Canada needs a highly competent foreign affairs department. Fortunately, it has one. Unfortunately, it is the department Ottawa loves to hate. Some criticism is warranted; the Auditor-General roasted the department for its lack of personnel strategies. But much is not. Some critics consider Foreign Affairs to be "out of touch with the town," when others find Ottawa out of touch with reality, according to a recent Public Policy Forum survey. Certain media jackals, on the basis of God knows what evidence, have actually asserted that the foreign service prefers cocktail parties to hockey games and that the effete diplomats are being mean to the lunch-bucket trade commissioners. Politicians, too, have been among the department's harshest critics, but also its strongest defenders, usually in that chronological order.

When Pierre Trudeau came to office, he preferred The New York Times to Foreign Affairs reports; but he came to depend heavily on the department, including for his high-profile peace mission. Brian Mulroney first threatened pink slips, then staffed his PMO with foreign service officers who helped deliver the free-trade agreement and other elements of his widely respected foreign policy.

Jean Chrétien initially voiced skepticism about the department, but gave it room to conceive and deliver the land mines treaty, the International Criminal Court and the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, together the innovative human security agenda for which Canada is still known abroad. The international policy statement initially exasperated Paul Martin, but it eventually came to be accepted as policy. Stephen Harper, for his part, expressed impatience to the ethnic media with Foreign Affairs' argumentativeness; he nevertheless relies on it to deliver his priorities abroad, notably his Americas strategy.

Prime ministers have generally come to appreciate the contribution the department makes, in large part because that contribution is vital. It establishes and consolidates contacts and relationships around the globe, permitting Ottawa to understand and anticipate international developments. For example, it was Foreign Affairs that counselled against participating in the Iraq war.

Foreign Affairs represents Canada abroad and advocates on our behalf, for example vis-à-vis Pakistan on the Taliban insurgency or Washington on cross-border travel. The department negotiates treaties, notably trade treaties that improve the framework in which business operates internationally.

It, also, co-ordinates and provides advice to other departments with interests abroad, and to provincial governments, to present as coherent a Canadian voice in the world as possible. Our embassies serve Canadians face-to-face, from counselling business people to assisting endangered travellers; last summer, Foreign Affairs managed the largest rescue effort in Canadian history, evacuating 14,000 people from the war zone in Lebanon. None of these roles is made redundant or is even diminished by a shrinking world or by the Internet. None is questioned by sensible people.

Still, improvements are both necessary and possible. Most fundamentally, the modus operandi between "the Centre," i.e., the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office, and Foreign Affairs needs work. One has a duty to deliberate and decide and the other has a duty to advise and implement. Officials have an obligation to tell leaders not what they want to hear, or what officials think leaders want to hear, but what leaders need to know. But, once having spoken truth to power (their truth, at least) and the government, having heard the advice, decides to ignore it, Foreign Affairs officers have the duty to implement the government's decisions faithfully. That is the implicit contract between governors and public servants in a democracy. Public servants who find a given decision too unpalatable have the option of stepping aside in the hope that the electorate will ultimately resolve the issue in their favour. Or, if they feel very strongly, they can step down.

Foreign Affairs does have its problems, but not those that many of its critics assume. One major problem is resources. At less than $2-billion, its budget is little more than a rounding error in the government's $200-billion accounts. Compared to the new military budget of about $15-billion, it is modest indeed. The government is right to rebuild the military but, given the "Golden Rule" of government, unless Foreign Affairs shares in this growth, Canadians are going to get a military-dominated foreign policy. And Foreign Affairs is not sharing in that growth.

Despite the fact that a dollar spent on diplomacy buys more security at the margin than a dollar spent on military hardware, Canada has fewer diplomats abroad than any other G8 country. Seventy-five per cent of foreign service jobs are in Ottawa, where operating costs are lower. While the federal budget surplus has been growing to $6.4-billion in the first three months of this fiscal year, the department has been struggling with enormous, progressive budget cuts. It is trying to sell off properties acquired decades, even generations, ago for one-time infusions of cash. This effort is accompanied by the usual media scorn for the un-Canadian lifestyles of presumed self-indulgent diplomats, with little appreciation of the operational value of those assets and no reference to the diplomats living in the 25 places abroad, including Kandahar, where bullet-proof cars are necessary just to drive down the street.

Then there is the vexing issue of foreign service itself, especially the reluctance of some middle managers to leave Ottawa because of the very significant financial, career and pension penalties their spouses incur in accompanying them: quite simply, no pay, no careers and no pensions. Meanwhile, younger officers wait in line to go abroad. While there are exceptions to the rule, experience abroad is indispensable to individuals' acquiring both the capacity to understand the world and the depth of judgment to give sound policy advice about international relations and events. This worldliness, cumulative over time and aggregated among its officers, is fundamental to the value-added Foreign Affairs offers government. Fixing these problems will take imagination, notably staffing our posts abroad with both older and younger people, and more money, not less. Other governments face similar problems but none seriously entertains the idea of diminishing their foreign services, let alone of dispensing with them.

The problems that plague Foreign Affairs are neither new nor unique to Canada, but they become more, not less, serious as time goes by. Any would try the judgment of Solomon and together they are daunting. But for the sake of Canadians, they need to be solved. The department and the "Centre" both, should get on with it.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.