When, in 2009, cumulative core budget cuts forced, among other things, a freeze in the travel and hospitality funds of Canadian embassies, seriously handicapping our representatives abroad, official Ottawa shrugged.

No one came to the defence of the department that Ottawa, especially the PMO, loves to hate. So the "dips" had to stick to their desks. So what? No one, or almost no one in Ottawa, has access to hospitality funds. Why should the effete foreign service?

But travel and hospitality funds are the diplomatic equivalent of military force multipliers, like helicopters and satellite communications—and they cost a lot less. The entire hospitality budget for Foreign Affairs, $13.5 million, is less than the cost of purchasing and servicing one executive jet, of which DND has five in its fleet of aircraft.

These funds make our diplomats, our trade commissioners and even our consular officers abroad a lot more effective—for Canadians.

Canadian diplomats need local travel funds so they can get around their countries of accreditation, understand first-hand how Canadian interests are affected, and build relationships designed to protect and advance those interests.

For example, I arrived in Germany as ambassador shortly after the Berlin Wall came down and made it my business to travel in the former East Germany in order to understand what the collapse of communism meant for Germany, for international security and for Canada. I also promoted investment by Canadian firms in the economically bereft East where opportunities abounded.

Elsewhere in Germany, I used travel funds to meet with bankers, business leaders, media organizations, environmental groups and academics to promote investment in Canada, defend Canada's environmental record—notably on forestry and seals—while rallying support for our side in the Canada-EU "Cod War" and encouraging studies of Canada at German universities. I also promoted Canadian arts and science, in part to demonstrate to influential Germans that Canada needed to be taken seriously.

I could have sat at my desk day in and day out and drawn the same pay, but that simply would not have advanced Canada's interests.

Similarly, representational funds are crucial, despite the controversy and resentments they trigger back home.

Happy throngs of official Ottawa are delighted to attend the Fourth of July receptions at the US Embassy, for example, or the Queen's Birthday reception or Bastille Day.

Yet many of these same party-goers seem unable to fathom why Canadian diplomats likewise need funds to establish contacts and cultivate relationships abroad.

The purpose of the "representational" funds is to develop a range of contacts and relationships that can be used to advance Canadian interests when the need arises. They are not for entertaining the neighbours or having relatives over at Christmas.

Unlike public servants in Ottawa, diplomats abroad do not have a lifetime to get to know the people they need to know in order to do their jobs effectively. Host country citizens, it should be stressed, are under no obligation to care about Canadian interests, or to be helpful.

Further, to promote or protect Canadian interests, it is not enough—and has not been enough for a hundred years—to talk to the Canada desk in the foreign ministry or State Department.

Canadian representatives need to be plugged into host country circles of influence, government, industry and civil society. When a problem or opportunity is at hand, it is too late to start identifying potential allies.

The most cost-effective way of cultivating relationships is official hospitality, especially in-home hospitality where the recipient gets a literal and figurative taste of Canada. It is even more effective if the diplomat's spouse acts as an unpaid event planner, dinner host, information gatherer and relationship-builder, all the while enduring deprecation from critics for not getting a life or having a career. By the way, there is no salary or pension for spouses working on what, in Canada, would be private time.

Hospitality is an integral part of representing the country. In New York as ambassador to the UN, I averaged something like 300 events a year, every single one with a business purpose. That meant about 150 evenings a year devoted to government business—after a full day of work.

When the time came to advise Ottawa on the looming catastrophe of the Iraq war or to influence the general UN membership to protect the International Criminal Court from the predations of the Bush administration, I drew on the contacts I had made. My predecessor Bob Fowler and the current ambassador John McNee have done likewise, for example, to secure votes for Canada for a seat on the UN Security Council, among many other things. For foreign service personnel, the evening work, i.e. dinners, receptions, etc., are integral to getting their jobs done effectively.

Former ambassador to Washington Allan Gotlieb made extraordinary use of his hospitality funds. It was not unusual to see two or three Cabinet secretaries, heads of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department leadership, White House officers, senators and members of the House of Representatives, corporate leaders, media heavyweights and so on at his events.

This range of contacts was indispensable in promoting Canadian interests in the US Congress. For example, the US Senate Finance Committee authorized free trade negotiations with Canada on a 10-10 vote, with the chairman, whose vote broke the tie, and other members of the committee among the many the embassy had cultivated). As Gotlieb observed recently on the suspension of hospitality funding by DFAIT: "If you don't have entertainment allowances, you're a dead duck, frankly."

A Canadian ambassador abroad is one part journalist, one part analyst, one part office manager, one part psychologist, one part restaurateur, one part advocate and one part flag-pole. In Ken Taylor's case in Iran, he was apparently also one part spy. There is nothing "nine-to-five" about it.

Or there didn't used to be. Regrettably, removing the force multipliers of travel and hospitality funds becomes a vicious circle. The less effective embassies become and the more their utility shrinks, the less persuasive the case for funding them. And the less they are funded, the less effective and useful they become. Then the government can sell off embassy property and move to the 'burbs, as is happening in Stockholm. Next you can get rid of the foreign service altogether. Perhaps that is the real agenda.

Paul Heinbecker served as Canadian ambassador to the UN and Germany and was chief foreign policy adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and inaugural director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University. His new book Canada's Coming Golden Age will be published in October.

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.