Mark Collins – “The Irrelevant Diplomat: Do We Need Embassies Anymore?”

Or: “What these days are diplomats good for and good at? The Canadian Case”. Further to this piece (put online by a retired American diplomat) at Foreign Affairs by a member of an Australian think tank, an erstwhile Canadian foreign service officer responds with respect to this country’s conduct of external relations:

This is a very balanced article. It points out that embassy reporting is still valuable for providing context to the flow of information in many forms. It also alludes to the value of networking with people of influence and knowledge.

I wonder if the issue is not so much embassies as it is diplomats. We can develop multiple kinds of bricks and mortar as the article notes. But the kind of diplomat–whether male or female, visible minority or not–may be the real issue. There are an awful lot of people with superiority complexes, even now and still far too many who see foreign service as a lifestyle, culminating in the ambassadorship. The “golden age” of influence stifles a more realistic Canadian diplomacy that would take more account of current problems than declarations of being “back.”

The core value added by diplomats should be their in-depth understanding of the cultures and states with which we must interact and their ability to provide that contextual knowledge to better articulate the flood of knowledge that can overwhelm even the most assiduous of social media and Internet readers. NGO’s and transplanted foreign nationals, for their part, all have their own agendas. Meanwhile discussions with some of our diplomats regarding their assignments often reveal a truly embarrassing superficiality.

My point suggests that we need to pay more attention to training but not the kinds currently fashionable. We provide brief scattergun courses which are more a relief from the daily grind than an improvement in credibility through knowledge.

We have cut difficult foreign language training but the language is one of the best teachers of a culture. Because of the lack of seriousness in the modern university, we need to educate our diplomats in such soft topics as history, literature and political economy of the states we do business with. This is also true for specialists in defence and arms control, technology and environment. There is a need to recognize that training requires time and the departmental staff has to be sized to allow officers the opportunity to take a language or a three or six month course on their country of accreditation or special field, not a week or two.

We also need to allow diplomats to specialize in national and regional affairs so they can use their language and cultural knowledge in steadily more senior positions. Fast rotations and strings of unrelated assignments undercut the foreign service’s ability to speak with authority.
It may be that the traditional foreign service has to go. Would Canadian diplomacy be better off with fewer lifers and more people brought in for, say, a posting plus an headquarters assignment?

The issues of security and cost are not easily fixed. On security, we may simply have to withdraw from the most dangerous places and do business at the UN. On costs, the obvious place to cut is the ambassadorial establishment where excessively grand residences and staff are hard to defend within the government and with the citizens. Our Internet presence is weak.

In Canada, there is no groundswell of opinion defending the department or the foreign service, outside of a few voices of retired ambassadors defending their past careers and the perks. Canadian governments have ignored the foreign service and embassies with no obvious harm to the national interest, unless one sees a Security Council seat as the ultimate goal of our international strategy. In getting things done in the current international environment, Canadian governments have clearly decided that the intelligence services and the military are far more useful in working with allies and others.


Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s