Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs must become more permeable

Michael Kovrig (far left) and Michael Spavor (embracing Barton), accompanied by Canadian Ambassador to China Domenic Barton, are greeted upon arrival by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being released from detention in China in Calgary on September 25, 2021.


Now that Meng Wanzhou and the two Michael’s are back home, Canada can define a comprehensive approach to relations with China, as part of a broader strategy of engagement with the countries of the Indo-Pacific. Where can we?

“Overall, Canada continues to have a highly skilled foreign service,” said Roland Paris, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who was foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “But he needs to develop skills in the Indo-Pacific.”

This is one of the main reasons why the Department of Foreign Affairs – Global Affairs Canada, the department’s latest nickname, is anathema to this writer – needs to become more permeable.

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Foreign Affairs does a good job, by international standards, responding to the needs of Canadians living or visiting abroad and representing Canada in day-to-day interactions with foreign powers. Over the past decade, the ministry’s trade arm has entered into or renegotiated ambitious agreements with countries in Europe, the Pacific and North America. The ministry also administers foreign aid.

But talent is scarce on the ground when it comes to analyzing and responding to the global transfer of power from the Atlantic regions to the Pacific regions and India. Relations with China are particularly complex, involving human rights, trade, environment, immigration, agriculture and defense.

There is a general feeling within government that Foreign Affairs, the foreign policy workshops of other government departments, officials in the Privy Council Office and those in the Prime Minister’s Office collectively lack the numbers and depth to think about the big ones. challenges facing Canada. This is why the American model is so much better.

With each change of administration, the senior officers of the federal public service in Washington are replaced by candidates from the new administration. Yes, it is heavy, partisan, time consuming and unnecessary.

But, as I have writing in the past, it has also provided the United States with a more open government and a public policy elite that alternates between mandates of government, academia, think tanks, and business. The government benefits from this real world experience.

The public service of Canada is largely closed to outside influences, which weakens its analytical capacity. One way to improve this situation would be to parachute into the department people from universities, think tanks and companies for limited engagements on specific issues.

The Chinese analysis, for example, could benefit from input from some of the 1.8 million Chinese Canadians, business leaders with interests in China, NGO leaders who document human rights abuses. man in China, from institutions such as the Munk School in Toronto. or the Canada West Foundation of Calgary.

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University and think-tank analysts “have in-depth knowledge outside the control of the Government of Canada and can provide advice on how to approach particular issues and policies,” said Gary Mar, President and Chief Executive Officer. the leadership of the Canada West Foundation. He said other federal departments could also benefit from external contributors.

Integrating foreigners into the department for a year or two to work on politics – how to persuade India to open up to trade, how to finally get an invitation to officially join the East Asia Summit, how balancing interests and values ​​in relations with Beijing – would increase competence while limiting bilingualism or onerous security requirements.

Those serving life sentences at Foreign Affairs would resist. But they would get used to it.

Last week, President Joe Biden met with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia, which, along with the United States, form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad). The previous week, the United States, Great Britain and Australia had announced the creation of AUKUS, a new trilateral security agreement.

Canada is clearly absent from these associations. Meanwhile, “we are all waiting for Canada to release its framework for its comprehensive China policy,” US Ambassador candidate David Cohen said in a Senate confirmation hearing last week. .

While we all wait, let’s think about how we can open the federal government and the public service to outside voices and expertise.

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