My career at Global Affairs Canada began in 1990 shortly before air-launched cruise missiles smashed into targets in Baghdad in an internationally televised spectacle of high-tech warfare. It was a violent and inauspicious beginning for what was supposed to be the post-Cold War “new world order.” More benignly, the years that followed saw the growth of a broad economic and political consensus around the merits of the rules-based multilateral order.
If the events of the Persian Gulf War were astounding in their day, more striking 26 years later was the almost unbelievable election of Donald Trump to the US presidency on November 4, 2016, setting off a political earthquake in which the accepted precepts of beneficial globalization were thrown into profound doubt, shaken and badly fractured.
In my final months at Global Affairs before my January 2018 retirement, I worked again at the imposing Pearson Building headquarters. I was assigned to a program to help small- and medium-sized Canadian firms take advantage of market access opened by an array of trade agreements signed over the previous three decades. These included the NAFTA, the EU-Canada trade deal, the incipient Trans-Pacific Partnership, the still-extant Uruguay Round agreement to establish the World Trade Organization, and numerous bilateral and regional deals, such as those with the Pacific Alliance countries, including Chile.
Global Affairs’ trade commissioner service was one of several federal agencies, government-wide, allied in the “accelerated growth service” which was to equip highly competitive small- and medium-sized firms with greater means for rapid expansion, including enhanced access to new foreign markets. While focused on the very practical details of companies’ business plans, it was still impossible to ignore the not-so-distant blows being struck against the Canadian international trade policy edifice that might hobble these companies’ chances in years to come.
The NAFTA, which consumed so much labour in my early days at headquarters, was North America’s fundamental economic charter. As Trump sought to renegotiate it, once carefully balanced measures became a play chest whose contents were to be tossed about and fiddled with. Trump blamed the NAFTA for many of the United States’ economic ills, and his pledge to renegotiate it was based on crude and narrow economic views. Scorning its features founded on a rules-based approach to international commerce, Trump embarked on a series of arbitrary actions wholly alien to the original spirit of the deal. It was no surprise that his administration announced countervailing and anti-dumping duties against Canadian softwood lumber after the expiry of the 2006 softwood lumber deal. But it was unprecedented that he would impose duties against Canadian aluminum and steel exports on spurious “national security” grounds.
Neither of these issues – not lumber, nor steel and aluminum – was resolved in the 2018 revision of NAFTA, the Canada-US-Mexico Trade Agreement. The Trump administration later relented and abandoned the steel and aluminum tariffs, only to re-impose them and then again relent on the eve of the 2020 US presidential election.
Canada’s communication strategy for the 2018 round clearly differed from the NAFTA strategy for the 1994 agreement. The Trump administration made no secret of its objectives for rolling back original provisions. It was imperative therefore that the Canadian negotiation team be seen to resist these demands. Rather than keeping their own counsel, Canadian negotiators publicly floated compromise solutions, determined to be showing publicly the good faith in which it was trying to negotiate. Among these proposals were, for example, change to rules of origin on vehicles which were eventually successfully incorporated in the amended deal.
The new agreement cleared all legislative approval processes in all three countries and became effective as an international treaty on July 1, 2020. The general verdict is that Canada, through the skilful work of a team of highly skilled negotiators, managed to contain its losses and preserve the essence of the original NAFTA. Significantly, the deal dropped the chapter on investor-state dispute settlement, which had served as the most prominent lightning rod for critics of the original deal. Such a chapter, ironically, was what Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had sought to “modernize” in the Canada-Chile free trade agreement.
Although most of the world economy safely emerged from the 2008-2009 financial crisis, that sharp recession and its aftermath contributed to major shifts in public perceptions. Whereas the mainstream view of the globalized economy before the financial crisis was that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the recession exposed a shocking disparity between average incomes in many of the world’s developed economies and the massive concentration of financial resources in the hands the world’s wealthiest. A sense of growing inequality and income stagnation was a factor in the success of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the 2015 election, built on an appeal to strengthening the middle class and “those working hard to join it,” as the slogan went. But in the United States politics took a less conventional turn, as they did in Britain where voters narrowly approved a referendum favouring Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Well-founded perceptions of growing economic inequity worldwide made the pursuit of international trade agreements a much harder sell than a few years before. Those agreements were significantly to blame for rising inequality, in the views of many. This was fertile ground for the growth of protectionism and a rejection of the notion that steady and incremental opening of world markets leads on average to greater prosperity worldwide. To counter this, the government of Canada struggled to define a “progressive trade agenda” that aimed to convince Canadians that trade deals could be negotiated to foster better distributed economic outcomes for Canadians. To date there is little evidence that new measures so far negotiated in the European, Trans-Pacific or Chilean agreements on gender, labour and environmental rights are anything more than hortatory.
The streets of Moscow offered insight into income-disparity in post-Cold War Russia when I participated there in air traffic negotiations in the early 2000s. Only steps from Red Square were car dealerships selling Jaguars and Maseratis. Not much farther away was a garishly illuminated casino. The excesses of Russia’s fledgling market economy were provocations to many Russians for whom the promise of a freer society had not improved living standards. Rather, their lives were tainted by widespread economic misery. In the early 2000s, there was still hope though that Russia and the West could move closer together with more common understandings on civil freedoms and open markets. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien mused in his memoirs: “The integration of Russia into the EU would have added a population of 175 million people and the vast resources of this immense country, the largest in the world, to the common European market . . . Europe would have gained even more power and influence. . .What possibilities for our Western world! . . . Imagine where we would be today if we had continued on the path of reconciliation with Russia.” But a further plunge in living standards soured many Russians on the promise of free markets and encouraged Vladimir Putin to mobilize Russians around a new nationalism. The rapid expansion of NATO to former Warsaw Pact nations sowed distrust in Russian officialdom about Western intentions. The touted post-Cold War peace dividend that encouraged, for example, the MOX fuel disarmament initiative in which I took part, vanished like so many speculative mining shares. At the same time, Russia was trying to reclaim its post-Cold War influence, and among other revanchist acts, finding in a corrupt South African President Jacob Zuma a willing buyer of its nuclear technology.
Global Affairs’ commitment to economic growth through greater international trade was fundamental to its mission. So was the conviction held by many of my colleagues that human rights promotion would lead to a better world of more enlightened regimes, fostering economic opportunities and civil freedoms. Trade and human rights would work in tandem. Freer markets would produce more independent economic actors, who would themselves strive to create freer societies.
As I took leave of the department, that faith was being severely challenged. Rather than cultivating a more open and tolerant society, an increasingly powerful China, for example, was not only becoming more practically authoritarian but was strengthening its authoritarian ideology. “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” eschewed discussion of human rights. Point five of the 14-point program states: “Improving people’s livelihood and well-being is the primary goal of development.” Of course. But in Xi Jinping thought political freedoms are impediments to a harmoniously working society and greater prosperity, not implements. And China rewards regimes that share its disparaging views of political freedom.
I had seen the growing economic influence of China in my diplomatic postings. Chinese construction firms were active in Namibia, their textile firms in South Africa, where they supplied Chinese-origin labour working outside those countries’ labour codes. Chinese miners bought their way into the Madagascar mining sector with direct payments to the then-unelected government. The Zuma government in South Africa pursued a wholly uncritical course of closer relations with China through the BRICS and strongly supported the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, a BRICS initiative heavily relying on Chinese capital. I first heard of the “belt-and-road” initiative, China’s plan to build a network of transportation infrastructure encircling the globe, at a Chinese-sponsored seminar in Santiago, Chile. As I left my assignment there, Chinese investors were beginning to make major plays in the resource sector, including through purchasing some Canadian-held assets.
Readers will have noticed that these memoirs did not address one of Canada’s most significant foreign policy challenges in the era described here: our participation in the war on Afghanistan to initially oust the instigators of the 9/11 terrorist attack and to try to install an effectively secular democratic regime. It was my good fortune not to have been assigned to any posts directly involving that war. But striving to build a more stable and democratic Afghanistan was clearly a worthy – if not futile -- challenge for Canadian foreign policy.
In today’s world, old liberal verities are being supplanted by growing authoritarian ones. This is the broad picture, but this is often only in the background in the practical, day-to-day conduct of diplomacy, the plane on which most employees of foreign ministries function most of the time. In my own specific experience that meant, for instance, acquiring airline routes, managing softwood lumber quotas, handing out cultural grants, facilitating travel for foreign visitors, organizing attendance at international meetings, helping companies make foreign sales and investments, and other tasks, some more tangible than others.
Practical exchanges among friends and neighbours continue, often irrespective of ideology. In this more pedestrian world, a number of accomplishments stand out for me as highlights during my time working for Canada, promoting our interests abroad.
My participation in the embassy-led roundtables with Canadian mining firms in Santiago, Chile opened my eyes to the degree to which “corporate social responsibility” has become such an important part of companies’ business planning. There is the realization that without the support of local communities and without abiding by the strictest environmental standards, companies will simply not be able to build their projects and achieve returns for shareholders. If there are still companies that exploit communities in some countries with poorly regulated resource planning, my experience in Chile demonstrated the value of CSR-oriented companies operating in concert with mining administrations that have an eye on sustainable development. This atmosphere proved critical to the Chilean government’s adoption of a modified Canadian model for project approvals, which served both Chile’s and Canada’s interests and which was a direct outcome of the Canadian embassy’s efforts. (That our model seemed to work better in Chile than in our own country, given the uncertainty that still, for example, plagues the Trans Mountain Pipeline, says much about the constitutional tangle among our provinces, Indigenous communities and our courts).
The advocacy that led to a Canadian company’s obtaining its licence to operate a multi-billion-dollar-project in Madagascar, while at the same time encouraging a return to democracy in that island state, was a critical achievement for the Canadian high commission in South Africa. The tightly choreographed representation with like-minded embassies and international organizations such as La Francophonie was a model of how a country with Canada’s reputation and diplomatic resources can achieve a result in Canadian interests.
A lot of international travel is as much a burden as a perquisite for diplomats. The destinations can be fascinating; the process of getting there and back in this security-conscious age can be aggravating. Nonetheless, when I consider the agreements negotiated with a range of countries during my assignment to the air traffic negotiations team, Canada’s connections to the foreign markets, big and small, expanded considerably. The network of international air traffic rights, overseen by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is a remarkable example of how international cooperation can provide a modern, safe and secure public good – largely free of political meddling and ideological bias – that benefits the entire global community.
The war in Kosovo in 1999 was a qualified success for the fledging “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine. Albanian-speaking Kosovars were rescued from the kind of “ethnic cleansing” experienced earlier by the people of neighbouring Bosnia. Global Affairs’ communications efforts at the time contributed to the Canadian public’s general support for Canada’s largest military intervention since the Korean War. Still, R2P is a contentious doctrine. Kosovo may have been one of its only successful applications. The 2011 war to back anti-Khadafy rebels in Libya, during which Canada sometimes justified its aerial bombardment under the R2P doctrine, opened an era of ongoing violence in Libya that has not subsided at the time of writing.
Some achievements during my time at Global Affairs were ambiguous. South Africa is an important political and commercial partner for Canada, but our relations had become fractious. If the Canadian high commission worked hard to improve the relationship during my assignment, it was difficult to determine if we were succeeding when I left in 2013. Certainly, that most prominent irritant, the de jure prohibition on travel to Canada by pre-1990 members of the African National Congress remained in place. The evident political will to remove the restriction never persuaded security officials to give up their resistance. Yet Canada’s rejoining the countries that endorse the international convention on the prevention of climate change certainly brought Canada’s and South Africa’s policies into realignment in that area. And the replacement of President Zuma by President Cyril Ramaphosa, determined to root out the corruption of his predecessor, made the South African government a more palatable interlocutor.
My administrative role in the elimination of Promart, the international arts promotion program, evokes mixed feelings. It was perhaps my biggest management challenge, and I was pleased – putting aside my personal views of the importance of the arts in public diplomacy – with being able to wind it down without bureaucratic mishap and in a professional manner. Still, I came to see the program as a valuable one that could lift Canada’s profile and burnish our identity abroad. I am unconvinced that the new resources put into cultural diplomacy by the current government are gaining the same traction.
Diplomacy is often seen as arcane and elitist. I hope that this memoir shows that it is neither. At its peak, the work of diplomacy is strenuous and focused on results. Even official cocktail parties, seen by some as trivial entertainments, are more often rites carefully choreographed and frequently endured to keep up diplomatic networks and gather intelligence. What I have tried to weave through this narrative is a portrait of the variety of activities that constitute diplomatic work.
Also, contrary to its elite reputation, the Department offers opportunities which Canadians from many economic and social strata have seized and mastered. Among heads of mission whom I served were the daughter of a hunting and camping outfitter, and the son of an immigrant steelworker. Another put himself through university picking cherries in the summer in the Okanagan, where he also learned English. I myself am the immigrant son of a father who was an architectural draughtsman and a peace activist mother who encouraged my interest in international affairs. Growing up in a suburb of modest bungalows in southwest Calgary did not predestine me for a career in Canadian diplomacy.
Most officers in the Canadian foreign service pride themselves on their commitment to the work of diplomacy and they comprise collectively a group who believe they have been selected by merit. However, this cohesion has been undermined in recent years with the falling into disuse of the national foreign service competitions which used to be the point of access to a foreign service career. Those competitions used to take place annually, with senior departmental officials fanning out across the country to conduct interviews on university campuses to identify candidates for defined political, international trade, and consular “streams”. In recent years, these contests have not been held, and many recruits have come from various university international affairs or MBA programs, hired individually on short-term contracts and made permanent employees later. This has caused consternation among some of the past cohorts of the traditional competitions. It is worth heeding their arguments that the vocation of diplomat who follows a formal career path and develops particular skills and specialities may be being eroded. However, my departmental career followed an earlier one in journalism, and to me it was satisfying that the Department did recognize that it could benefit from expertise outside the traditional diplomatic, international trade and consular “streams.”
One thing is clear though, and that is that during the time in which I worked at Foreign/Global Affairs, the workforce has become increasingly diverse, such that the proportion of Department’s employees who are women or who are visible minorities comes close to matching those proportions in the Canadian labour market at large.
Diplomacy is a conservative métier by nature. Foreign ministries exchange diplomatic notes. Ambassadors undertake démarches. Negotiated texts are sanctified in agreed minutes. These hoary means and procedures are used precisely because everyone, from no matter what kind of regime, understands them. They are ways of stripping away the superfluous and communicating through a common language. Foreign ministries are usually mirror images of themselves, with a few variations. They have bureaus of bilateral and multilateral affairs. They have geographic desks, legal bureaux, and policy directorates, and, of course, offices of protocol. The traditional architecture of diplomatic work contributes to its longevity. Diplomacy will endure, largely using the same methods and structures as in the past, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding and provide a bulwark – although obviously not an entirely impregnable one – to international stability.
The dryness of diplomacy’s formal practices does not detract from the vitality of its purpose. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have entered this world when I was hired by the Department of External Affairs and International Trade in 1990. As a journalist I was comfortable being a generalist. Once I had won the department’s confidence, I was offered a wide variety of diverse assignments. My career was a continuing education. I conceived and organized communications strategies. I participated in trade negotiations. I administered trade controls. I managed cultural grants. I advocated Canadian positions to heads of state. I promoted the interests of Canadian companies. And I learned to master some of the arts of management in a complex government bureaucracy. In all of this, there were only a few moments when I didn’t believe I was serving Canadians, furthering their and our country’s interests in a complex and multi-faceted international environment.
In my postings abroad, I had the great fortune to be accompanied by my wife, Suzanne. The role of the diplomatic spouse is often underappreciated. In so many cases, they offer unheralded support to their partners and to the work of Canadian missions. The government of Canada provides allowances that compensate to a small degree for spouses’ loss of employment opportunities when going abroad. But their knowledge and expertise often add considerable value to a diplomat’s mission. In Suzanne’s case, she established an exemplary network among other foreign missions in Pretoria to promote the French language; gave occasional administrative assistance to the missions; and deployed her considerable aptitude in the areas of hospitality and protocol during both ministerial and governor-general visits in both South Africa and Chile. Both I and the missions to which I was accredited benefited from her lifetime of knowledge, her unfailing charm, and her natural grace.
The world of 2019 is much different than that of 1989. As this book contends, we have passed through a distinct historical era, leaving behind the tense lands of the Cold War, traversing the high tide of liberal internationalism to reach the murky shores of a new, uncertain epoque yet to be named. For Canada, the foreign policy challenges of today’s unanchored world are as great, or greater than, any we have encountered as a nation before. Dealing with them will be the responsibility of my ex-colleagues and the future recruits of Global Affairs Canada. What is clear is, that in working for Canada, there will be plenty of work to do.
Jean Chrétien, My Stories, My Times, Penguin Random House 2018, pp 59 - 60 ↑