Canadian multilateralism is stuck in old habits; an alternative diplomacy strategy is desperately needed.
“Multilateralism is a means to an end….Our diplomatic corps sometimes treats the multilateral system-the UN, in particular-in quasi-religious terms, where fealty and process matter more than results. There is no good multilateralism and bad multilateralism. There is not prestige in merely being at a table. All that matters is results.” – from “Multilateralism: The Revolution,” Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age
Chapter 2 of Open Canada, entitled “Multilateralism: The Revolution,” is hardly revolutionary. It deals with diplomacy in an interdependent, connected and network-centric world, and much of what appears has been seen in one form or another elsewhere. Consider, for example, suggestions that the G20 is eclipsing the G8, or that Canada should revisit the merits of participation in peacekeeping operations after a prolonged absence. While there is no harm in re-floating sensible ideas, the section’s more powerful appeal is found at a higher level of analysis.
For example, most of the other chapter titles in Open Canada reflect the set of existing priorities that are being used to define this country’s global interests – the U.S., the Western Hemisphere, Asia, the Arctic, prosperity, defence, and security. Multilateralism, however, does not figure centrally or explicitly on the government’s list, the ongoing Canadian campaign for a UN Security Council seat notwithstanding. As an international policy instrument, multilateralism has lately taken a back seat to defence and trade. Reference to diplomacy, which the authors of Open Canada tend to use synonymously with multilateralism, is similarly absent in most official strategy. That’s why Open Canada’s elevation of multilateralism – a.k.a. diplomacy – to a core list of recommended activities is encouraging.
Equally interesting is decision of the authors to frame their discussion of a failing states strategy under the rubric of multilateralism rather than defence and security. Inherent in that choice is a conviction that failing states are best treated with non-military tools, diplomacy and development foremost amongst them. That, too, is laudable, and dovetails well with a conclusion that I have advanced elsewhere: that public diplomacy rather than aggressive war-fighting should have a central place in counterinsurgency.
The authors favour a concentration on assistance to failing states as a focus for Canadian international policy post-Afghanistan, and in this context raise the idea of “knowledge diplomacy.” Were this recommendation to be accepted, our capacity would have to be honed considerably. The report highlights the importance of knowledge diplomacy in areas such as energy; multicultural diversity; water; democratic development; and international education, but it is hard to imagine real progress on these files under prevailing circumstances. To improve performance and produce results, significant reform and reinvestment would be required.
This means granting Canadian foreign service officers substantially greater room to manoeuvre in order to permit complex and difficult problems to be resolved adroitly. Simply identifying objectives is not enough. Canadian representatives must be vested with the confidence, trust and respect necessary not only to tap quickly and effectively into the global political economy of knowledge, but then to bring the results to bear in a timely fashion and with maximum effect.
Multiple layers of oversight and endless consultation with superiors and headquarters would not be the business model of choice for knowledge diplomats. The need to transform diplomatic structures, culture and technique is arguably a major implicit element of Chapter 2. Part and parcel of this revolution in diplomacy should be the creation of an institution capable of supporting innovative policy-making and enlightened diplomatic practice.
A stand-alone entity dedicated to the exploration of diplomatic alternatives – and alternative diplomacy – would not suffer from the diffuse objectives and vexing administrative overheads of a government department. Preferably, this project would be undertaken outside of the foreign ministry, where the generation of new thinking sometimes takes a back seat to career and political considerations. Such an enterprise would adopt values such as flexibility, adaptability, teamwork, continuous learning and risk tolerance. The use of new media and virtual networks would figure centrally.
The establishment of a cross-cutting, public-private and independent network node for the promotion of diplomacy would both burnish the Canadian brand and serve as a concrete expression of this country’s comparative advantage internationally. A whole-of-government, whole-of-Canada “Institute for Diplomatic Alternatives” could, for example, develop innovative diplomatic strategy and tactics; identify and advocate approaches and solutions to global issues and problems; generate creative ideas on crisis remediation and conflict resolution; conduct research and analysis, develop policy, provide advice; undertake continuous outreach to journalists, attentive publics, and opinion leaders; engage strategic partners on all sides of key issues; produce events (conferences, symposia, round tables); edit and publish an e-journal of alternative diplomacy; and design and deliver training and professional development programs.
The management of international relations non-violently, through dialogue, negotiation and compromise, is a worthy end deserving of additional means. To get to the “multilateral revolution” which the authors of Open Canada plainly seek, those considering the recommendations in Chapter 2 might usefully think beyond the existing range of options. Contemplating the merits of a distinctively Canadian “Institute for Diplomatic Alternatives,” one equipped to broach the most complex and difficult of global challenges, seems a good place to start.