Once a pioneer of public diplomacy, Canada’s reputation has quickly fallen by the wayside.
I have recently been reviewing Diplomacy in the Digital Age, a collection of essays prepared in honour of Allan Gotlieb, a former Undersecretary of State for External Affairs and Canada’s ambassador in Washington from 1981-89. It is an absorbing anthology, and contains valuable entries, penned, in some instances, by those who worked with Gotlieb during his time in the U.S. Quite apart from eliciting specific reactions to the content of the volume, reading it has also spurred me to reflect on the larger issue of what became of Canada’s once considerable contribution to the study and practice of public diplomacy (PD).
The Government of Canada was, until fairly recently, regarded as somewhat of a PD pioneer. That reputation would now be difficult to sustain. Indeed, I have come to the rather stark realization that, whatever this country may at one time have achieved by way of advancing its interests through PD, those days are now long gone.
In official and political circles in Ottawa today, little or nothing is heard of PD. The practice, and even the use of the term, has been discouraged within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and the function has been almost completely de-resourced.
Hence, the questions must be put: What, exactly, did Canada manage to achieve in terms of PD outcomes over the past several decades? Why has PD fallen from grace? And, finally, can any lessons of broader relevance be adduced?
Canadian academics, and several serving and former diplomats, have, over time, been active in the conceptualization and analysis of PD. Publications such as Allan Gotlieb’s I’ll Be With You in a Minute, Mr. Ambassador, Gordon Smith’s Virtual Diplomacy, Rob McRae and Don Hubert’s Human Security and the New Diplomacy, Andy Cooper’s Celebrity Diplomacy, Evan Potter’s Branding Canada, and perhaps even my own Guerrilla Diplomacy have been seen by some as breaking new ground in the field.
In addition to these intellectual contributions, the Canadian foreign ministry has been deeply involved in the practical application of PD. Beginning in the 1980s, most of Canada’s major diplomatic undertakings – the 1981 Cancun Summit on North-South relations, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1984 peace crusade, the acid-rain and free-trade pacts with the U.S., the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone-layer depletion, and the Commonwealth campaign to end apartheid in southern Africa – included a significant PD component. Even if not labelled as public diplomacy at the time, a willingness to connect directly with foreign populations, the strategic use of the media, and tactics such as forging partnerships with business and civil society were integral to each of these initiatives.
In the early 1990s, and quite explicitly so by the second half of the decade, PD moved even closer to the centre of Canadian international policy. In the organization and delivery of the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development, throughout the so-called “fish war” with Spain in 1994, and particularly during Lloyd Axworthy’s four-year tenure as foreign minister (1996-2000), PD, and the related notion of “soft power,” were the order of the day.
Charged with implementing the severe expenditure reductions associated with the government-wide Program Review exercise of the mid-1990s, Axworthy must have concluded that the page had to be turned on old ways, and that global order projects would accordingly have to be set aside. But he was clearly not prepared to accept that this meant inaction. To the contrary, he demanded that DFAIT officials identify innovative ways for Canada to “make a difference.” He was determined to find opportunity in adversity, even if faced with opposition from the U.S. and other major powers, and, indeed, from many Canadians.
DFAIT staff rose to the challenge, and came forth with a series of proposals. In the campaigns leading to the signature of the Treaty Banning Land Mines in 1997 and the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998, Axworthy attained his objectives by nurturing partnerships with international civil society and similarly inclined countries. He also reached out in an unprecedented fashion to the journalists, the academic community, and NGOs at home, mainly through the creation of the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development and the Public Diplomacy Fund at DFAIT.
The same approach, in varying degrees, was seen in initiatives intended to limit the spread of small arms, to underscore the plight of children in war zones and curb the use of child soldiers, and to restrict the sale of “conflict diamonds” through the launch of the Kimberly Process. Canada also sponsored the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose final report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” though initially overtaken by the events of 9/11, resurfaced and was adopted in principle at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2005.
Taken together, Axworthy’s achievements were artfully – and, in part, retrospectively – packaged by officials into a remarkably coherent program, which came to be known as the Human Security Agenda. Although that policy direction did not survive for long following the minister’s departure from office, the record of activity in the second half of the 1990s stands nonetheless as an enduring testament to the power and potential of Canadian PD. It was a high point that has not been revisited since. To a significant extent, I would suggest that, whatever remains, Canada’s positive international reputation – its brand – still relies on these, and earlier accomplishments.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.