Three factors contribute to what I see as our declining performance in steering an international course for Canada. The first is persistent confusion about our role as a middle power. Because our core economic and security interests have been safely embedded in a stable and largely comfortable relationship with the United States, we have felt free to choose where and how we engage elsewhere on the international scene. This has enabled us to play and, indeed, to help invent the role of middle power. The vocation has been well defined by Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia, another country that has aspired to middle-power status. According to Evans, “Middle Power diplomacy is, in short, the kind of diplomacy which can, and should, be practised by states which are not big or strong enough, either in their own region or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else, but who do recognize that there are international policy tasks that need to be accomplished if the world around them is to be safer, saner, more just and more prosperous (with all the potential this has, in turn, to affect their own interests); and who have sufficient capacity and credibility to be able to advance those tasks.”

Canada’s middle-power vocation has mainly been pursued through a network of international organizations, with the United Nations at its heart. And just as Evans delicately places in parentheses the possibility that making the world a better place may pay dividends at home, we have been similarly circumspect about making a direct connection between the global good and our own interests. That may be because of our natural generosity, but it could also be because we’ve been so confident that our core interests are already safely protected in our North American cocoon. At times, we have seemed unaware of the connection between our global activism and our national interest, even in its long-term sense. As former Canadian diplomat Arthur Andrew, writing about Canadian diplomacy in the years after World War II, admitted, “It was almost as if Canada had no national interests that were uniquely its own, that all this country wanted was a world at peace and it would take it from there.” Of course, we actually did have national interests, such as growing our economy and warding off any threats posed to Canada by a belligerent and ideologically inimical Soviet Union. But all of that was largely advanced through our relationship with the United States.

Many came to see participation in the UN as a uniquely Canadian vocation, an end in itself. We began to lose track of the essential connection between Canadian foreign policy and our own long-term interests. This could be forgiven as a delightful eccentricity as long as the United States maintained its role as the engine of global economic growth and the enforcer of global order. But things are changing quickly. As important as the U.S. continues to be, this long-reigning superpower is increasingly required to share power with others. The days of free-riding in an American-dominated world are over. How well we manage our foreign policy has a direct impact on our own ambitions for the future. The road to prosperity, security and well-being — for us and the world around us — increasingly runs through the effective engagement of major new powers such as India, South Africa, Brazil and, most important of all, China.

But we seem unconvinced of the need to engage any of these countries consistently, seriously and with specific Canadian objectives in view, and are particularly ambivalent when it comes to China. While that national hesitation is perhaps understandable given how unlike us China is, it represents an increasingly costly and worrisome failure on our part. And even if we were convinced of the need for a more thoughtful engagement, I’m not confident that we have the ability to craft and deliver a foreign policy capable of addressing these new priorities.

This brings us to the second problem undermining our ability to steer a course for Canada in the world: the increasingly chaotic and uncoordinated way in which we attempt to “manage” international relations. The price we pay for our inability to bring coordination and purpose to our international activities was brought home to me most forcefully during my work on Afghanistan, when it was my job to bring about much-needed cooperation among the various Canadian players. But it was also a daily challenge for me when I lived in Beijing.

I played several roles as Canada’s ambassador. I represented the Canadian government in meetings with Chinese officials. I also helped introduce Canada to Chinese people through my travels, public speaking, media interviews and outreach via social media. And each week I met and briefed many of the Canadian business people, journalists, artists, teachers, athletes and human rights advocates whose visits make up the human dimension of the relationship.

But what I saw as my most important job was helping to build consensus in the Canadian government about the key objectives that we absolutely need to achieve in the relationship with China. This meant thinking hard about how China can contribute to Canadian prosperity through trade and investment; how we can work with China to promote global health, food safety and environmental protection; what we can do to encourage China to play a peaceful and constructive role in the world; and how we should engage China on fundamental questions about human rights.

The resulting “megaphone diplomacy” is gratifying to some audiences at home, but it erodes and undercuts whatever real influence Canada might have had.

I came to see my job as that of “connector of last resort,” and spent most of my time getting people at the embassy to share information, work together, and stay focused on a very few big, long-term objectives for Canada. Getting these priorities right invariably required the talents, energy and experience of multiple departments working closely together. But that was already something of an alien concept in Ottawa.

Government, like just about every other part of Canadian life, has become more international. When I worked in the embassy in South Korea in the early 1980s, the ambassador was the boss of a small team of Foreign Service officers, who reported directly to him, and a military attaché, who was expected to be a team player. By the time I became ambassador in Beijing, more than twenty-five years later, I was the nominal head of a group of more than sixty Canadians drawn from more than ten federal departments and three provinces. Such broad representation should actually be a good thing, and would have been but for the fact that it has emerged without any planning about how to manage it, and without any inclination by anyone in Ottawa to show real, coordinating leadership. As a result, the bureaucracy has reverted to its natural preference for turf protection, with each department going it alone. Even among the Foreign Affairs contingent at the embassy in Beijing, officers were micromanaged by individual sections operating in isolation in distant Ottawa.

Fortunately, by the time I became ambassador, I already held the rank of deputy minister, and could insist on a higher degree of collegiality. But even with that seniority, getting even a modest degree of coordination was a full-time job. More junior ambassadors simply get shunted aside. Nor was there anyone senior back in Ottawa who spent much time thinking about the priorities for Canada in its relationship with China, much less coordinating our assets and resources to achieve them. That left it to me to fill that vacuum in leadership from afar via late-night phone calls and return visits to Canada, elbowing my way into issues and projects that departments normally managed in isolation.

Think of what happens when part of Ottawa decides that it wants a major increase in the flow of students or tourists from China, while another part of Ottawa, unconsulted and unconcerned, determines that we need to make it more difficult to obtain a visa to come to Canada. Once, in Taiwan, I had to recall two officers who were heading to the airport at the same time in separate cars. One, from the immigration department, was eager to help Taiwanese officials prosecute a Canadian who was accused of being part of a fake passport ring. The other, from our consular team, was hurrying to meet that same Canadian, whom he saw as a client needing our assistance. I made it clear that assistance, notably helping the Canadian obtain basic legal advice, came first.

But at least when I ran things in Taiwan I was asked to comment on the performance of the various Canadian staff working in our Taipei office, regardless of which departments they came from in Ottawa. By the time I got to Beijing, this practice had been abandoned. I sent in my views to various parts of Ottawa anyway, because I thought such oversight important when it came to the many senior people working at the embassy, at a hefty cost to the Canadian taxpayer. I never heard back, nor did I ever get the sense that my views were appreciated. This can be dismissed as bureaucratic trivia, but to me it pointed to a larger issue. The federal public service has a problem with leadership. Attempting to exert it is increasingly seen as intrusive and undemocratic. Broad consensus, no matter how unambitious and tenuously achieved, is always preferred. That’s a recipe for mediocrity and muddle in foreign policy and in just about every other dimension of government. My great worry is that on those rare occasions when Ottawa does think of foreign policy, it is seen as the sum total of what every department and agency has on its international wish list.

Unlike the professional public service, politicians don’t have a problem identifying and pursuing specific goals when they venture outside of Canada. The problem is that these don’t always have much to do with foreign policy. What I see as the third impediment to advancing our international interests more effectively is the steady encroachment of domestic political considerations into our foreign policy calculations. It would be naive and undemocratic to argue that domestic politics has no place in our foreign policy. But political leaders need to rely on something more than the most recent polling data in navigating international issues. Consider the growing obsession with photo-ops, the tendency to see foreign leaders as mere props on a set designed wholly for Canadian audiences. There is also our increasing preference for rhetoric — the more extreme the better — over more careful behind the scenes engagement. The resulting “megaphone diplomacy” is gratifying to some audiences at home, but it erodes and undercuts whatever real influence Canada might have had.

The most obvious manifestation of our lack of seriousness is the tendency to use regional travel as a form of outreach to politically important ethnic communities in Canada. Our diversity is an undeniable Canadian advantage, and should form part of the briefing we use to promote investment, tourism and education to foreign audiences, particularly when we want to make a point about how welcoming Canada is. But this shouldn’t be among the main topics on our agenda when leaders meet, nor should the accompanying delegations from Canada be so relentlessly tailored to the ethnicity of the country being visited. The prime minister of India is aware of the fact that there are many people of Indian origin in Canada. And the premier of China is similarly well briefed about the presence of Chinese diaspora communities across our country. Indeed, given China’s experience of waves of emigration over the centuries, its leadership is distinctly unsentimental about the vast Chinese diaspora around the world. Canadian politicians have encountered this ho-hum response from foreign leaders. But they’re far more interested in the coverage on the 6 p.m. news back home and, most important, in Canada’s ethnic media.

Part of the problem is that we have lost track of the necessary division of labour between partisan political staffers, who, with an eye to the next election, keep politicians focused on their immediate political agendas, and public servants, who take the long view, providing professional, non-partisan advice to the minister or prime minister of the day. Both perspectives are important, but we’re losing the necessary balance between them. Short-term political advice is winning out over seasoned long-term viewpoints.

I have had to discourage political staffers from using Canadian members of Parliament of Chinese origin as interpreters at events in China. Although it makes for a touching video clip back home, it is much less effective in China. For one thing, despite being of Chinese ethnicity, such MPs often struggle to speak the standard Mandarin used by their audiences. For another, people in China are likely to be far more impressed by the very absence of hoopla, by how normal and unexceptional it is for Canadians of Chinese origin to be elected to Parliament. Positive impressions are reinforced by seeing them act like MPs, not interpreters.

As proud as we are of our diversity, we need to remember that leaders in powerful and important countries such as India and China are focused on serious international issues. They expect our leaders to be similarly focused. In fact, we have an interest in ensuring that the Indians and the Chinese think of us as something more than a home to large, politically sensitive diaspora communities, especially since neither government is shy about wading into those same communities in Canada when they want to snoop on or admonish their former citizens. This tendency also leads to some bizarre incidents that can hijack agendas. I accompanied Prime Minister Paul Martin on a visit to Asia in early 2005. He was joined by a number of Indo-Canadian MPs who happened to be Sikhs. At the outset of the visit, the MPs were embarrassed by an article written by a Sikh religious leader in India deploring the trend toward accepting same-sex marriage, which at that time happened to be the subject of a bill working its way through Canada’s Parliament. This in turn became a major issue when the prime minister came to face the press with his Indian counterpart.

I can appreciate that Canadian politics can’t be left completely behind when a prime minister travels, but a flurry of questions to the Canadian PM about how same-sex marriage legislation would affect religious groups in Canada ate up much of the press availability, leaving the Indian prime minister watching in confused silence. Finally, a Canadian reporter put a question to the Indian PM: what did he think of same-sex marriage for India? After a lengthy pause, the Indian leader politely suggested that it wasn’t an issue for which there would be much “appreciation” in his country.

Despite the onrush of globalization and the transformation of Canadian society through immigration, it’s as if we’ve become less curious about our place in the world, and steadily more focused on our own affairs. This is our collective failure, but one that has been exacerbated by a lack of political will and leadership.

We have not always lacked visionary leaders capable of helping us to understand our place in the world. Pierre Trudeau was famous for his energetic if eclectic internationalism. My only chance to meet him came long after his retirement. He was visiting China as a distinguished advisor at a special Beijing meeting of the Bank of Montreal’s board. I was struck by the way Chinese guests, not expecting to encounter Trudeau, were almost overwhelmed in his presence. In their enthusiasm, they made it clear they were meeting someone whose leadership had produced the formula that made possible China’s diplomatic relations not just with Canada but also with the many countries that followed our lead.

At the time of Trudeau’s death in 2000, I was running the office that looks after Canada’s interests in Taiwan in the absence of official diplomatic relations. That we still had interests in Taiwan, and that we had been able to preserve and advance them even after recognizing China, was largely due to the elegant and simple formula for recognition that Trudeau had championed. (We simply took note of China’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.) Canadian government offices around the world set out a book of condolences to mark Mr. Trudeau’s death. In a special gesture of respect and affection, Trudeau’s book was accompanied by a single rose in a vase. I stayed in the lobby of the Taiwan office to greet visitors. Throughout the afternoon, I heard a steady stream of very personal testimonials about how Trudeau’s vision and style had influenced them and shaped their appreciation of Canada.

Under Trudeau, Canada launched two initiatives aimed at animating our broader diplomacy. One of them, his controversial “Third Option,” would have seen Canada reinforce its links with important partners other than the United States, meaning Europe and Japan. But it languished and faded without much serious effort having been expended to advance it. For many pragmatic Canadians, the Third Option was not about securing our future, but instead represented, at least insofar as Europe was concerned, a dubious move in the direction of a vanishing past. Trudeau’s other great foreign policy initiative was, of course, the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. Here, as we will see, the challenge was reversed, with Trudeau looking far into the future, farther indeed than most Canadians have yet been able to see.

Another internationally minded prime minister, Brian Mulroney, possessed legendary diplomatic skills, something I had the chance to discover first-hand. Despite the shared last name, there is no close family connection, though we are both part of the Irish diaspora that settled along the Saint-Lawrence Valley in Quebec (his family) before moving into Ontario (mine). I never had the chance to speak with him until I was well on in my career. In 2006 I was assigned to the Privy Council Office (PCO) to serve as foreign and defence policy advisor to Prime Minister Harper. On Boxing Day of that year, former U.S. president Gerald Ford died. I was asked to phone former prime minister Mulroney to see whether he could attend the funeral on behalf of Canada. I reached him in the midst of his Christmas getaway with his family. But he was unperturbed and readily agreed to attend.

Just after New Year’s, my assistant at the PCO stuck her head in my office to tell me that Brian Mulroney was on the phone. Assuming that it was my brother, Brian, I asked her to tell him I would phone him back. She hesitated, and then said, it’s the Brian Mulroney. I took the call. What followed was a twenty-minute tour-de-force briefing, a concise and highly relevant report on what the key international guests who gathered for the funeral had said about topics that were of current interest to Canada. It was so complete that I had no need to ask questions when it was finished. I remember that my note-taking hand was stiff and sore when the call ended.

The last part of my career was spent during the Harper years, a period that has featured instances of bracing and much-needed realism in the management of international relations. But it is also a period that has been undermined by partisanship and complicated by strange and sudden bouts of silence in the face of controversial issues and difficult decisions.

Although, as his foreign policy advisor in 2006, I was privileged to have frequent, direct access to Prime Minister Harper when he travelled, the nature of the job had clearly changed under the new government. Previously, the role of foreign policy advisor had been the sole preserve of a highly experienced diplomat whose job was to provide disinterested professional advice to the prime minister of the day, uncoloured by the needs and agendas of the Department of Foreign Affairs. While I played that role to a certain extent, my identity as a public servant meant that I operated at a much greater arm’s length. The PM typically introduced me to foreign leaders as his “bureaucratic” foreign policy advisor, a portfolio I shared with a highly partisan Conservative Party staffer who was introduced as his “political” foreign policy advisor. Indeed, one of my main tasks was fending off the more ideologically extreme agendas of my “political” counterpart. I wasn’t overly fond of my dreary “bureaucratic” title, which pointed to much greater shifts in thinking about how foreign policy gets done.

We have not always lacked visionary leaders capable of helping us to understand our place in the world.

Following his 2006 victory over Paul Martin, Stephen Harper immediately challenged the foreign policy status quo. His was, at least in its earliest manifestations, a government of the suburbs and small towns, of small business and small communities. Going or gone were the internationally inclined Red Tories such as Joe Clark, Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall. There was to be a new agenda, aimed at returning the country to what were seen as its traditional values and partnerships. We would be guided by core beliefs, would support our true friends, and would speak out against hypocrisy in the international system.

More than once, the prime minister condemned the tendency of “going along to get along.” But that, unfortunately, had come to represent at least a part of the daily reality facing those whose job it was to navigate the United Nations. There were fireworks when our ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament warmly welcomed the North Korean diplomat who had, almost unbelievably, been made chair of the conference. The ambassador’s welcome, which probably passed unnoticed within the clubby context of the UN system, undermined the condemnation of the appointment that his boss, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, had uttered only days before.

A disconnect also existed between the prime minister and his diplomats in relation to our ultimately futile campaign to win a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. The prime minister was not originally inclined to pursue this goal. When he did come around, he was frustrated by persistent efforts by Foreign Affairs to discourage him from taking firm measures in support of Israel, an orientation that was at the heart of his and his party’s convictions, a core interest. He was told that this would jeopardize our chances of being elected. It didn’t help that when he asked why we wanted to win a seat, he would be told, “So that we can advance our core interests.” The PM went against his best judgment and agreed to launch a campaign to win the seat. Despite going into the vote with a comfortable margin of “confirmed support,” we experienced what a disgruntled Australian ambassador to the UN has called the “rotten lying bastards” phenomenon and went down to an embarrassing defeat.

Perhaps the most prominent example of what the new government saw as a conflict between Canada’s reflexive desire to be a good international citizen and the pursuit of our core national interests was our participation in the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Jean ChrĂ©tien’s Liberal government had signed, to great acclaim, in 1997. Harper saw this commitment, in which Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012, as wrong-headed on two counts. First, we had clearly taken on a commitment that was beyond our willingness, if not our ability, to implement. By the time Harper arrived on the scene, we had done almost nothing to meet our target. In fact, our emissions had increased significantly. Second, the protocol failed to include the world’s two largest carbon emitters, the U.S. and China, thus putting us at a disadvantage, particularly in terms of our closest neighbour and major economic partner. After much acrimonious internal debate, and after absorbing much criticism from a range of observers, foreign governments among them, we withdrew from the protocol in 2011.

Insisting on paying greater attention to national interest is an obvious and essential part of any successful foreign policy. But unless a country wields unlimited power, it needs to balance ambition with a degree of accommodation. This isn’t a case of going along to get along, but it does involve a willingness to listen, build trust, find allies and show some ability to compromise. Instead, we came to take pride in being among the first to close embassies, cut off dialogue and impose sanctions in the face of clearly unacceptable international behaviour. And while our new-found toughness made us the first to pack up and leave, our relatively small size made us among the last to be welcomed back. We seemed in danger of replacing international activism with mere rhetoric. This was risky because, even at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we were still very much a middle power as Gareth Evans would define one: still unable to impose our policy preferences on others, still obliged to work with others to achieve at least some of our objectives.

From Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, by David Mulroney. Copyright © David Mulroney, 2015. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

Photo: Shutterstock

David Mulroney
David Mulroney is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

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