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The Dark Age of Canadian Diplomacy

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Written by Aziza Mohammed, Guest Contributor

Throughout history, Canada has regularly punched above its weight in the international ring. It has risen to the occasion to serve the international community during two world wars and countless peacekeeping missions around the globe. Some of Canada’s proudest moments have been produced by its diplomatic corps. Over the last eight years, Canada has been pulling its punches in foreign affairs. The recent $170 million cut to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) budget means that our country may soon get knocked out.

Remember the “Golden Age of Canadian Diplomacy”? Many young Canadians simply can’t. This idealized period, one that is at the core of Canadian identity, is being lost in the annals of history. It’s possible that the Canadian values espoused and promoted by Canadian diplomats like multilateralism, environmental stewardship, and human rights could go that way as well.

It was back in 1957 that an intrepid Minister of External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson created a diplomatic innovation that would change how countries practice international relations for the rest of time. For engineering the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the world’s first peacekeeping operation, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1979, then-Ambassador Kenneth Taylor helped six Americans escape from Iran during the Hostage Crisis in a covert operation called the Canadian Caper. In the 1990s, Minister of Foreign Affairs Llyod Axworthy was a champion for the idea of Human Security. This concept demands that we refocus our attention to specifically keeping human beings safe rather than just the hard power considerations of countries. As a result, threats that would otherwise go unnoticed are brought to the fore. Human Security was the foundation of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines. For this humanitarian project, Axworthy was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a Canadian innovation, paved the way for NATO’s operations in Kosovo to bring an end to ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces and the recent NATO operation in Libya to halt the tyranny of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. These distinctly Canadian initiatives have saved lives and changed the world, and they all started with our now-oft-forgotten diplomatic corps.

This is just a snapshot of the diplomatic history that has earned Canada respect, soft power, and even some moral high ground within the international community. Within the last decade, it is hard to recall the last time that Canada really did something. Our latest diplomatic “accomplishments” are limited to a G8 summit that produced some new patio furniture for Tony Clement’s electoral district and some forgettable communiqués, and a G20 summit that saw Toronto’s downtown core overrun by a motley crew of protestors, anarchists, and the police trying to constrain them.

This does not bode well for Canada. In a globalized world, our international relationships are not just important but essential. This is a time of enormous geopolitical change. India and China are rising, dictators are dropping like flies in the Arab world, and the economic walls of powerhouse Europe are crumbling. For a country with a population and GDP that are both smaller than those of the State of California, this means something. Retreating within our borders is not a sustainable option.

The recent cuts to DFAIT’s budget mean that withdrawal and a withering away of Canada’s respected position in the international community are near inevitable. And it’s already happening.

Last year, Canada lost in the UN General Assembly election for a seat on the Security Council. Did we lose to a beacon of multilateralism? Did we lose to a key peacekeeping troop contributor? No–we lost to Portugal. Has our diplomatic capital really fallen so low? Even our neighbour to the South won’t play ball on international trade, resource development, or Arctic issues. As sovereignty questions in the North heat up, Canada’s potential to achieve its aims are receding faster than a glacier in An Inconvenient Truth.

Deep cuts to DFAIT undermine our ability to project power and have influence. A ministry of foreign affairs that will be selling off its properties, forcing those who serve to live in unnecessarily dangerous conditions, and hiring-no-more, cannot attract or retain the talent that has historically permeated every level of Canada’s diplomatic corps. DFAIT’s old guard is aging. When every post will soon become a hardship post, when and how are we going to hire, train, and retain the people who are eyes, ears, and face of our country?

The men and women of DFAIT are by definition removed from the domestic public’s eye, but they have done great things in the service of Canadian values. While the diplomatic corps is an easy target for the Conservatives, it is a suicidal blow that will have international repercussions.

Aziza Mohammed recently completed a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) degree from the Fletcher School focusing on international security studies. In 2011, she worked on equity monitoring in rural India with UNICEF’s Emergency Unit.

Photo by Valerie.