Dumbing down of diplomacy

One can be forgiven for dismissing the appointment of Canada’s new ambassador to the Vatican as a matter of no consequence. But this posting in the midst of a hot summer of global conflict may have been the last straw for the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO). The organization, representing more than 1,500 current and retired diplomats, issued a statement denouncing a decision which went outside the ranks of the professional foreign service to find Canada’s representative to the Holy See. More significantly, it identified this as part of a pattern in recent postings.

Dennis Savoie is described as a prominent member of the Knights of Columbus, a devout Roman Catholic and an anti-abortion activist. His career background was as an executive of New Brunswick Power and executive director of the New Brunswick Society of Nursing Homes. According to the Ottawa Citizen (August 6, 2014, ‘Diplomat union deplores ambassadorial appointment trend’) ‘he once reportedly compared abortion to the deaths in the 9/11 terrorism attacks.’

While saying that the organization will reserve judgment on Mr Savoie’s suitability for the posting, PAFSO president Tim Hodges said that the organization ‘deplores the government’s decision to, once again, nominate a non-diplomat to one of Canada’s ambassadorial positions.’

Canada’s role in the world has been fortified by our Trade Commissioner Service (established in 1894) and the Foreign Service (established in 1926). Together they have facilitated the implementation of domestic policies which could only be achieved through global engagement. Political appointments were not unknown before Stephen Harper. Some previous governments sold off residences and embassies.

Nevertheless, Stephen Harper has shown more disrespect for Canada’s foreign service than any previous prime minister. Naming his most combative front bench pit-bull, John Baird, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, suggests a certain non-diplomatic attitude to the role.

Since Stephen Harper became prime minister, official residences of Canadian diplomats around the world have been sold to help get out of deficit, without any analysis of what it will cost us long-term to lose the places where Canada has historically garnered information, built relationships and exercised diplomacy.

We have also closed and sold off embassies. The trend is particularly noticeable in Africa. Since 2006, Canada has shut down our diplomatic presence in Gabon, Niger, Malawi and the Consulate General in Cape Town, South Africa. Where we once had embassies covering 45% of African nations, we are now only present in 37%. Brazil has more African embassies than Canada.

It is a nightmare for my constituents. The absence of a Canadian immigration office in Nigeria pushes all files to the over-worked, under-resourced embassy in Accra, Ghana. (Any time we have requests that involve the Accra embassy, my whole constituency staff feels heartsick, knowing that office seems incapable of not losing files—over and over again.) The Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya covers Burundi, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, while in Latin America, Canada’s Costa Rican embassy covers Honduras and Nicaragua (although, we have opened seven new offices in Mexico.) Meanwhile, in some countries, we are essentially couch-surfing, working out of UK embassies.

All of this is consistent with the trend towards non-foreign service ambassadors. One of the most shocking was the appointment in 2013 of Harper’s bodyguard as Canada’s Ambassador to Jordan. Bruno Saccomani, career RCMP officer, had been the boss of the 117 officers in charge of Stephen Harper and his family’s personal security. Saccomani was controversial before the appointment due to repeated reports of bullying and sexism towards the officers who reported to him.

Then there’s the January 2014 appointment of Vivian Bercovici as Canada’s Ambassador to Israel. Bercovici, formerly a Toronto lawyer and sometime columnist, has no foreign service background. Even the Times of Israel reported that her tweets ‘could even be argued that they cross over—or at least skirt—the line between diplomacy and advocacy.’

Canada’s former ambassador to Israel, Michael Bell, was less nuanced in his criticism: ‘Strong criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah is warranted, given their penchant for murder, destruction and intimidation. We should have no truck with those within these organizations who dedicate themselves to violence. But to dismiss the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in the same breath, as she has done, stretches reality to the breaking point…. Ms Bercovici will have her hands full, and much to learn, if she wants to move beyond the simplicity of demonization.’ (Globe and Mail, January 13, 2014, ‘Canada’s new Israel ambassador needs to move beyond simplistic demonization’)

Michael Bell may have been disingenuous. Surely he knows what Stephen Harper wants is the simplicity of demonization.

The appointments of a beer executive as counsel general to Los Angeles, Gordon Campbell as High Commissioner to the UK, Gary Doer as Ambassador to the US are all canny, if inadequate, representatives of Canada—par for the course. The muzzling of diplomats, their inability to speak at universities in the countries where they are posted, is only to be expected.

As one of my friends, a retired diplomat, once quipped when John Baird ordered diplomats to ‘beef-up’ in fitness classes, ‘it is the refuge of the bully to tell the nerds to do push-ups’.