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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Global Affairs Canada takes on the Work of the World

When Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister in 1993 he changed the name of the Department of External Affairs, as it had been known since it was founded in 1909, to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It had been called External Affairs for 84 years on the thinking that Britain, or Australia and other parts of what became the Commonwealth, were not foreign countries, as the United States or Paraguay were. The distinction is maintained in Britain to this day in the name of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Canada was part of a family of countries and only those outside the family were foreign.

Chrétien would have none of that. To assert Canada’s independence Britain, and Australia, must be foreign countries.

Now Justin Trudeau has rebranded Foreign Affairs as Global Affairs.

The rebranding hasn’t been much noticed. And the department, whose full name was Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, still covers those three things and has a minister for each. Stéphane Dion is not the Minister for Global Affairs but the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The implications of the rebranding are obscure but disturbing.

‘Global Affairs’ has until now been a questionable university subject, and perhaps a field for think tanks. Its most famous use in Canada has been at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Students there may aspire to serve Canada as diplomats, but for many a career at the UN or some other ‘global’ organisation may be more attractive. An understanding of Canada, which is essential for anyone who might serve Canada either at home or abroad, is secondary.

Transferred from the academy to government, ‘Global Affairs’ implies that the department is no longer concerned with Canada and its relations with other countries but with the Globe, of which Canada is only a rather small part. While Chrétien’s name change sought to assert Canada’s independence and identity, Trudeau’s rebranding implies almost the opposite. The people who work at Global Affairs are not there to serve Canada, but the Globe. In the phrase of the O. D. Skelton, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs from 1925 to 1941, they should occupy themselves with the ‘work of the world.’

Mackenzie King, who hand picked Skelton for his job, relied on him, but served as his own Secretary of State for External Affairs and kept a tight leash on the department, despite Skelton’s lobbying for expansion, and more missions abroad. After the Second World War, as External Affairs grew by leaps and bounds, King became concerned that it would busy itself with matters beyond Canada’s needs and interests. But soon he was gone and External Affairs did just that.

The people we pay at Global Affairs are there to serve us. And the politicians we have sent to Ottawa are there to tell them what to do and are accountable for what they do. But the message of Trudeau and Dion to our diplomats has been that they are ‘unmuzzled’ and are to ‘engage.’ Engage in what? What are our interests? What is our foreign policy? Does the government have one or are they leaving that to the public servants in Global Affairs?

What are the interests of our diplomats? Are they in the service of Canada or the Globe, or themselves?

The unseemly cheers with which Trudeau was greeted by public servants when he dropped in at Global Affairs two days after he was sworn in may have been partly just an expression of late onset Trudeaumania. But it may also have been glee at the prospect that they would now be free to occupy themselves with the exciting work of the world without having to answer to the people who pay them and whom they are there to serve.

Trudeau spent much of his first weeks in office on summitry, and most exciting it must have been for him. Such summitry seems unavoidable, though it is mostly a distracting waste of time. Particularly at Paris it may have seemed that he was part of the government of the Globe.

But there is, happily, no government of the Globe. There are no Global Affairs. There is, for us, only Canada, with its Foreign Affairs. Our public servants should understand that and do the work of Canada without being seduced by the conceit of the ‘work of the world.’