Diplomacy is dead—and party politics killed it

In Canada and the U.S., ideology has overtaken rational diplomacy which couldn’t come at a more dangerous time.

Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to members of the media as he visits members of the Advise and Assist mission west of Erbil, Iraq, on May 2, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In early 2016, I received a curious request through the secure messaging app Telegram from a contact at the Canadian embassy in Ankara. At the time, I was investigating Canada’s role in the fight against the now-defunct Islamic State, specifically the train-and-equip mission in northern Iraq, where Canadian special forces were embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga.

The official in Ankara, who will remain anonymous, was nervous. “Can we meet in person?” he asked. “Some things I’d rather discuss face to face.”

We met for lunch a few days later at a restaurant not far from the embassy. The official was younger than I’d expected, a junior officer who had clearly already lost his enthusiasm for the foreign service.

Over the course of an hour, he berated Canada’s policy in Iraq and the lack of understanding of the nuances in Iraq’s political landscape. Canada had gone headlong into an ill-advised policy of political favouritism in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, driven by the Stephen Harper government’s seemingly single-minded obsession with defeating ISIS. It was heavy on military objectives but absent of political considerations.

The policy partly succeeded: Iraq’s Kurds did play a role in defeating ISIS in Mosul and other parts of the country, but only a minor one at best. The political fallout, however, is still being felt today, after the Kurds—primarily the faction of Kurds supported by Canada—went ahead with a referendum on independence last year, bringing Iraq to the brink of civil war.

READ MORE: 2014-2017: An obituary for ISIS

The Kurdistan Region is now fractured, its political parties blaming each other for the catastrophe that followed the referendum. In the end, the junior officer was right: in the absence of a nuanced understanding of Iraq and guided by domestic politics, Canada’s policy served to deepen existing fissures.

He was not alone in his assessment. For years, Canadian diplomats have complained that international relations have become increasingly militarized and politicized, placing ideology ahead of reality, and not just in Canada.

Around the world, diplomacy, they say, has succumbed to party politics and political ideologies, shifting gears on the whims of electoral cycles. Even at a time when it has never seemed more important, the space for diplomacy has narrowed, while the corresponding space for conflict has widened. This is the reality of diplomacy in the 21st century, and no one seems to know what to do about it.

The most troubling signs are emerging in the U.S., where, on March 13, President Donald Trump appointed Mike Pompeo, the former head of the CIA and a graduate of West Point, a man with no diplomatic experience who advocates for mass surveillance and torture, as secretary of state (the head of the department that oversees foreign policy and diplomacy).


If he is confirmed this month, it will be the second time in a little more than a decade and a half that the top U.S. diplomat will be a military man, following Gen. Colin Powell, who oversaw the launch of two major wars during his single term in office. And Powell, compared to Pompeo, was a dove.

How did we get to this point? The fault, according to Marc Grossman, vice-chairman of the Cohen Group, a business consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, is partly historical.

As societies have advanced and democratized, the scope of diplomacy has broadened, he says, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shift from the kind of diplomatic reporting that dominated the Cold War to values-based diplomacy.

“My first posting was Pakistan,” Grossman says. “My job was to observe and then report back about what was going on and to represent the U.S. to Pakistanis. But think about the job now: we ask people to go abroad and tell them to promote sustainable development, fight the trafficking in women and children, fight organized crime, fight drugs—none of which has much to do with observing and reporting. It’s all active, programmatic things. That’s partly what makes diplomacy so exciting today.”

Party politics has bled into traditionally neutral spaces

It’s also what makes diplomacy political, others contend. Instead of performing the role of helping to shape policy, as they have in the past, regardless of the political party in power, diplomats are increasingly becoming mere agents of policy implementation. Their role has been reduced, as Bruce Mabley, a retired Canadian foreign service officer, puts it, to “yes men” who carry out the ideologically driven orders of their political overseers back home.

The problem, in fact, goes deeper. Sven Jurschewsky, another retired Canadian foreign service officer who has headed various departments in the foreign affairs ministry, points to an overall malaise in Canada’s public service. Part of the problem, he says, is that party politics has entered a domain that should remain politically neutral.

“I remember a time when, as a public servant, you couldn’t even put a sign on your lawn that you supported x, y or z party,” he says. “Those days are long gone. Now, when you have a position open up, you have a reserve list filled with political staffers who get priority. And for each and every one of those, if you say no, you have to give a reason. You can’t say no because they are a Liberal staffer or a Conservative staffer. I’ve had that experience in an intelligence division, where you definitely do not want anyone with that kind of background.”

Harper’s hard-power diplomacy foreshadowed Trump’s approach

Not all government jobs are negatively affected by partisan politics, but diplomacy is clearly one of them. Canada tried to inject a degree of independent, old-school diplomatic fact-finding into the foreign service with the establishment of the Global Security Reporting Program, or GSRP. Set up in the wake of 9/11, the secretive program was supposed to “reinvent the ‘old diplomacy’ technique of one-on-one interviews” and empower diplomats to move beyond Canada’s focus on trade and immigration and into political reporting in some of the most critical hot spots around the world, one of its officers says, requesting anonymity.

The program, however, met resistance from the Harper Conservatives precisely because its officers were acting independently. (It also fell afoul of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which accused GSRP officers of treading on its turf by actively seeking out sources of information outside of what was deemed appropriate for diplomats.)

Stephen Harper’s approach to diplomacy in some ways foreshadowed Trump. His emphasis on hard power and intelligence-gathering as the primary means of pursuing Canada’s interests is now echoed by the current administration in Washington, which has gutted the State Department, allocated record amounts of funding to the military and appointed military-minded men in key foreign policy positions.

Canada, Jurschewsky warns, is also heading further down that path. “The military does not make foreign policy in Canada but it’s the one institution that’s getting more money, especially on the intelligence side,” he says. “You have to realize what intelligence is. It isn’t the truth. It is a perspective and should be part of a wide range of perspectives that inform a decision-making process. Diplomatic reporting is another perspective. All these perspectives have to be considered so you can make a rational decision. If you start relying on one of these and you say it’s the only one and the most important, you’re going to be making a lot of mistakes.”

In the U.S. ‘what you do (in North Korea) depends on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat’

American politics have always been more ideological than Canada’s, in part because the U.S. plays such an outsized role in the world. What Washington does has a direct and lasting impact on global events. Its unchallenged power since the collapse of the Soviet Union has steadily dismantled the high-flown notions of multilateralism it espoused after the end of the Second World War.

“In the U.S., problems are perceived through an ideological optic,” Jurschewsky says. “So North Korea is bad, and we have to do something. What you do depends on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, the ideologies that those parties espouse. What’s missing is what kind of a place North Korea is, what are the risks? You can’t destroy them politically or militarily, so how do you change the beliefs and values over time?”

Those sorts of questions used to be answered by diplomats. Increasingly, they are answered by ideologues.

The 2003 Iraq War was launched on the back of American ideologues who ignored intelligence and diplomatic advice suggesting alternatives to invasion were available (British diplomats also warned their government that the invasion would lead to disaster but were either ignored or told outright to change their assessments so they lined up with government policy).

Even Obama’s foreign policy was shaped more by liberal ideology

There was some hope that Barack Obama would right America’s course. And to some degree he did, inking a historic nuclear deal with Iran during his second term with the help of the kind of multilateral diplomacy that defined the postwar era. But in most other instances, his foreign policy was shaped more by his own loyalty to a liberal-progressive ideology than a realistic understanding of how a messy world works.

As a result, he pulled troops from Afghanistan in 2014, giving the Taliban—and later ISIS—the space to grow. He balked on Syria at the start of its civil war when American military power could have helped prevent tragedy. A robust, independent foreign service with a voice in policy-making could have prevented those disasters.

Now, the ideological pendulum has swung the other way. Warmongering has replaced an overabundance of caution at the White House. Trump’s appointment of John Bolton, a hardline Fox News analyst, as his national security adviser marks a fait accompli for the hawks: from the State Department to Trump’s inner circle, an ideology premised on American hard power is back in fashion at a time when tensions on multiple fronts—between the U.S. and North Korea, Russia, China and Turkey—have reached crisis points, where the slightest miscommunication or misjudgment could lead to war.

Diplomacy is supposed to prevent that from happening, but the U.S. foreign service is in crisis. The massive funding cuts at the State Department have devastated morale. A whopping 44 ambassadorial positions—representing more than one-fifth of the total U.S. embassies around the world—remain empty, including key positions like South Korea, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The rate of political appointments as diplomats skyrocketed under Trump

More alarming, however, is the rate of political appointments: 62 per cent of all diplomatic appointments under Trump compared to 30 per cent under Obama, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

In Canada, it seemed like the Harper years were condemning the Canadian foreign service to a similar fate. Though in some ways, the Liberals are doing a better job than their predecessors. Their diplomatic shakeup in 2016 was heavy on career diplomats, reversing the Conservative government’s penchant for political appointments. In recent months, the Liberals have also promised to breathe life back into the foreign service stream for developing young officers.

But much more needs to be done.

“We need a lot more junior officers out at post, learning about diplomacy,” Jurschewsky says, “and those officers have to be motivated to go out into the country, not just read newspapers. But a position abroad costs between $250,000 and $450,000 dollars a year, so we’re talking about a couple of hundred million dollars to train up our incoming people.”

The world is fractured in ways unimaginable even a couple of decades ago. Without talented diplomats free of political agendas, gathering information and reporting what they see as they see it, misguided policies risk deepening those divides. And war can’t be far behind.


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