Up in the Air

Diplomatic thinkers seem oddly hesitant about Canada’s role in a wired world

Diplomacy in the Digital Age: Essays in Honour of Ambassador Allan Gotlieb is a pleasant sojourn through the fine minds of 18 Canadians well versed in diplomacy and the international quandaries facing our country today. It is a series of eclectic essays, edited by Janice Gross Stein, with gems of insight that crystallize some of the dilemmas of our increasingly complex world. One walks away with a sense of having read something worthwhile, but not quite sure what it is—a natural pitfall of a book of essays.

The book is written in honour of Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s former ambassador to the United States, a wise hook to propel us into today’s challenges. Gotlieb, and his wife Sondra, were the undisputed masters of public diplomacy in Washington DC in the 1980s, a world of diffused power and celebrity mania. Many of the writers regularly refer back to Gotlieb, his time and his achievements, providing a degree of cohesion amidst the variety of viewpoints and the complexities at hand.

Diplomacy in the Digital Age ranges over vast terrain, from managing affairs with America to 3C and 3D approaches to international crises (that is “coherent, coordinated and complementary” and “diplomacy, defence and development,” for the uninitiated) to digital diplomacy itself. Each and every essay is fine enough; some simply cut deeper than others—a useful quality when dealing with an issue as amorphous as the digital age.

Indeed, two essays found late in the book, one by Denis Stairs and the other by George Haynal, would have been more useful earlier because they clarify both diplomacy and context. Stairs is very good on the functions of diplomacy and the effects of too much data. Haynal, although focused on corporate responses to the challenges, grasps the newfound role of the “Demos,” publics unleashed by access to information and technology, “sometimes sufficiently organized to constitute civil society, sometimes a promiscuous … and anarchic expression of will.”

Naturally, given geography and the homage to Gotlieb, many of the writers restate the criticality of our relationship with America. They discuss the potential demise of the great power, but do not fully suggest what we can do about it. The easy, almost facile, conclusion is that we may simply have to engage both America, as our largest economic relationship, and the new giants of Asia and Latin America at the same time. Colin Robertson’s essay, insightful as it is about managing the American context, is telling in its title: “Changing Conditions and Actors, but the Game Remains the Same: Revisiting Gotlieb’s ‘New Diplomacy’.” Other approaches, such as Trudeau’s Third Option that sought cooperation with the global South, are mentioned only to emphasize their naiveté or impracticability.

It is David Malone, however, who, in a deft essay, makes the case loudly and clearly that Canada has indeed become a “status quo” actor, and that new countries now have the momentum “the West decisively lacks.” Our qualities—despite our recent rating as the country with the best reputation in the world—are “no longer enough in a world on the move.”

Our relations with Asia are described by Brian Bow as “most likely to continue to be opportunistic, ad hoc, and generally not very ambitious … a ‘day-tripper’ approach” to rising markets and powers. Edward Greenspon points out other important recent failures: we originally forsook participation in the budding Trans-Pacific Partnership only to run to join it later, we snubbed China in the early years of the Harper government and we have under-utilized Vancouver for competitive advantage in the Pacific arena.

During the Cold War, Canada had developed an important niche of being the country closest to the United States while fine-tuning our differences. We fought in Korea but distanced ourselves during Vietnam. At the same time, we seem to have been at our best when close to the Americans, while also being their “conscience” in many ways. As James Baker put it, “we could always count on Canada to do the right thing.”

Today, we are no longer the country closest to the U.S.—the United Kingdom having firmly replaced us in that role—nor its conscience, and yet the “game remains the same.” After 9/11, and the global shifts of power under way today, the nature of our relationship with the United States needs a new reading. Simply standing in the shrinking shadow of our neighbour, the shrinking superpower, is a risky proposition.

It is also a misreading of the international landscape. The reality is that the western political and economic model is simply no longer dominant—not even primus inter pares. Given recent European and American troubles, it may not even be that functional. As Malone says, “rather than requiring others to adapt to our models, we will need to adjust to and respect some of theirs.”

I would have thought Canada, with its electicism and flexibility, to be the one country capable of leading such an evolving global mosaic. Indeed, as a Canadian living abroad, I still maintain a lingering, possibly mythical, belief that Canada is potentially more exceptional than its recent international record. But from my perch in Madrid I keep wondering: where are we on climate change and the international economic crisis today? Decades ago, we would have led on such multilateral challenges. Today, we are nowhere to be seen.

The second, and main, theme of the book examines how Canada can respond to this new complex and multi-dimensional world. Many of the essays reflect on the speed and volume of digital information and the exponential increase in the number of international actors. As Arif Lalani explains, “where Gotlieb might have crammed … twelve or fourteen meetings into a busy day, with today’s social media, his successor will engage a larger, more diverse network, 24/7.”

Indeed, diplomacy will have to change, and there are several interesting proposals put forward, from Kim Richard Nossal’s idea of a “Department of Global Affairs” that cuts across defence, diplomatic and development portfolios to Lalani’s “open diplomacy,” a new virtual approach to inclusive policy making.

New structures and processes are both relevant and necessary, but Jeremy Kinsman is correct in pointing, above all, to the need to “valorize ideas again.” He goes on in his essay to propose many, including a more vibrant role in the Arctic Council and increased three-way cooperation in North America. Kinsman also mentions our potential role in global disarmament, an area where the non-governmental organization Global Zero is today leading the way. This project, ironically funded by private Canadian money, is an example of the vibrancy of the new actors—but they could certainly use our official help. Useful ideas gave Canada standing in the Cold War, and it will be those that will do so again.

The more powerful arguments in this book go further and emphasize the dangers of our digital age. Malone focuses cleverly on the emptiness of our era: “gigabytes of information can conceal more than they reveal”; websites “favour the sensational rather than the important”; “communications teams are expanding, often in the absence of anything much to communicate.”

William Thorsell also points out powerfully that the internet is “an infinite source of inconsequential diversion.” It is “a vehicle … for the dissemination of hatred … but also a tool for social justice.” This spectrum leaves diplomacy with a greater responsibility for managing information. Many of the authors point out the growing need for diplomats to “curate” the analysis and options for leaders, and extract the “signals” from the “noise.”

This capacity to discern and judge properly, however, can only come from direct, not virtual, experience. What is not discussed sufficiently in this book is the continuing high value of on-the-ground experience, of the feeling and flavour of a country and its people—its culture—the very warp and woof of international relations. There is no chapter here on the importance for diplomats of understanding culture. Whether in the year 1789 or 2019, in an analog or digital age, diplomats have to be conduits and translators of interests and needs between cultures. Learning a foreign language is not enough; immersion in another culture is the great teacher and, in the end, the hidden secret of success, and pleasure, in international relations.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 are a case in point in my own work as a diplomat. The region has changed to such a degree that many of the old contacts and modi operandi have been erased or made irrelevant. Today, to ensure the relevance of my future efforts on the Middle East and the Arab World, I will have to refresh my knowledge by direct experience of the evolving political culture on the ground. This can only be done in situ, not on Facebook. In the end, good judgement is all about this fine-grained texture, of building relations and slowly but surely absorbing insights. Only in those interstices and meeting points between personality, policy and politics of the day—and timing—can diplomacy work effectively; only so can the grandest schemes be put to work in the real world. All this takes real, not virtual, time. And real time is slow.

And it is this that is worrying about the focus on the digital era. Of course, one could argue that this new virtual world, of Facebook discussions and tweet reactions, has a “texture” unto itself. Indeed, throughout the Arab revolutions, I relied on such relays from the region to keep up to date. But I could not experience what Egyptians in Tahrir Square experienced, not even had they placed a live camera for me to watch the revolution. The moment for them, a complete revolution in a sparse few weeks, was real, huge and ineffable. That experience had to be lived directly, in person, with a vital immediacy—in many ways, as Allan Gotlieb lived his days as ambassador in Washington (well captured in Andrew Cohen’s essay on the ambassador’s diaries).

What is now too often forgotten in our electronic frenzy is the powerful effect of direct experience, followed by the time to reflect and absorb the information flow, permitting a sedimentation into the deeper zones of proper judgement. Greenspon mentions “good preparation and strong relationships” as the pillars of good diplomacy. He is right, and they can only really be developed on the ground.

This book ends with Thorsell’s very powerful essay. It feels somewhat like an appendage to the overall effort, its language different and the themes it tackles streaking deeper into our global dilemmas. The result is another kind of immediacy, when ideas and words connect more directly to realities.

Among many points, Thorsell states very clearly that our political decision making has become much more centralized as a direct result of the proliferation of information: “Responsibility for the big issues rose higher in the political hierarchy as public opinion weighed more heavily on the conduct of foreign affairs,” he writes. “Wider dissemination of information … requires more centralization in the capacity to manage major files. The traditional diplomat is devalued in this context.”

It seems that although we need diplomats more, they are likely to be used less and less. One wonders whether even the super-virtual diplomat can overcome this tendency toward highly centralized control in a diffuse world. How do you penetrate that kind of control especially when it has a heavy ideological tilt? This book does not answer this question forcefully enough.

Overall, while there are many valuable nuggets and useful insights throughout this book, somehow the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. Most of the essays do not yet dare to leap to rigorous and vigorous answers. Kinsman is on the right track in pointing to the need for Canadian ideas. Yet there is a conservatism today in Canada (and somehow in many of the essays) that stems from a detached and somewhat vague engagement with the heady events of the world. This may possibly be due to wealth and comfort, that is, an apparent lack of challenge. If one looks at Greece, the eurozone or Yemen, this may seem like a blessing. But Occupy Wall Street and the Vancouver riot hint at changes closer to home.

New ideas in diplomacy and international affairs are, in fact, required desperately. In theory, Canada is well positioned to deliver them and lead; in practice, it is not yet meeting that challenge. As Janice Stein says in her introduction, “is Canada simply too late to a worldwide party under way?” I would add, do Canadians even care?

“We cannot seem to make up our minds,” says Bow. Indeed, it is still up in the air how Canada will respond to the real and immediate challenges of new mass politics driven by severe economic disparaties, of abuse of the planet’s resources or of our basic tribal instincts still running amok in patriotic disguises. “The national interest has become a calculation made in a global context, which transcends familiar economic and security concerns,” says Thorsell. We may be wise to listen and apply this guiding principle before all the digital fiddling.

The answer may also lie in an irony. It may be that, after a grand detour of a few decades, Trudeau was right after all. It may now be the time to look beyond continental constraints and retry our vocation as a country that carves new ground with new partners globally. As Edward Greenspon reports in his essay, even Allan Gotlieb, who as recently as 2004 diminished the importance of the “Third Option,” now believes that “its moment has finally arrived.”