An envoy’s many years of service
The man was a complete stranger. As if out of nowhere, he lined up behind the young woman at the downtown currency exchange office. He seemed friendly enough and was soon peppering her with questions about her upcoming trip: a visit to Moscow in December 2003. Their banter, innocent on the surface, continued for a while, but the moment she pocketed her rubles, the man vanished.
When the woman mentioned the encounter to her boyfriend, the Canadian diplomat Geoff White, he immediately suspected foul play. At least some at the Russian embassy, in Ottawa’s leafy Sandy Hill neighbourhood, were aware of their upcoming journey; both had recently applied for visas. But the fact that White’s girlfriend (and future wife) was approached in this manner, at such a precise time and place, suggested either that she was under direct surveillance or that spooks had found a way to monitor her phone and email. Whatever the method, the couple were now on Russia’s radar. That in itself was unsettling, but the prospect of further jiggery-pokery in Moscow was even more troubling.
This anecdote is drawn from Working for Canada: A Pilgrimage in Foreign Affairs from the New World Order to the Rise of Populism, White’s slim but perspicacious diplomatic memoir. The author is a gifted writer — he was a journalist for the Calgary Herald before joining the foreign service — and his book enriches a long tradition of writing by Canadian diplomats that goes back to at least the early 1960s. Such illustrious figures as Lester B. Pearson, Charles Ritchie, and George Ignatieff have all written about the craft of diplomacy and its evolving role in global affairs, as have Derek Burney and David Mulroney. With four books to his name, Nicholas Coghlan, Canada’s former ambassador to South Sudan, has been particularly active.
Nevertheless, diplomacy remains somewhat misunderstood by the public, shaped as it is by Hollywood thrillers and notions of aristocratic glamour. Yes, diplomats do at times get involved in high-stakes summitry or secret negotiations — think of Ken Taylor and the role he played in extracting American personnel from Tehran during the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis — but most envoys never partake in such work. White clears some of the romantic fog surrounding the profession by delving into the minutiae of his various assignments. Readers will finish the book with a clear sense of the daily tasks — at times mundane, yet necessary — that confront many foreign service officers.
At the beginning of his diplomatic career, White was responsible for developing and then implementing a communications plan to explain the North American Free Trade Agreement to Canadians. He describes this experience as three years of “almost interminable days of near-monastic dedication,” which consisted of endless and sometimes frustrating consultations with a bevy of players: Canada’s lead negotiator, John Weekes; its ambassador to Washington, Derek Burney; ministry staffers at External Affairs and at Trade and Industry; colleagues in other departments throughout Ottawa; and various representatives from the United States and Mexico. Additional tasks included updating media lines, organizing press briefings, and working with pollsters to set up focus groups across the country. It was drudgery devoid of much charm.
But it was important work. White recalls how the government had “badly fumbled” its communications strategy for the 1987 Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement, especially during the period between the formal conclusion of the talks and the publication of the complete text weeks later. “Much of the suspicion that had arisen about the deal,” he writes, “stemmed from the mystery that had surrounded the details after its announcement.” This was a mistake that White and his colleagues were determined to avoid. By and large, they succeeded. When the final NAFTA deal was announced in late 1992, most Canadians were well enough informed, and support was strong. That remained the case until the accord was replaced by the Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement in 2020.
White describes his years of service, between 1990 and 2018, as a distinct era. Indeed, he started at the end of the Cold War, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His first decade as a diplomat thus coincided with the triumph of liberal internationalism, an era of enormous optimism when it seemed that democracy, human rights, and free trade had prevailed over authoritarian alternatives and would thenceforth become the dominant geopolitical paradigm. With hindsight, such idealism was a bit naive, but at the time, it was heady stuff. Lloyd Axworthy, Canada’s foreign minister between 1996 and 2000, was a standard-bearer of this school of thought, which was reflected in his signature achievement, the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention, signed in Ottawa in 1997.
Although it was not immediately obvious, the winds began to shift with the onset of the War on Terror. The tech boom accelerated connectivity. Old certainties weakened as information, real and otherwise, spread more easily. The consensus about globalization and liberalization gradually eroded. Then came Donald Trump, the climate crisis, China’s disruptive wolf-warrior diplomacy, COVID-19, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Today, the world is a much darker place than it ever was during White’s career.
Have these developments changed the manner in which governments manage their foreign affairs? In some ways, yes, and officials the world over are debating how to adjust to the new reality. But, as White points out, “the big trends are often just background in the practical, day-to-day conduct of diplomacy.” When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, for example, White was reluctantly shutting down a cultural diplomacy program back in Ottawa — and not exactly preoccupied with a harbinger of things to come overseas. During the Arab Spring, when the entire Middle East seemed on the cusp of historic change, he was posted in South Africa, defending press freedoms and supporting Canadian companies in Madagascar. He sat out the entire Afghanistan mission, Canada’s most significant foreign effort since the Korean War.
Geopolitics is like gravity, though: its pull might be weak at times, but you can’t escape it. In January 2006, White got an urgent call from a manager at Air Transat; the company had just found out that a passenger aboard a flight to Mexico, Sami Kahil, was on the U.S. no-fly list. Having departed Montreal, its Boeing 737 was now being escorted by American fighter jets. Would it be forced to land? Would Kahil then be arrested and secretly deported to a foreign location, where he would be tortured, as the Canadian Maher Arar had been several years earlier? No one knew, but there was little time to consult. As a former journalist, White had numerous media contacts, so he leaked the story. The move achieved his intended result: with the public paying attention, Kahil was soon returned home; within a year, he was cleared by U.S. authorities. White had made a big gamble that could have derailed his career. But in the end, it was probably the right call for a new world.