The Decline & Fall of the Foreign Service

The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. — Robert Conquest’s ‘Third Law of Politics’

All sovereign countries have a foreign service, a cadre of specialists in international relations sent abroad to look after the country’s interests. The British and Americans each have one, the EU recently created one, and the Holy See has perhaps the oldest one.

It is the opinion of this author that Canada no longer really has one. That is not to say that there are no longer dedicated and skilled specialists who work to protect Canadians and Canada’s interests abroad. Quite the contrary. There are still some tucked away in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It is not that there was some overt effort to destroy a professional foreign service. Nonetheless, because of a combination of changes in the civil service in Ottawa and, coincidentally, some societal changes in our country, it is fair to say that a foreign service no longer really exists.

The origins of the Canadian Foreign Service lie in the early twentieth century. Previously Britain looked after our international relations, even with our closest neighbour, the United States. Before 1910, a section within the Department of the Secretary of State under Sir Joseph Pope had the purpose of managing what were called “Imperial relations,” that is with the mother country and to a lesser extent within the Empire. The Government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier created a separate Department of External Affairs in that year, over which the Prime Minister presided as Minister, with Sir Joseph as its first Under-Secretary of State, a post he held until his retirement in 1925.

For a time the Department remained minuscule but with steady growth of Canada’s interests and responsibilities it became necessary to establish, following the example of other nations, a functioning foreign service with the background, training and skills to handle the foreign interests of Canada. O.D. Skelton of Queen’s University followed Pope as Under-Secretary and set about gathering a group of bright and talented young men for that purpose. This was the so-called golden age of Canadian diplomacy: Pearson, Pickersgill, Heeney, Wrong, Keenleyside and others were recruited to man the headquarters and a slowly growing number of posts (and conferences) abroad. Largely anglophone, upper-middle-class, English-educated (Oxford) and male, it was a small and dedicated group.

The early 1970s represented both an apogee and the beginning of a decline. By the early Seventies those associated with the original exclusive group had passed from the scene. Pearson was gone, Skelton long gone; Vincent Massey, who had gone on to greater things, had also been carried away. Time, that ever rolling stream, had also born away Hume Wrong, Norman Robertson, Dana Wilgress, Hugh Keenlyside and Arnold Heeney.

As the Foreign Service grew it remained a largely self-selecting group, urbane, male, increasingly nationalist (anti-Imperial but not necessarily pro-American) and, within the Public Service, a homogeneous and distinct group. The original formula favouring English-educated anglophones with an enlivening admixture of pure laine francophones had long been broken with the recruitment of others, including a small but growing number of women. The overwhelming caucasian dominance was also soon breached.

The brooding, dark permanence of “Fort Pearson,” the Lester B. Pearson Building at 125 Sussex Drive, was still in the planning stages. Part of the charm and mystique of the Department at the time derived from the disorganized shambles of its location; it was scattered in over a half-dozen buildings across the centre of Ottawa, including the East Block, the Wellington Street Post Office, the Daly Building and a host of even less distinguished locations. But this was the Department of the previous Prime Minister, L.B. Pearson — Nobel Peace laureate, founder of peacekeeping and engine of the Canadian efforts which contributed to the creation of NATO, etc.

A portent of what was to come was provided by the infamous cuts of the late 1960s which had seen officers fired for the first time under a reverse order of merit scheme. It was traumatic for all and deeply remembered even thirty years later, when those who had as junior officers been part of the personnel team which carried out the cuts were recalled with some bitterness. About the same time, the then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, made some unamiable comment (which one had hoped was apocryphal) that the New York Times provided him with reporting more timely and profound than the Department’s.

A chastening note and portent of things to come was given in the appointment of Allan Gotlieb (1928 – ) as Under-Secretary, i.e, Deputy Minister, in 1977. Rumours were rife that we had seen the last Deputy who had made his way up from the ranks of the Foreign Service. Gotlieb had had a brilliant career in the Public Service outside the Department after starting in the Foreign Service and serving abroad once in Geneva. He was to be one of our most distinguished ambassadors in Washington. However, his advent was seen as the beginning of changes to come and although there were Deputies appointed who had spent at least part of their careers in the Foreign Service, such service was clearly no longer a requirement. Trade Commissioners, Presidents of CIDA, Deputy Ministers from Citizenship and Immigration, and most recently a public servant who made most of his career in the private sector and in the Privy Council Office and had no previous experience of the Foreign Service or the work of the Department, have been appointed as Deputy Minister. This is not the place to make any comment about their contributions to foreign policy or to the management of the Department, but it does highlight the beginning of a separation of the upper levels of management from the Foreign Service they directed. And more was to come.

However, by the time of which we are speaking, the general spirit of the Department was upbeat. It had survived wrenching cuts and was confident that it would find an accommodation with its outside critics. Senior members of External Affairs were found in jobs at the top of departments across the federal government. In any event, the trend in bureaucratic growth was generally in the ascendant — the public servant’s ultimate revenge then as now. The next thirty or so years showed this optimism to be correct generally, even if less so in its specifics.

The internal structure of the Foreign Service group reflected this history. In 1971 there were (from top to bottom) ten FSO (Foreign Service Officer) levels: 10 being the most senior level and 1 (probational) entry-level. Soon after, the structure of the Foreign Service was collapsed to five levels under what was called the FS group conversion. What was the reason for this change? The most probable reason was economic. After a period of retrenchment, it was also less complicated and less expensive to conduct five promotion board exercises across the whole Department rather than ten. The change was not without controversy, but the officers were offered a system with five salary bands to cover the same range as had been separated by ten before.

One of the most dramatic turns in the history of the Foreign Service was the decision to consolidate all of the parts of government departments having significant representation abroad under the aegis of what became the Department of External Affairs and International Trade. In 1982 the traditional Foreign Service, the Trade Commissioner Service (itself with a distinct and quite long history) the Immigration Service, and CIDA effectively became parts of one administrative structure, their storied particularities reduced to four dedicated employment streams: Political and Economic, Trade, Social Affairs, and Development.

This action brought together into one Foreign Service structure (or group) all of the government employees serving Canada abroad and thus committed to some form of “rotationality.” This meant that these employees were committed to working at least part of their government service in missions abroad. It did not include, and was never meant to include, public servants from other Departments who served in a small number of highly-specialized positions abroad on behalf of the RCMP, the RCMP Security Service, National Defence (military attachés and their support), National Revenue, the Department of Labour, the Secretary of State, and the Departments of Finance, Transportation, etc., usually on a single-assignment basis. In other words, they were an elite service apart from the rest.

The 1980s also saw the folding together of large parts of the domestic (i.e. Ottawa) structures of these now “unified” foreign services. Dedicated positions (and by implication the funding to pay for them) were contributed by the originating departments and a free-for-all followed whereby the services competed or negotiated for paid positions in the new consolidated structure. There was much horse-trading between the originating Departments and those supposedly controlling the process (the Public Service Commission and Treasury Board) as each sought to minimize the cost to their existing establishments and the new parts of the Foreign Service looked to extracting maximum advantage from the new structure.

This new structure worked with only limited success for a short period. The Department of Immigration and CIDA eventually reasserted control over their own positions and employees. The enduring part of the unsuccessful reform is found in the co-location of the Trade Commissioner Service and the Foreign Service of Foreign Affairs within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Although under one roof, the two services now operate in largely parallel universes where the chimæra of consolidation manifests itself from time to time at the very top of the Department (DFAIT).

At about the same time as the administrative feint of consolidation was occurring in the 1980s, the Government for other reasons was effectively undermining specialist professional groups (including the Foreign Service) throughout the civil service in the interest of creating a common EX (executive) group across the entire Public Service.

One of the motivations for this was to meet the Government’s commitments to ensure employment equity for women, First Nations, persons with disabilities, and visible minority groups. Another driving force was that the Government believed that, as far as Foreign Affairs was concerned, at the management level the particularities of the practice of diplomacy were something that could be learned on the job and were in any case secondary to the requirement for a good and equitable management cadre which mirrored the ideal of a thoroughly representative, non-discriminatory and welcoming Public Service.

This was done incrementally over a number of years starting at the top. It was also a real body blow to the Foreign Service. Peeling off successive levels, they not only reduced the size of the FS group but diluted the commitment at senior levels to the idea of a professional diplomatic service.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) was left to represent mid-level and junior members only. Although the Department retained the services of significant numbers of these new EX officers, it can be asked whether they continued to see themselves as part of a Canadian diplomatic corps, especially as their pecuniary and professional interests were managed from outside the Department.

One of the unintended consequences today of a remnant FS group is that they increasingly regard themselves (and their professional association) as a militant bargaining unit. The author, as a management exclusion, has on a number of occasions had to wend his way gingerly past unhappy colleagues on the picket line. This is a function of the separation felt by FS Officers from the leadership of the Department.

Why was it done? One can question whether it was done with the explicit intention to destroy the Foreign Service. It is plausible that, given the desire to achieve employment equity across the government, this motive was not even a primary consideration. The FSO/FS group was in the attitude of the day no more important than any other employment group. However, in the course of this lengthy process, the Department was rife with rumours about the animus against the Foreign Service because of its closed system. In the past the Department had always fought tooth and nail to prevent lateral or any other transfers into its ranks. This perception could well have fed the process.

Changes in the wider social ethos also played a role. In 1958, Margaret Meagher was appointed as the first female Ambassador. Women were not recruited as officers in the Department until after the Second World War. Married female officers were not allowed until the late 1960s, before which the practice also meant that the female partners in officer couples had to resign. The first women heads of mission and senior officials in that period were unmarried. This situation clearly had to change to reflect, even if somewhat tardily, practices more generally in Canadian society.

Staffing challenges in the new environment have included the rise in the numbers of “employee couples” and of the numbers of employees whose spouses’ professional situation had to be accommodated. The Officer with a spouse working as a homemaker and hostess became increasingly rare. Posting married officers was difficult enough. Missions abroad are small and positions at appropriate levels were difficult to find under the best of circumstances.

These problems were exacerbated once the normal, uneven course of careers unfolded, and spouses could not work in a hierarchical relationship without running up against accepted practice concerning conflict-of-interest while possibly devastating the office work environment. Spouses from different departments posed even greater problems as one of the two had to seek a temporary release from work. Sometimes work for the non-departmental spouse was available at the city where the assignment took place (in an international bank, an NGO or simply in the local business environment) but often it did not, or at least no assurances could be given to the person looking to continue working during the period of interruption. Whatever the case, reluctance to accept assignments abroad has grown, making personnel management within the Foreign Service increasingly complicated.

In response to all these limitations on the assignment process (and perhaps because of the reduced significance of the Foreign Service as an institution) the Department has opened up all assignments at headquarters and abroad to federal employees across the Government. This attenuates even further the importance of a cadre foreign policy specialists whose importance numerically, as we have seen, has also been in decline. The longer-term impact of such a policy can only be devastating for the working end of the foreign policy establishment.

To recapitulate, in 1971 there were ten FS levels. For a considerable time after the reduction of its senior members, there were two levels left: FS-01 and FS-02. With the hiving-off of the whole of the management cadre (EX1 to EX5), what was left were the workers: officers and specialists but not “managers” (although in missions abroad they were often managers of significant numbers of other staff). More recently, there has been the addition of two further levels (FS-03 and FS-04) to reflect mid-level (but not specifically managerial) responsibilities and levels of professional, linguistic and area specializations. Salaries at the top level overlap with the EX-01 level, offering a small bone to Foreign Service professionals who would otherwise see their remunerative prospects running out at a relatively modest level.

The coup de grâce to the Foreign Service remnant has been the opening up of jobs at all levels to competition (or application) from the rest of the Public Service. This began at the EX-level positions but is now the case across the board, including at support staff levels. As a result, anyone recruited to the Department at the entry level with high ambitions sees the remaining FS group as a place of transit, where one can work in the substance of international relations while looking to move on and up. To these transitory FS officers may be added others from outside who might consider an assignment in the Department at headquarters or abroad as an interesting stage in their personal career without any kind of commitment to the Foreign Service. Some are actually now able to enter laterally for a second career in DFAIT having grown bored with Public Works or Revenue.

The occult process whereby this took place had been long and complicated. Throughout, there is little if any evidence that the management ever sought to defend the Foreign Service against the attacks that resulted in its reduction to a remnant of what it was. Whether this has been good or bad for the Department or the remaining diplomatic “practitioners” is hardly relevant anymore. The changes have been so pervasive and anchored in the way that the Public Service is managed generally, that it seems impossible to imagine any other reality. It is too late to go back. The world and governments have moved on, and the Foreign Service is no more.

5 Responses to “The Decline & Fall of the Foreign Service”

  1. Daniel Livermore
    June 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    My good friend and former colleague Terry Storms has the essence of it right. Under a government that doesn’t see the value of a foreign service (despite all of the signs of increased internationalization and globalization all around us), it’s tough to maintain the integrity of the profession. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s too late to reverse course. Nor do I believe that all the budget-cutting and reductions of the past five years have been fatal. What we need is dedicated leadership at the top, with the determination to undo some of the blunders of the public service ably described in Terry’s article. From my work at the University of Ottawa, where I see immensely talented and capable young students every year, all determined to make international relations a career, I know that the Canadian talent is available. What I don’t see is the capacity to put these youngsters to work in the foreign service. But I’m hoping that this is a short-term problem. Leadership, determination, a plan and key public service reforms could once again give Canada the professional foreign service that all 21st century states will require. Let’s give it a chance to work.

  2. Colin Robertson
    June 30, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Terry’s analysis is accurate although I think the demograhic changes he spoke about were inevitable and desirable and reflected the changing complexion of Canada. Some of the policy instruments employed ie affirmative action were well-intentioned and applied throughout the West.

    I also think we lost sight of our core function: policy development and policy implementation in favour of process and the latest fads of management. Critical thinking, adaptability, understanding of history and culture and languages, and the ability to develop networks – this is what makes a good foreign service officer.

    But Dan is right. There is still a lot of talent in the Service and continuing interest in wanting to join it. It may not be the vocation it once was but, outside of the priesthood, what is these days?

    It should be and can be rewarding and fascinating work in the service what is a remarkable, still-in-development, country.

    The Foreign Service is not finished, although it is in the doldrums. But for Governments of whatever complexion to accomplish their international objectives they will need a ‘foreign’ service. It has been 33 years since the last examination of what we expect of a our Foreign Service and the terms and conditions in which they serve. Other governments, notably New Zealand, are making reforms to increase mobility and entry at all levels as well as more purposeful mandates (mindful that a lot of foreign service, like foreign policy, is reacting to events) . The USA has done a series of reviews. We are looking at the Trade Commissioner Service.

    Now we need to look at the Foreign Service as a whole. Rubbishing it only diminishes our capacity to project our interests and influence abroad. Reform it. An sooner than later. The current torpor does not serve Canadian interests.

  3. Christian Lapointe
    July 4, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Very interesting analysis that includes all the important chronological benchmarks. Deepening and detailing some of those may shed further light on what has produced such a concerning situation. Being myself a child of the said Foreign Service consolidation process of 1982, I can certainly add that the overall expected result of it being to build a more “solid” system to face the incoming and constantly changing world, we may have missed the issue by having dropped too quickly some of its own pieces: dismantling the Aid stream in 1991, abandoning the Immigration group at DFAIT the very same year. The oldest and retired members of this “Pretty good Club” as Dan, Colin and I, we are certainly proud of those younger that we have contributed to recruit and that remain in the Foreign Service, even if only rare cases were educated at Oxford. Our Canadian institutions have produced very highly talented persons and continue to do so furthermore. But I share the view expressed by Dan about what leadership could do. During the course of that relatively short historical period of time, the leadership, sometimes, may have been distracted by something else.

  4. Rod Irwin
    August 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Colleague Terry Storms has got it pretty much right. I do not think the destruction of the Foreign Service was all that intentional, though there were some in the Public Service who thought the FS group snobbish and unwilling to play by the broader bureaucratic rules established by what were called the Central Agencies (Public Service Commission, Treasury Board, Privy Council Office, and others).
    The underlying rationale for a bottom-up career foreign service was the innate understanding that the intricacies of foreign relations was built on the accumulation of knowledge and experience over many different assignments at home and abroad.
    How, for example, could you understand, analyze and explain the attitudes and positions taken by the current Russian government, if you knew nothing of the background of recent events, traditions, culture; their relations with what they call the near abroad (countries that were pieces of the former Soviet Union) and the former East Bloc? To be there or to be working in the neighbourhood, to participate in the relationship your government and others were developing was in many ways to get to know the basics. The role of the foreign service was to learn these intricacies in order to succinctly and intelligently inform the interests of our government, to provide the basis upon which our leaders could make decisions.
    It is a not inconsiderable task, which for a period of time was thought to be within anyone’s grasp who reads The New York Times and perhaps it is still is seen in that way. Is it hard to imagine an executive at Ford moving to run Microsoft? Maybe not.

  5. Brian Davis
    August 31, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    I am largely in agreement with Terry’s ‘picture’ of how and why the Foreign Service has declined, though I think he overlooks two important pieces: the introduction in the late 1980s of a selection process that was manipulated to increase representation from under-represented sectors of Canadian society, resulting in the Service no longer recruiting the best candidates overall but taking those who fit a profile ahead of those who had the skills and ability; and, the introduction in the 1990s of a promotion process that was based almost entirely on “exams’ rather than on performance in the job, such that many officers dedicated themselves to passing exams and were promoted above others who were more skilled at the essential foreign service activities. The exams did not emphasize the importance of nor test an officer’s abilities in relation to key aspects of foreign service work, such as representation, reporting, contact development, and so forth. These factors combined with those mentioned by Terry resulted in officers with less understanding of and commitment to the key aspects of foreign service work that have been well underscored by Terry.
    That said, I agree with Dan and Colin with regard to reviving an effective foreign service. It can be done but it will require: a recognition of the importance of having a dedicated professional foreign service to meet Canada’s needs in the modern world; a commitment to create one from the highest levels of government; and a revision of the entire process of recruitment and training and terms of service.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.