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The Canadian embassy in Beijing (GOH CHAI HIN)
The Canadian embassy in Beijing (GOH CHAI HIN)

Mission improbable: Diplomacy on the cheap Add to ...

Did you hear the one about Mark Rowswell, a comedian famous in China as Dashan who'd been snagged as Canada's public face for Shanghai's Expo 2010?

The Canadian embassy feted him at a soirée last month, part of the country's campaign to become more visible in Beijing.

Except that the chef who introduced the meal revealed that she'd been restricted to using ingredients donated by sponsors, along with vegetables from Ambassador David Mulroney's garden.

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There was just enough for the guests.

This is not how to win allies and influence great powers.

Even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper jets this fall to Singapore, India, Trinidad, China and South Korea, budgets for embassy programs have been slashed by half since late July, forcing a downsizing of diplomats' efforts.

And while nobody's crying for diplomats because their parties are lame, the cuts are having an impact on how Canada presents itself to the world.

In Beijing, where Canada is trying to drum up business with the world's fastest-rising power, lavish corporate banquets often feature an unappetizing but expensive shark's fin soup just because it's pricey.

Business and bureaucratic successes are built on guanxi , personal connections. In such an environment, relying on donated food for entertaining undermines a country's efforts to make a splash.

To make matters worse, trade commissioners tasked with drumming up Canadian business six or 12 hours away in Paris or Beijing have been told to turn off e-mail functions on their BlackBerries to save charges.

Diplomats in Washington, told to launch a full-court press of lobbying against Buy American measures that hurt Canadian businesses, are cancelling trips to meet state politicians and can't afford lunches with congressional staffers.

"If you don't have entertainment allowances, you're a dead duck, frankly," said Allan Gotlieb, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington. "Representational budgets are the single most useful tool a diplomat has."

MONEY TALKS

The cuts come as Foreign Affairs retools its mission to focus on emerging markets and rising powers and give more consular services in places where Canadians now travel more, and shifts staff abroad from Ottawa. But the money squeeze raises questions about 21st-century diplomacy. Given the new demands, should money be stretched further over 173 missions, or should diplomats drop some of the things they do?

Despite reports, the cuts were not prompted because the Harper government has slashed the Foreign Affairs department's budget. Instead, it's been flatlined. The department's main budget has been frozen for four years at about $2.2-billion, but just over half is for operating expenses. It's filled with sections that are cordoned off from reductions by Parliament or government: pensions, capital expenses, rising grants for things like UN dues, and separately authorized programs whose funding can't be shifted elsewhere.

So when a relatively small sum needs to be found for new costs, it requires deep cuts from a small piece of the pie. At the same time, other costs have risen. The price of missions in Kabul and Kandahar skyrocketed with the Afghanistan war.

The budget squeeze has been mounting for three years, but senior department officials realized too late this year's crunch was upon them. The department used to hoard about $40-million each year it could carry over to the next year's budget, but its cushion disappeared when the last fiscal year ended in April.

A summer scramble led to cuts for branches, and those that run missions had to shave 4 per cent. But since most of their budget is for salaries, the axe fell on what could be quickly cut: missions' program budgets were sliced in half. It was a relatively modest sum - $9.9-million - but it left little program money, so Canada has buildings filled with people getting less done.

"Cut the gravy. That's what the managers were told," said one government staffer.

PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION

Unloved in Ottawa, the Foreign Affairs department gets little sympathy.

It's not just Conservatives, but bureaucrats in central agencies such as the Finance Department and Treasury Board who roll their eyes at Canada's diplomats, viewing them as bad money managers and elitists who swan about Paris.

Even some diplomats say there's a little truth to that: There are priggish diplomats overly fond of luncheons, and there's some poor cost-control - told to plan a shift of 400 staff from Ottawa to missions abroad as of April, the department allowed numbers at headquarters to creep up by 330 over the past three years.

But the squeeze also reflects ambivalence about diplomats' mission.

In a world where summit diplomacy between prime ministers and presidents has them building their own foreign policy teams, and finance and other ministers hold international meetings, diplomats have lost their monopoly on foreign affairs.

Half of the Canadian-based staff at embassies come from other departments, such as Immigration or the RCMP. And the Conservative government wants to speak for Canada, rather than diplomats.

"It's not clear that that function is as relevant in a core sense as it used to be," said Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, a keen follower of Foreign Affairs.

An alternative to cutting program budgets is to scale back the diplomatic network.

However, when deputy minister Len Edwards suggested posts should be closed to meet a late 2007 demand for reductions, "it didn't get to first base," according to a former diplomat familiar with the discussions.

The Conservatives government closed five missions in its first two years, but was blasted for it.

Since 2008, it has closed six others, but opened 13. Foreign Affairs officials say cutting back posts abroad would clash with the mission to get more folks out of Ottawa and into the world at large.

Still, the pace of that shift has been slowed by the money squeeze because of the expense of staffing abroad.

In its efforts to move resources from Old World power capitals to emerging ones, Canada has opened three offices in fast-rising India and a new embassy in Mongolia, where Canadian mining investment has grown.

It is putting more people in India, China, even vacation destinations like Puerto Vallarta.

It plans to put a democracy centre in Lima and move its Arctic policy centre from Ottawa to Oslo.

All that, Mr. Segal noted, "may affect the budget for Canada Day in Atlanta."

But, he added, "one hopes that at some senior level … the cost of doing more in Asia and less in Atlanta is being assessed, so that it's a rational decision as opposed to one of these across-the-board cuts, where it's the wrong thing that's cut."

With a report from Mark MacKinnon in Beijing

 

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