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the tell

As Canada's ambassador to the United States, Allan Gotlieb mastered the infinite nuances that characterize foreign policy, the intricacies of super-networking and the atomization of power and information of the digital age – before the digital age even began.Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail

How Allan Ezra Gotlieb has served his country: This man of Oxford and Harvard, collector of James Tissot prints and antique chess sets, brilliant polymath and renowned expert on international law – he once, as Canada's ambassador to the United States, had to pitch the first ball at a San Francisco baseball game between the hometown Giants and Montreal Expos.

He threw. The ball dribbled pathetically along the ground in the general direction of home plate. The crowd jeered.

Mr. Gotlieb didn't play baseball. Diplomats play tennis. But Mr. Gotlieb didn't even play tennis.

Someone once had to explain to him that Paul McCartney isn't an opera singer.

He needed to be briefed on Wayne Gretzky before taking the U.S. vice-president to see The Great One play.

Mr. Gotlieb remains, still, a national question mark in the wake of a dazzling public service career that began more than half a century ago when Canada's then-Department of External Affairs recruited him out of Oxford where he was studying as a Rhodes Scholar.

The question: How could such an awkward-looking, diffident, donnish man, seemingly more at home with books than dancing with celebrities or palavering with the power players of great nations, master the infinite nuances that characterize foreign policy, the intricacies of super-networking and the atomization of power and information of the digital age – before the digital age even began?

On Thursday, the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs will hold a day-long conference on his career. The conference, by invitation only, will be addressed by three former foreign ministers and former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

A book has been produced with essays in Mr. Gotlieb's honour written by some of Canada's leading diplomats and scholars on international relations. It is called Diplomacy in the Digital Age.

The title fits like a glove. Winnipeg-born Mr. Gotlieb, 83, is a digital diplomat.

If the digital age, as former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief William Thorsell writes in the book, is a technological revolution that above all else alters the economic and social relations between states and enables the many to speak to the many with a cacophony of information (and counter-information), Allan Gotlieb foreshadowed the coming era by correctly analyzing the fragmented loci of power in the United States and accordingly adjusting the way Canada conducted its most important foreign relationship.

Until he went to Washington in 1981, Canadian diplomats spoke only to officials in the State Department. They were forbidden to set foot on Capitol Hill for fear of being accused of interfering in domestic politics.

Mr. Gotlieb built scores of relationships on the Hill over the following eight years. "In the U.S.," he said in an interview, "the fundamental rule is that the [congressional]committee chairs write the law of the land." Thus he went where the power lay and spun gold. At one point when the embryonic Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement looked like it might die in the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, a meeting between the chairman and Mr. Gotlieb was swiftly arranged. He subsequently reported to Ottawa that there would be no problems.

Mr. Gotlieb vacuumed his way through lobbyists, political aides, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, celebrities of every cast, academics, the business community and state and municipal politicians.

He and his wife, Sondra, became Washington's unparalleled party-givers, brushing aside the cat-scratches to draw the A-list of power and sparkle to their home.

An invitation to one of the Gotliebs' parties was Not To Be Refused. They sat up at night planning guest lists. They lunched with television diva Barbara Walters. Sondra was invited onto the Today Show.

When Sondra, under stress, slapped her social secretary in the face at a dinner party to which U.S. vice-president George Bush was invited, it made headlines around the continent.

"I wasn't a relaxed hostess," she told an interviewer. But she was a great one, even with hiccups: She once described going up to a dinner party guest and saying, "What's your name?" "Caspar Weinberger," came the reply from the guest of honour, Ronald Reagan's defence secretary.

If there were hiccups to Allan Gotlieb's career, they were seldom, if ever, seen. Why was he so good? Two of Canada's paramount historians on foreign policy have almost identical answers.

"The basic answer is intelligence. And the luck to be around Ottawa at a time when that was appreciated," says University of Toronto's Robert Bothwell. His colleague John English says: "He combines a first-rate intellect with extraordinary energy and endless curiosity."

Mr. Gotlieb's diplomatic paradigm-shift began prior to his ambassadorial appointment. As under-secretary of state for what was then called the Department of External Affairs, he re-invented Canada's foreign ministry as a central agency of government, making it a conduit through which all incoming and outgoing information related to Canada's international relations would pass.

"Diplomacy is about wisdom," he told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.

Mr. Gotlieb redefined Canada's diplomats as representatives not just of the foreign minister but of the entire collectivity of government, both in Ottawa and the provinces.

On an early fall afternoon sitting in the Toronto Annex offices of the Donner Canadian Foundation, of which he is chairman, he said: "By looking back, I can look forward. And looking back at my career, I've asked myself, what did I stand for, what did I try to achieve and is it relevant?"

He doesn't hesitate with an answer. "I'll tell you," he says, "why the model I pursued in the past remains the model for the future."

He agreed in 1977 to become under-secretary of state for External Affairs only after being assured by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his cabinet secretary, Michael Pitfield, that External Affairs would be made a central agency, with a co-ordinating function to bring all cross-border operations together.

Without that co-ordinating function, he said, without a central data bank, there is "the danger of inconsistent, impulsive, often risky, possibly unsound decisions." And yet in recent years, he said, the Foreign Affairs Department has been marginalized, its role diminished.

He said that, for Canada's ambassadors, the digital age has meant "an explosive expansion of sources of information and players, whole armies of NGOs, armies of special interests.

"So what are the options here? The options are to give up, say you can't do it, it's too complex, there are too many players. Or become the chief intelligence officer and chief interpreter and chief lobbyist."

Diplomacy in the digital age means having the knowledge to challenge the infinity of data, Mr. Gotlieb said. It means there is a premium on having a superb knowledge of the country to which the diplomat is posted, and its players.

He said foreign policy is all about nuances; it's never about breakthroughs because breakthroughs never happen – an observation he attributed to Henry Kissinger.

"The nuances you've got to get," Mr. Gotlieb said, "and the more complicated that issues are, the more you need to be aware of the nuances. This is why knowledge and familiarity are so important.

"The alternative is shooting from the hip. The alternative is amateurism and danger. And the more dangerous the world becomes, the higher the premium on public service, on good old fashioned public service, on people who are experts, who are knowledgeable." It's why, he said, the quality of the diplomatic corps is far more important today than it has ever been.

Michael Valpy is a Toronto-based writer.