As I wrote in this newspaper last year about the creation of the then-new Office of Religious Freedom, I am perfectly agnostic about the folding of Canada's aid agency CIDA into its foreign ministry, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Changes in the machinery of government are the rightful prerogative of the Prime Minister, and this government has been more modest than most others in playing with this machinery because it has understood well that such changes – particularly interdepartmental mergers – often consume more energy in the management of bureaucratic cultural clashes than do they yield conspicuous improvements in policy.
So why make this move? The incorporation of CIDA into DFAIT is an old idea with as many merits as it has demerits – all depending on one's view of the degree to which government efforts to alleviate poverty in developing countries ought to be 'pure' and otherwise de-linked from a variety of other possible foreign policy objectives.
That the government has now decided to make this machinery change, however, suggests that it is painfully short on good foreign policy ideas and, far more importantly, bereft of any credible capacity for strategic extroversion for the foreseeable future. Such capacity for strategic extroversion – that is, for influencing countries and players and parties outside of Canada, and generally for making a difference in the world – relies on assets such as diplomats and embassies (both increasingly depleted), the military (small, tired and underfinanced, with more cuts to come), intelligence (small and underfinanced), differentiated foreign relationships (we have some of these, but our net is cast very narrowly and unimaginatively) and, to be sure, money that can be spent (including a large aid envelope, which patently does not exist).
Beyond these, two key related factors suggest that this government and Canada as a whole will continue to hugely underperform in foreign affairs in a century that may prove far more difficult for us than the last. First, we have a weak national foreign-affairs culture, which results in little public accountability brought to bear on governments for such poor performance and investment in foreign affairs. Second, with some heroic exceptions, we have weak talent in key strategic positions in Ottawa, both politically and bureaucratically.
All of these factors combined suggest that the CIDA move, like much of Canadian foreign policy, will nary be felt outside of Ottawa. With little capacity to shoot beyond our borders, and with little public pressure brought to bear to provide a corrective, we are once again left talking to ourselves.
Irvin Studin is editor-in-chief & publisher of Global Brief magazine, and MPP program director and assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.