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Michael Kovrig (far left) and Michael Spavor (hugging Barton), accompanied by Canada's Ambassador to China, Domenic Barton, are greeted on arrival by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being released from detention in China, in Calgary on Sept. 25, 2021.CANADIAN FORCES/Reuters

Now that Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels are back home, Canada can lay out a comprehensive approach to relations with China, as part of a broader strategy of engaging with Indo-Pacific countries. Or can we?

“Over all, Canada continues to have a highly qualified foreign service,” said Roland Paris, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who served as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “But it does need to build up competence in the Indo-Pacific.”

Which is one key reason why the Department of Foreign Affairs – Global Affairs Canada, the latest moniker for the department, is anathema to this writer – needs to become more permeable.

Foreign Affairs does a good job, by international standards, of serving the needs of Canadians living or visiting abroad, and of representing Canada in day-to-day interactions with foreign powers. Over the past decade, the trade arm of the department has delivered or renegotiated ambitious agreements with European, Pacific and North American countries. The department also administers foreign aid.

But talent is thin on the ground when analyzing and responding to the global power shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian regions. Relations with China are particularly complex, involving human rights, trade, the environment, immigration, agriculture and defence.

There is a general feeling within the government that foreign affairs, the foreign-policy shops in other departments, officials within the Privy Council Office and those in the Prime Minister’s Office collectively lack the numbers and depth to think through the big challenges facing Canada. This is why the American model is so much better.

With each change of administration, the senior ranks of the federal public service in Washington are replaced by the new administration’s nominees. Yes, it’s cumbersome, partisan, time-consuming and wasteful.

But, as I have written in the past, it also provides the United States with a more open government, and with a public-policy elite who shift between stints in government, universities, think tanks and corporations. Government benefits from that real-world experience.

Canada’s public service is largely closed off from external influences, weakening its analytical ability. One way to improve that situation would be to parachute people into the department from universities, think tanks and businesses for limited engagements on specific issues.

Chinese analysis, for example, could benefit from the contribution of some of the 1.8 million Canadians of Chinese background, from business executives with interests in China, from the heads of NGOs that document Chinese human-rights abuses, from institutions such as Toronto’s Munk School or Calgary’s Canada West Foundation.

Analysts at universities and think tanks “have a depth of knowledge that resides outside the Government of Canada, and can provide advice on how to approach particular issues and policies,” said Gary Mar, President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. He said that other federal departments could similarly benefit from outside contributors.

Embedding outsiders within the department for a year or two to work on policy – how to persuade India to open up on trade, how to finally get an invite to formally join the East Asia Summit, how to balance interests and values in relations with Beijing – would increase competence while limiting onerous bilingualism or security requirements.

Lifers at Foreign Affairs would resist. But they’d get used to it.

Last week, President Joe Biden met with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia, who along with the U.S. make up the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad). The week before that, the U.S., Britain and Australia announced the creation of AUKUS, a new trilateral security agreement.

Canada is conspicuously absent from these associations. Meanwhile, “we are all waiting for Canada to release its framework for its overall China policy,” David Cohen, the nominee for U.S. ambassador, told a Senate confirmation hearing last week.

While we all wait, let’s give some thought to how we can open up the federal government and public service to outside voices and expertise.

Aggressive new powers are on the rise; some old allies are on the wane. We need the very best people giving political leaders the very best possible advice on how to respond to this darkening world.

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