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Marc Garneau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 2, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada has had 14 foreign affairs ministers in this century. The department has lost its way.

Global Affairs Canada – the acronym is pronounced “Gack,” which sounds like something a cartoon character would say – grows less relevant by the day. Once one of the two first-tier departments, along with Finance, its ministers rotate through with unseemly speed.

Someone dealing regularly with Canada’s foreign affairs department throughout the 21st century would have talked to Lloyd Axworthy, John Manley, Bill Graham, Pierre Pettigrew, Peter MacKay, Maxime Bernier, David Emerson, Lawrence Cannon, John Baird – the only one, at four years, who had a decent tenure – Rob Nicholson, Stéphane Dion, Chrystia Freeland, François-Philippe Champagne and, after Tuesday’s cabinet shuffle, Marc Garneau.

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Most of those ministers were highly capable – and that’s the problem. The title Minister of Foreign Affairs confers great prestige, but little responsibility. Too often they are transferred soon after arriving to a department with more urgent needs.

Having no time to establish the relationships that can make a foreign affairs minister truly effective, their premature departure further undermines the department’s credibility.

“It’s a shame,” said Bessma Momani, a specialist in international affairs at the University of Waterloo. “Continuity is particularly important in foreign affairs, because diplomacy requires that building of personal ties and creating bilateral friendship and understanding. So it’s really unfortunate to see another shuffle.”

Technology and proliferating summits have rendered much of the department’s work redundant. Prime ministers meet with their foreign counterparts several times a year, at meetings of the Group of Seven and Group of 20, the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other global and regional forums. As such, they increasingly become de facto foreign affairs ministers, further concentrating decision-making power in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Since the PMO and the PM are hogging most of the interesting things, who cares who’s foreign minister?” said Jean-Christophe Boucher, who specializes in foreign policy at the University of Calgary.

Department officials no longer go through Global Affairs to speak with their counterparts in other countries. They just WhatsApp.

Ambassadors spend too much time meeting with other ambassadors, preparing reports that are out of date before they’re even sent and marketing Brand Canada, which may have value, but perhaps not enough for the dollars spent.

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We need to restructure the department and its mandate. After the next election, whoever is prime minister should announce that the foreign affairs minister will be there for the duration.

The minister should undertake root-and-branch structural reform. The hundreds of workers on temporary contracts should be replaced by a smaller workforce with greater responsibility.

The minister should look at every embassy. Does it make a meaningful contribution? Could its functions be outsourced or handled out of Ottawa? What would be lost if it were downsized or closed? Are there new missions we should open?

The department has never been able to integrate aid and trade with diplomacy. The minister should figure that out.

And the minister should oversee a white paper on foreign policy. Don’t roll your eyes – they can be something other than a waste of time.

As Jonathan Paquin, a professor of international relations at Laval University, points out, “my colleagues will say that the white paper that was published by the Department of National Defence in June, 2017, was a great success,” establishing clear priorities in policy and procurement. “And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t need a white paper in foreign policy.’”

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The white paper would need to confront some tough questions.

How do we make our way in a world in which an internally distracted United States plays less of a role of global policeman? How do we engage with China without selling our country’s soul? Is it time to recalibrate relations with Russia? How do we increase our engagement with India and with Pacific countries?

The white paper should be short and blunt. It should be noticed in capitals around the world.

A foreign affairs minister who did those three things, while cultivating relationships with counterparts in other countries, would complement, not compete with, the Prime Minister’s Office, restoring credibility and morale.

Oh, and change the name back. It’s the Department of Foreign Affairs, for crying out loud. Call it what it is.

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