Already, Canada has suffered from its ‘generalist’ approach to foreign affairs and a lack of in-depth expertise on the Middle East and China, says the author

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Fewer than one in five senior managers in Canada’s foreign service meet the foreign language requirements of their jobs, an “unfortunate distinction” among our international counterparts and part of a larger problem of lack of expertise at Global Affairs Canada.

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That’s one of many findings from a new research paper recently released by veteran Canadian diplomat Ulric Shannon, a fluent Arabic-speaking Middle East scholar whose most recent post was Canadian Ambassador. in Iraq until 2021.

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In her article, Shannon compared the level of specialized expertise within AMC’s Foreign Service to that of six other countries (US, UK, France, Australia, China and Russia) at a time of global turmoil. increased.

His conclusion: while other countries strongly encourage their personnel to develop deeper expertise on specific subjects (such as Middle East politics, or international trade, etc.), Canada is lagging behind and risks be at a serious disadvantage on the world stage.

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“We are a bit outlandish. We are late to realize that…we need pockets of specialization and expertise among our rotational staff. I think the other democracies I compare us to in the report are further along this path,” he said during a podcast for the Center for International Policy Studies (CIPS) at the University of Ottawa, where he has just spent a year before returning to the GAC.

Already, he said, Canada has felt the brunt of its “generalist” approach to foreign affairs and its lack of in-depth expertise on the Middle East and China, especially during the fall of Afghanistan. in the hands of the Taliban in 2021 and following China’s arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in 2018.

One of his most notable findings is that few Canadian diplomats have even “general” proficiency in the local foreign languages ​​of the countries in which they are posted.

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In fact, only 23% of AMC employees meet the foreign language requirements of their jobs, according to data Shannon obtained from AMC’s training center, the Canadian Foreign Service Institute (CFSI). This number drops to 18% for management positions.

Canada “falls far behind its peers in staffing designated positions with officers with the required level of proficiency” and “Canada’s burgeoning record of producing diplomats fluent in foreign languages ​​is an unfortunate distinction among his peers,” he wrote.

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His detailed report was based on interviews and works of more than 60 current and former diplomats, government officials and academics, most of whom he did not identify at their request. He also obtained many unpublished government reports.

The problem is old. In 2007, an Auditor General’s report castigated GAC because only 16% of diplomats in positions requiring a foreign language met the proficiency requirements of the position and that the department lacked “basic information needed to plan and manage its workforce.

Despite a brief increase in funding for foreign language training that boosted overall fluency in subsequent years, overall foreign language compliance fell to roughly the same 2007 levels 15 years later.

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According to his research, the main problem is a “chronic shortage” of lower-to-middle-level staff at GAC’s Ottawa headquarters, which is part of a larger and more significant staffing problem at the department due to “years insufficient recruitment.

Because of these shortages, he says managers don’t want to free up their staff for full language training, which can take up to two years.

“On average, over the past four years, only 55% of employees assigned to designated language positions have benefited from their full right to training,” reads its report.

“High-performing language students who reach their designated levels earlier than expected are routinely sent back to headquarters to fill urgent gaps despite the training time theoretically still available to them, resulting in atrophy of language skills in the months before the assignment immediately.”

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But even those who achieve a high level of language proficiency tend to ‘give up’ positions in these regions after a term due to the ‘perception that the ministry has not valued foreign language skills in the management of career and promotion.

This relates to a second problem highlighted by Shannon: GAC (and the entire Canadian public service) is plagued by “managerialism” that privileges the development of “generic skills” for career advancement and tends to “lock » those who specialize in a certain area. .

“A senior executive who served in human resources at Foreign Affairs in the mid-2000s reported that he had commissioned a study of the “urban legends” surrounding promotion in the department (such as the bias in favor of base staff at headquarters, or those posted at major embassies such as Washington), and was appalled that ‘it was all true’,” Shannon reported based on an interview he did with the anonymous executive.

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A third problem is that Canada is the only G7 country that does not offer financial incentives to foreign service employees who learn and maintain their foreign language skills.

Its report reveals that CFSI prepared a “detailed business case” for GAC senior management in 2018 arguing for such an incentive, but it was declined “apparently on cost grounds”.

“And while some are skeptical that a financial incentive system would be a panacea, the fact that Canada is the only G7 country that does not offer its diplomats a bonus for proficiency in a foreign language is a message about management priorities, whether intentional or not,” he wrote.

Global Affairs Canada declined a request for an interview with Shannon.

Yet a country as diverse as Canada should have no problem filling its ranks with foreign service members who are experts in languages ​​and foreign issues. Failure to do so is “failure by choice,” Shannon explained.

“Given its unique advantage of having one of the most diverse populations in the world as a talent pool, there is no excuse that the Canadian foreign service should not become one of the most savvy diplomatic services , the most knowledgeable and cross-culturally connected in the world,” Shannon wrote. .

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