The disenchantment of the diplomat

Val Ross June 23 1980

The disenchantment of the diplomat

Val Ross June 23 1980

The disenchantment of the diplomat


Val Ross

When her laden train swayed out of the desert with “camels that bare spices and very much gold,” the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon’s court turned into one of the very few biblical occasions in which nobody sinned, nobody got hurt and a good time was had by all. For the next two millennia the glamorous image persisted. The life of diplomatic exchange seemed charmed in two senses: it was both enchanting and immune from danger.

With its professional perks—panelled residences in Mayfair, château$ in the French countryside, servants pouring champagne into government-issue crystal and, above all, the opportunity to encounter the world in all its rich variety—no wonder a country’s foreign service has drawn the best and brightest. Canada’s department of external affairs has produced two creditable prime ministers, Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson, as well as, in its early 1960s heyday, more than half of the deputy ministers on the Hill. It has attracted aristocrats such as former United Nations representative George Ignatieff, the St. Petersburg-born son of a Russian count; it has its renaissance men such as Robert Douglass Ford, winner of the 1956 Governor-General’s medal for poetry, now representing Canada in Moscow. “It’s still an elite,” admits

Lome Clark, the tall, suave, impeccably tailored, fluently bilingual chief of External’s legal department. Clark himself is a representative specimen of the type. Yet, as current president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), he is quick to add, “We’re no longer elitist,” and to acknowledge the profession’s malaise. The styles and lavish forms of a whole way of life are withering in a

harsher climate of inflation, terrorism and changing social and political realities; the shimmering image of diplomatic life is evaporating like a desert mirage.

According to John Holmes, a career diplomat who now heads the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, morale is “spotty” among the foreign service’s 740 officers, 300 trade commissioners, 240 immigration officers and support staff of 1,200 secretaries, guards and clerks. In just over a year the legal department alone lost eight top lawyers to other departments, provincial politics or the private sector. Back in the sunny 1960s when Pearson brought in collective bargaining for the public sector (in effect creating “unions” such as PAFSO), External’s haughty mandarins regarded the move as a quaint joke in a blue collar. These

days PAFSO is tripling its meetings to accommodate its members’ demands. Meanwhile, budget and hiring constrictions have helped to halve External’s job applications from about 4,000 in 1974 to about 2,000 just five years later. “I would caution young people about joining up,” admits Marcel Cadieux, retiring after 39 years of diplomatic service, including a five-year stint as ambassador to Washington.

External co-ordinates the international services of several federal departments, including immigration and industry, trade and commerce—indeed, 60 per cent of the officers working in Canadian embassies are from departments other than External. Yet, in the past decade this central ministry’s real power has actually diminished. It used to claim the right ear of the prime minister. But Pierre Trudeau’s style of dealing personally with world leaders plus his lack of interest in the department (“He couldn’t have harmed the foreign service more if he’d wanted to,” accuses one senior bureaucrat) have combined with provincial initiatives to conduct independent foreign policies and turned the once-powerful department into everyone else’s agency. “The diplomat is at the end of the Teletype,” sighs George Ignatieff. “His freedom of action is restricted and instant diplomacy is displacing human diplomacy.” Diplomacy has always been a profession of appreciating the political nuances of social interactions and of making desirable impressions; in the past, this subtle game was played according to a formal, decorative code among wealthy gentlemen. Now it has become a tragicomedy of manners as inflation trips up Canada’s performance on the world stage. A year and a

half ago, in one West European capital, the embassy budget ran dry before the inflation-adjusted allowance arrived from Ottawa. So, after his tuxedo-wearing guests had departed, His Excellency the Ambassador of Canada, Madame the Ambassadress and their children rolled down all the window shades and surreptitiously washed the elaborate meal’s dirty dishes.

Against the grimmer backdrop of Indochina the same drama—too little cash, too many expectations—was played out during Ian Hamilton’s posting as Immigration’s first secretary to Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Djakarta. It was 1978 and the Boat People exodus was accelerating. “Into those terrible, squalid refugee camps,” recalls Hamilton, “the American team of doctors, nurses, translators and immigration secretaries would arrive. They’d be followed by the Canadian team—me.”

Times and needs have changed, yet the profession seems caught in some Edwardian time warp. In spite of the women’s movement, for example, only eight per cent of the officer class of Canada’s foreign service is female and the fact demoralizes young recruits and their spouses. In some postings, the way of life is still pure colonial-era cliché. One foreign service officer recently quit External after a stint in the Caribbean: “The people I was working with just drank and played croquet. I’d joined up to see the world—it just wasn’t for me.”

Of course, these internal clashes of bureaucracy, budget and styles of behavior are invisible to the public for whom there’s a more obvious leech on the profession’s morale: terrorism. In the past year, cocktail-partying officers have turned into frontline foot soldiers

caught in the path of Tehran militants and Islamabad mobs. Since 1980 began,

San Salvador’s Panamanian and Spanish embassies were seized; 39 people died at a sit-in when the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City was mysteriously burned; guerrillas occupied the Dominican Republic’s residencè in Bogota, Colombia; and Iranian rebels occupied their country’s embassy in London, with bloody results. Happily, no Canadian blood was shed when Canadian Ambassador Kenneth Taylor hid six fugitives during the American embassy take-over in Tehran, but the incident showed that not even secondstring powers are immune. Although the last real violence against Canada occurred back in 1969 when an irate immigration applicant fire-bombed the consulate in Vienna, an External Affairs memo reports that today and every day, somewhere in the world, a Canadian embassy or residence is being burgled, picketed or threatened with bombing.

In the past three years, External has spent more than $5 million to upgrade the security of its buildings and the protection of personnel overseas, but it hasn’t solved the stress of emotional insecurity. During Marcel Cadieux’s Washington ambassadorship (1970-75), he says his two young sons were “condemned to live on the top floor of the residence. There had been rapes on our front doorstep; we couldn’t let them play outside.” Add to that kind of stress the normal pressures of transient foreign service life—the interrupted schooling, shattered friendships, exposure to exotic diseases—and the cumulative effects can be almost unbearable. “Our children have nervous breakdowns,” sighs Lester Pearson’s daughter-in-law, Landon Pearson, president of the Foreign Service Community Association. “We have no statistics but I’m afraid the rate is high.”

The toll on adults is as inevitable. It is so clear that the job’s normal stresses frequently result in divorce, drinking and periods of emotional breakdown that admission of them no longer spells the end of a career. In the past decade External has launched alcoholism and culture-shock courses and for the past two years has been sending family counsellors to service posts overseas. Of course, in addition to the burdens of the predictable, there is always, in diplomatic life, the possibility of the extraordinary. Though Kenneth Taylor’s wife,

Pat, remains cheerfully committed to embassy life she admits that during those trying months in Tehran her blood pressure was so high “it gave my doctor quite a fright.”

But of all the social changes reordering foreign service life, the one that has pierced it to the corps, believes Lorne Clark, is surely the women’s movement. After a life of unpaid service including packing up old households, organizing schools, medical care, provisions, decor and staff in the new one, and then entertaining endless streams of guests, the average pension of a foreign service officer’s widow is $2,246 a year. Only recently have wives won the grudging right to pursue their own careers abroad—where permitted. They cannot accept jobs outside embassy circles in communist countries for reasons of security, nor can they work in strict Moslem countries. So, more and more, wives are opting to stay behind. “What’s so great about going to Upper Volta or Saudi Arabia?” asks one diplomat’s wife. “Chances are, you’ll spend all your time in the one air-conditioned room of your apartment.”

The disillusioned are even asking whether diplomats themselves are obsolete. Is their life not just a dangerfilled, costly facade whose real work occurs on telephone hotlines? “Absolute nonsense,” asserts John Holmes. “Diplomacy is still a matter of judgment and experience, conducted by human beings.” And, once in a while, foreign service officers still get the chance to conduct it. Ian Hamilton almost singlehandedly processed the immigration of 6,000 boat people to Canada. He lost 37 pounds and, at 43, turned prematurely grey in the process. Yet he still believes as profoundly as ever in the contribution of his profession. “Once in a while you’re called upon to rise to a challenge, to represent Canada the way people back home would have expected you to do it. That’s why I’m still in this job.” With files from June Rogers

June Rogers