Ottawa's foreign policy community has long been divided on the effectiveness of formal, often long-winded foreign policy reviews. At the Canada International Council, Roland Paris is not a fan ("little more than an articulation of the government's current policy"), but Jennifer Welsh says it's long overdue. The sitting government seems to have agreed with critics of a formal review, until quite recently. Now we have the F-35 crisis, new foreign investment rules, and the signing of a Canada-Israel foreign-aid pact, the latest in a series of shake ups at CIDA, and what Minister Fantino calls a renewed emphasis on public-private partnerships.
But if this renewed emphasis on partnerships is going to be carried out effectively, the typically closed-door conversations of the government are going to have to go public. You can't talk about public-private partnerships without inviting public-private dialogue. Something like a coherent picture needs to painted of the diversity of foreign policy considerations, and the often disparate departments and interests which are making them. The institutions and civil organizations this government is increasingly to rely on, therefore, must have a seat at the table where the choices are being defined.
Why a foreign policy review for this? The government is in the midst of commissioning something like a review already, even if leaked copies amount to more of a restatement than a new direction for Canadian foreign policy. But since a review is in the works, that review should state clearly the values this government has long espoused, and apply them in a consistent way to Canadian foreign relations. Among those values will be the centre stage work of international trade, and the Conservative mantra of government as facilitator. Facilitation, of course, is instructive: good facilitators don't drop into a room and lay out a take-it-or-leave-it agenda; they listen, and respond. If this review is another exercise in coming around to government logic, the phrase partnership might end up an exaggeration.
The key stakeholders that need to be connected in this review are probably not in the bureaucracy. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between closed door political strategizing and panicked, non-governmental organizations. Conservatives, naturally, won't be the ones to blink. In the now famous words of Minister Fantino, "We don't fund NGOs for life."
Not a bad tactic to bludgeon someone into your perspective, but also not really the language that partnerships are built on. If Ottawa's approach to aid will increasingly focus on facilitating private groups, then those groups should be welcomed to a public review not only of aid, but foreign policy generally. No one is saying the government has to do what they say, just that if you want to work to implement a strategy together, it's easier if all the parties feel listened to, or—in a magical world—bought into it. Maybe polarization between political elites and non-governmental leadership is now so extreme this is a pipe dream, but if so the government has at least some responsibility for that gap. It might be the government's turn to blink; no power can force them to, but a genuine shot at making this strategy work might demand it.
CIDA, and aid generally, is only one small slice of a government's foreign policy. This government has been serious about extending a consistent logic to all of its program areas, and aid is just the latest example. But make this a thoroughly articulated approach, and let the organizations facilitated by its logic gain a peek into its values and priorities. That can be done, or at least started, with a formal, public, foreign policy review.