Canada: Foreign Affairs In The Age Of Wikileaks

Previously published in the National Post on 12 October 2011.

The Digital Age represents a revolution in the history of the human race, a transformation in the way information is transmitted, processed and retrieved. The quantity of available information is approaching infinity, and access to it is increasingly direct and without intermediation. In international affairs, we are experiencing a revolution in the number and types of players and, even more significantly, their political empowerment. The reach and impact of individuals (witness Julian Assange and WikiLeaks) and crowds (witness Tahir ul-Qadri and the overthrow of the Egyptian government) are unprecedented, not least of all in their potential for challenging and changing the international order.

Thanks to technology and the social media, virtually anyone can be an actor on the international scene. So what does this mean for diplomacy and the role of the ambassador?

Traditionally, diplomacy connects sovereigns with sovereigns, governments with governments, officialdom with officialdom, not peoples with peoples. According to international law, codified in treaties less than a half-century ago (the Vienna Conventions), all official business must be conducted through the intermediary of the foreign ministry. Ambassadors and their embassies are the exclusive instruments for all official communications.

No more. So great has been the change that it is now commonplace to regard the ambassador's role as superfluous, as obsolete as the horse and buggy. When I first became a diplomat in the post-war era, the standard form of communication was the dispatch to headquarters, sent by leisurely diplomat bag, whose function it was to provide analysis for the home government. Remember George Kennan's "long letter" from Moscow on containment of the Soviet Union, a document that changed the course of history? It is hard to conceive of anyone even reading this type of diplomatic communication today.

So would it be right to conclude that the ambassador's role is passé and that the elaborate infrastructure for supporting his activities is an anachronism? My response in three words - wrong, wrong, wrong. The role of the ambassador has never been more vital to a country's national interests than today. It far exceeds in importance its role in the era of traditional diplomacy.

In traditional diplomacy, the core function of the ambassador was representation. He (always he) would undoubtedly agree with Woody Allen's dictum that 90% of life was just showing up. So central was the ceremonial function that Canada's first chief diplomat in Washington, Vincent Massey, regarded as one of his principal achievements the design of the diplomatic uniform that, as head of post, he wore at all official functions.

Today, the diplomat has a number of core functions and representation would not score high on the list (although the ambassador must continue to just show-up). What are they?

? Chief practitioner of public diplomacy and chief advocate. In traditional practice and protocol, public diplomacy was unknown. Confidentiality was the central prerequisite for the ambassador's work and his communications. But today, the dissemination of power means special interests, activists and crusaders, private commercial interests, bloggers and columnists, public relations operatives and experts can be powerful agents of influence. All contribute to public opinion and sooner or later, public opinion leads to decision-making. No better example of the need for public diplomacy and advocacy than the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.

? Chief Lobbyist. When I was posted to Washington, I soon called myself Canada's chief lobbyist in the United States. This shocked traditionalists at the time. After all, Congress had been regarded as off-limits for our embassy for decades. Direct contacts with the legislature were seen as interference in domestic affairs. Today, direct dealings with Congress are indispensable and the notion of the ambassador bringing the country's chief lobbyist is so widely accepted that it has become a cliché.

? Chief Interpreter of Information. Political leaders, officials, expert analysts are in danger of drowning in the infinite mass of information. What does it all mean? The ambassador, with the special access to power that his title provides, becomes the most critical single source of interpretation about what the information actually means. On the global scene, recent history has illustrated the enormous cost of mistaken interpretation of intelligence of all kinds.

? Chief Intelligence Officer. Given the variety of threats to a state's national interest, the intelligence functions of the diplomat cannot only be passive. There must be a pro-active pursuit of information that can identify issues on the horizon. Often, foreign activities - they may be protectionist or pseudo-environmental - are long in the making but are difficult to discover. They can erupt - and have done so - in the middle of the night in congressional committees. The requisite intelligence may emerge from thousands of sources and are often gathered in a social context. What is called gossip can be valuable intelligence. The infrastructure that will enable the ambassador to reach out widely - such as embassy entertainment - is crucial to the task. Targeted entertainment is not trivial and intelligence gathering is not, as is sometimes thought, an un-Canadian thing to do.

? Chief strategic officer. Once a threat to Canadian interests is identified, it is crucial to form a strategy to combat it. Allies on one issue may be enemies on others. Hence, each threat or challenge requires a micro-strategy. Perhaps the most critically important function the ambassador can perform is to be the architect of those strategies and use his personal relationships and special access to develop and implement them.

What are the implications of this analysis? The government must invest in the human resources that can perform these diplomatic functions at the very highest level of competence. It must reorganize the value of experience, expertise, knowledge of languages and cultures and of continuity. Its strategies for doing so must be longterm. It must recruit and retain the brightest and the best. It must treat with disdain any accusation of elitism and it must provide its diplomats with the funds and support that will help them address these tasks with distinction and success.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.