As It Happens

Canada needs to step up its diplomatic relations, says ex-ambassador to China David Mulroney

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, doesn’t mince words about our government’s foreign policy. In his new book, "Middle Power, Middle Kingdom," he describes our diplomatic relations as “chaotic and uncoordinated."
David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, doesn’t mince words about our government’s foreign policy. 

In his new book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, he describes our diplomatic relations as “chaotic and uncoordinated." He adds that our foreign policy has displayed "a lack of seriousness and ambition in making our way in the world," and that we're "confused about our role as a middle power."

It's not exactly what you'd call diplomatic language.

“There is no way that Canada can navigate in the world without working constructively with other countries and that takes creative, real grown-up Canadian diplomacy,” Mulroney tells As It Happens host Carol Off. “That's where I think, for example, where we're going wrong with China.”

David Mulroney, Canada's former ambassador to China, at a Chinese Temple Fair in Beijing. (Courtesy of David Mulroney for As It Happens)

Mulroney -- no relation to the former Prime Minister -- served as ambassador in Beijing from 2009 until 2012. Before that post, he was the deputy minister for Canada's Task Force in Afghanistan.

“There's a tendency to believe that the world is as it was 20 years ago, when our core interests in terms of Canadian security and Canadian prosperity were worked out with the U.S. and we could choose where to engage elsewhere,” he says. “That world is changing. China, for example, has chosen to engage us, whether we acknowledge that or not. What we need is an intelligently self-interested Canadian response that allows us to maximize the benefits and the upside of that process, and to ward off or mitigate some of the inevitable downsides. Engaging China will inevitably bring downsides."

“There are aspects of modern China that are unlikable,” he continues. “We need to face up to that. It's dealing with the unlikable side of China -- that relates to its human rights record, the way it treats people at home, and increasingly to China's assertive behaviour in its region and beyond -- but it's in facing up to that, and figuring out how we confront and deal with it, while we manage to have some sort of relationship that is the challenge for Canadian foreign policy.”

David Mulroney's 'Middle Power, Middle Kingdom,' released by Penguin Random House Canada on March 24, 2015. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Mulroney also reflects on the relationship of the foreign service with governments-of-the-day. He says that previous Liberal and Conservative parties were wary of the foreign service during government transitions. However, that post-election suspicion eventually grew into greater respect over time. He says this hasn’t been the case with the Harper government.

“In 2006, the beginning of the Harper era, there was a much more profound difference,” he says. “I think he and the Conservatives around him view the public service as they view other institutions like the Supreme Court or the Senate -- with a degree of mistrust. They see it to a certain extent as a liberal institution. They ceased seeking the fearless advice that was one part of what the public service delivered -- the other part was loyal implementation. We're just in the loyal implementation business right now.”

Mulroney (left) guides Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird during a visit to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and meetings with Baird's Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Mulroney left his ambassadorship because of that perceived diminished influence with Ottawa -- and the perception that he was “a concierge service for ministers and Prime Minister.”

“The book is a bit of a shout out to the foreign service and to my colleagues,” he says. “I hope [Prime Minister Harper] and his ministers might re-evaluate the public service. I think the Canadian public service is the bedrock of Canadian success and prosperity. It took decades to create it, but it’s probably only a matter of years before it begins to lose confidence and to lose its way. I think that’s already happening.”


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