A note to Minister Joly

The new Minister of Foreign Affairs is a young, dynamic MP from Quebec, Melanie Joly. She recently served as the Libéral Party’s election co-chair, and her appointment to the prestigious new portfolio surprised many observers. This general reaction will probably ensure low expectations, which is to her considerable advantage. Being underestimated can be a real plus for any politician. Recall, for example, how Jean Chretien was told at every turn that he would be a flop. And yet, he mastered numerous Ministries and went on to be Prime Minister for ten years.

If was to provide advice for the new Minister, I would suggest the following;

Madame Minister;

First, I hope the Boss gives you enough runway to do your job. As you know, it has been widely reported that you are the fifth Minister of FA in six years. When one calculates the time it requires for a minister to become comfortable in a post of numerous complexities, your predecessors have had precious little time to execute their agendas and put a personal stamp on the file.

This is counter productive of course, notwithstanding the reality that this job is always ‘shared’ with the PM. Ideally, the two of you should work in tandem. There are enough issues to go around. And, a strong Minister makes for a strong PM. Think Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark combo. Or, Jean Chretien and Llyod Axworthy.

Second, you will need to focus. It is said that the world is becoming progressively ‘smaller’ thanks to technology, but there is a multitude of wrongs crying out for attention. Unfortunately, trying to be everything to everyone, is a recipe for failure.

The sheer volume of problems in the world dictates that you will only be able to make a difference on a relatively small number of issues. You will get pressure from many groups that their concern is the most urgent. However, your job — your judgement — will be to figure out which files are truly the most important and relevant for Canada.

Third, don’t think that you have to immediately pronounce yourself on every question. Take the time to get well briefed by your officials. Reach out to experts and NGO’s. Talk to previous Libéral and Conservative Ministers.  Create an advisory committee of caucus. Talk to your Ambassadors. Contact some of your counterparts, from both developed and developing countries, for their views and for the purposes of cementing relationships. And keep your Opposition critics in the loop, especially since you will be again working in a minority government.

In other words, take the time to understand and get completely comfortable, with the many different dossiers.

Fourth, as you have said in the media, strengthening Canada’s relationship with the US is your first priority. You are on solid ground here. As a neighbour, ally and commercial partner, this bilateral is so consequential for us. PM Mulroney once said that ‘if Canada is to get one single, international relationship right, it must be the United States.” He was right then. And you are right today.

In the early going, build a relationship of trust with the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Kudos for already having met with him last weeks. Also, identify key and influential congressional leaders. Consult Canadian business and advocacy groups. Invite our Ambassador to the US to Ottawa and have a comprehensive and candid discussion on all the major irritants between our two nations.

Fifth, you must help your government gets its head around our relationship with China. They will be looking to you for inspiration. None of the issues that you will tackle in this portfolio will be easy, but developing a substantive rapport with China will be most tricky. They are a global political and economic power, but they have recently become increasingly belligerent with many nations, including Canada. Everyone knows that our bilateral is currently in the freezer, therefor,  like the expectations game, this elevator can only go up.

Your task is to figure out who in China and Canada can help you with stabilizing our relationship. And don’t just talk to the foreign policy wonks. Venture outside the bubble. Among others, talk to Canadian business leaders, including the Canada China Business Council; civil organizations operating in China; Canadian Chambers in China’s big cities; and the leading international NGO’s who know a thing or two about the giant .

As well, Canada will need to build coalitions with other countries, as we are often too small to always convince China of our arguments. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US built a successful global partnership with western countries and we eventually won the battle. Perhaps it’s time for a similar strategy with the Chinese?

Finally, in an effort to address the endless international issues, events, and conflicts, carefully consider the many different fora, including the UN system of course, that Ministers of Foreign Affairs participate in. Evaluate them. Again, you can’t see them all as a priority, so align them with your priorities and interests, which will also help you manage your time more effectively. In this regard, it will take a ‘village’. Utilize your other ministerial colleagues and your parliamentary secretary to help you cover the diplomatic waterfront.

In closing, you have the portfolio that many politicos dream of. However, so many of the global issues are so sensitively nuanced. A wrong word here and a wrong move there, could prove fatal. Be thoughtful and do your homework, and remain focused. Towards this end, as charged as all Ministerial schedules are, fight to protect some time to think, read and reflect. It will pay big dividends.

At the same time, be confident that you represent a country that still retains much goodwill in many corners of the world. While we cannot sit on our laurels, and while we must renew and reinvigorate our strategic policies and alliances, Canada is still well positioned as a respected, progressive player on the world stage. I experienced this first hand when I was Ambassador to the WTO and UN agencies in Geneva. Make sure to leverage this. As well, help our friends and allies to accomplish their objectives. It will come back ten fold.

I wish you much success. Bonne chance. And remember, aside from sweating all the endless pressures, try to also enjoy this assignment!