Canada possesses a unique strategic advantage on the world stage: diaspora communities that provide it with cultural and historical connections to virtually every other country on Earth. Strategists at Global Affairs Canada must understand that these diaspora communities hold the key to improving Canadian diplomacy.
Whereas Canada is comparatively multicultural and forward thinking, it operates in a world where most countries are more homogenous and less inclusive. Thus, cultural affinity plays an important role when conducting business and diplomacy with many of our counterparts. While overcoming cultural barriers is crucial for building bridges with our partners, more can be accomplished when parties do not rely on cultural intermediaries or linguistic interpreters. Like understanding your adversary in war, knowing your partner is crucial in family as it is in business and diplomacy.
A lack of cultural affinity is not a roadblock per se, but it is an additional barrier to overcome when advancing Canadian interests in countries that are fundamentally different from Canada. Lisa Stadelbauer, Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, is a member of the Jewish Canadian community. Larisa Galadza, Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, is also of Ukrainian origin. Nevertheless, most Canadians representing Canada in diplomatic missions abroad do not have cultural and historical connections to their host countries.
Consider the case of Ambassador Jennifer May, Canada’s newly appointed Ambassador to China. To be clear: I am not criticizing the federal government’s appointment of Ambassador May because she is a white Canadian woman nor undermining her professional qualifications or accomplishments as a diplomat. Ambassador May’s exceptional thirty-plus-year career in service to Canada at diplomatic missions from Bangkok to Brasilia speaks for itself. I am merely suggesting that a Canadian of Chinese descent may have been more suitable to accomplish what I view as Canada’s long-term strategic objectives in China.
Canada’s long-term strategic objectives should be to have a productive relationship with China and align itself in a position where it can mediate between our partners (U.S., Japan, and Australia) and China. Although there is no guarantee of success, appointing an Ambassador of Chinese descent would increase Canada’s likelihood of improving our terrible relationship with China. The stakes are high, and it is a goal worth pursuing. In addition, this would move Canada from the sidelines to the center of the most important geopolitical contest of the 21st century: the clash between American Exceptionalism and Chinese Greatness. To be clear: unchecked U.S.-China strategic competition is a recipe for global disaster of historic proportions.
More than a century ago, Chinese Canadians built the Trans-Canada railway and connected the western and eastern parts of Canada. Today, there are thousands of brilliant, accomplished, and proud Canadians of Chinese origin who have a deep understanding of China. Evidently, there is no shortage of qualified Chinese Canadian candidates to choose from. While having bureaucratic and diplomatic experience is a prerequisite for most diplomatic appointments, possessing a cultural and historical connection to their host country provides diplomats – like travelers and businesspeople – with a strategic advantage on the ground. This advantage is magnified when you consider that China is not as color blind nor as inclusive as Canada is.
While China is Canada’s second largest trading partner after the U.S., Canada is also home to more than 1.8 millionCanadians of Chinese descent. In the West, only the U.S. is home to more members of the Chinese diaspora. Additionally, Mandarin is the third most widely spoken language in Canada after English and French. This cultural connection coupled with our economic partnership and geographic distance provides Canada with the ingredients required to develop a unique relationship with China among western democracies. Evidently, Canada should continue challenging China when it comes to its human rights violations and other transgressions. Nevertheless, it must also read the room and realize the dangerous direction the U.S.-China relationship is heading towards.
Canada possesses a unique strategic advantage on the world stage: diaspora communities that provide it with cultural and historical connections to virtually every other country on Earth. Increasing the representation of diaspora communities at the highest levels of the Canadian foreign policy establishment is crucial for Canada to achieve its potential and transition from middle power to global soft power. Canada, the diplomat, is the Canada the world needs, and the Canada that policymakers should seek to build.