Parliamentary Diplomacy in an Era of Uncertainty: Toward a Paradigm Shift in the Parliament of Canada's International Missions.

AuthorNovoa, David-Andres

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary shift in the Parliament of Canada's diplomatic engagement, with international activities taking place virtually. However, there is reason to believe that the post-pandemic world will be different in many ways and that adaptation will be necessary. This article discusses factors that may impact Parliament's future international missions, explores aspects that support these activities, and proposes reviewing them strategically to better guide international missions in a different and uncertain environment.

A different environment

The Parliament of Canada's current diplomatic engagement generally has three unofficial goals: "exchanging ideas and best practices; helping to inform collective policy and action; and promoting democratic values and Canadian interests." (1) Among the main tools for achieving these goals are Canadian parliamentarians' international missions, which often take the form of bilateral visits or participation in conferences.

These missions developed during a favourable era of globalization starting in the 1990s. At that time, building relationships with other international actors was easier because the rise of democracy seemed to be irreversible. Trade liberalization also contributed to the increase in international interactions, as finding new market opportunities was a priority for many governments. Sustained economic growth in many parts of the world likely resulted in more generous parliamentary budgets for diplomacy as well.

In recent years, however, the context has changed. Global democratic decline, deep economic disparities and growing geopolitical instability have made the international environment more complex. The pandemic has served as a catalyst to accentuate these trends. At the national level, the decline in voter turnout reflects a certain apathy toward democratic institutions.

There are five factors emerging from this new context that could have an impact on planning and conducting the Parliament of Canada's international missions.

Factors that could have an impact on international missions

Democratic recession

Freedom House's 2022 report paints a disturbing picture of the state of democracy around the world. It argues that the world is facing a "Global Expansion of Authoritarian Regimes" as an increasing number of countries are experiencing a decline in democracy and the institutions that support it, for the 16th consecutive year. (2) This climate is conducive to authoritarian regimes building alliances and becoming increasingly willing to flout the principles of international law, as evidenced by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As a result, there are likely to be dwindling number of fully democratic counterparts who Canadian parliamentarians can interact with.

Foreign interference

Threats to democracy are not limited to fragile states. A 2021 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report explains how foreign states conduct interference activities in Canada to further their strategic interests. (3) Their targets include Canadian voters, the media, officials, and parliamentarians, all in an effort to undermine trust in democracy and disrupt the rules-based global order. It is clear that Canada is facing a potential democratic erosion. Therefore, it will no longer be just a matter of promoting democracy, but also of defending it.

Proactive disclosure

Bill C-58 (42nd Parliament, 1st Session) (4) introduced proactive disclosure measures in the Parliament of Canada. As a result, new and more detailed reports on travel and hospitality expenses related to parliamentary diplomacy activities must be published. In this case, the report will disclose the travel, accommodation, per diem and other expenses incurred by each participant, including speakers, parliamentarians, and staff. (5) Although reports were already published by Parliament for these missions, practices varied by activity and amounts were approved by category (transportation, accommodation, etc.), not by individual. This increased transparency is beneficial, but it could be used to criticize any international activity that is perceived as futile.

Budget cuts

The global health emergency has had a negative impact on public finances around the world. In Canada, this has resulted in an increased federal deficit because of reduced revenues and government measures to support the economy. (6) While this situation was temporary, the impact will be felt for many years to come. In fact, a Conference Board of Canada report predicts that the budget will not be balanced until 2040. (7) Combined with an aging population and the provinces' requests for financial assistance, there is reason to believe that future governments will exercise strict control over finances. This is likely to affect the funds allocated to the Parliament of Canada and, by extension, the amount of money parliamentarians allocate to parliamentary diplomacy. Since the situation is similar abroad, it may limit the ability of parliaments to host delegations or international parliamentary activities.

Virtual diplomacy

The pandemic...

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