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Great Nations Don't Share Embassies, Harper

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The sharing of some embassy services between Canada and the U.K. has already received a lot of attention. But it seems to me that the attention has focused on traditional considerations that have to do more with domestic political culture than the fast-changing and sensitive geo-political context.

Politically, the main critique of the arrangement has been whether it demonstrates a return to an Anglosphere that insults or at least neglects Quebec and is at odds with the post-colonial/multicultural ethos of Canada. Administratively, the core defense alternatively has been one of efficiency: the logic being that the agreement allows a spreading of cost. Yet, in geo-political hierarchical terms, the main risk of Canada cutting rather than building diplomatic infrastructure is that it plays to an image of decline that is contrary to the desire of the Harper government for signalling that Canada -- and Canadian interests and/or values -- is back up on the world stage.

An article in the Globe and Mail by Patrick Martin did touch on this theme in comparative context, by contrasting the rapid increase in Turkish embassies around the world (25 new ones in Africa alone over the last decade) with the paring back of Canadian diplomatic services. Still the topic deserves even greater illumination, especially in a week that sees Prime Minister Harper embark on a significant trip to Africa.

On one side, we have the "emerging" powers -- whether members of BRICS or other big countries such as Turkey -- projecting their diplomatic profile in a highly ambitious fashion around the world. It is relatively easy to get visas at Chinese and Indian consulates -- even with long lines -- because they are located in so many major centres. When Canadians travel abroad it is increasingly likely they will see more Chinese, Indian or Brazilian embassies than their own -- or indeed even those of the U.K.

Air Canada has direct flights to the small tourist-friendly Caribbean country of Antigua. However, the only embassy (or embassy cars) you will see on the island are Chinese. Most notably, emerging powers such as Brazil have raised their profile in Africa. Not only did former President Lula da Silva travel to the continent 12 times over eight years (in comparison, Prime Minister Harper's trip to Africa this week is only his second), Brazil has increased its number of embassies from 17 in 2002, to 37 in 2012, more than not only Canada but the U.K.

An agreement with the U.K. then risks displaying not strength but a double image of weakness. Canadian domestic taxpayers may at first glance appreciate this sort of cost cutting. But fiscal rationality does not end with embassy sharing. It extends to basic services. Just to give one illustration, the Visa and Immigration Section at the embassy in Berlin has been closed and transferred to Vienna, Austria. So, although travellers can get a visa to go to China or India in downtown Toronto, travellers in a major world city -- and with what in the wake of the Eurozone crisis is considered the go-to European geo-political hub -- have to take another trip. Equally though, it is significant that the U.K. High Commission in Ottawa no longer takes care of passport issues -- the embassy in Washington D.C. looks after that form of activity.

The agreement about sharing services between Canada and Britain sends very different signals than the older agreements between Canada and Australia. In 1986 when those arrangements were constructed, both countries shared a global identity as middle powers with relatively equal status. Just as significantly, it must also be emphasized, the emerging powers of the 21st century were not yet as dramatically on the rise. Sharing embassy services and embassies in countries such as Cambodia and Venezuela not only displayed rationality, but no negative geo-political signals were sent out.

Canada has long been a country with a high degree of sensitively -- and astuteness -- about status in the world. Accordingly it is surprising that such sensitivity does not seem to have factored into the decision about embassies (even if the agreement is a limited one). Although most Canadians understandably don't pay too much attention to the theme of geo-political comparative performance, you can be sure that foreign policy makers and opinion leaders do. Observing the move on embassies from a BRICS or emerging power perspective, these new arrangements will not be interpreted as a technical move based on administrative rationality but as one that demonstrates that not only Canada, but the U.K., is slipping down the global hierarchy.

This post first appeared in the CIGI blog Worlds of Global Governance.