Revolutionizing diplomacy

Former Canadian ambassador Vivian Bercovici believes it is time for a radical change in Ottawa’s attitude to Israel.

Bercovici with Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bercovici with Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IN THE 1980s TV comedy show “Yes, Prime Minister,” civil servant Sir Humphrey successfully opposes initiatives of the elected British premier, and instead implements his own views. Vivian Bercovici describes a reality in Canada and elsewhere that is not too different.
Bercovici was a successful corporate lawyer in Toronto when in 2014 she was nominated by the Conservative Party’s prime minister Stephen Harper to be Canada’s ambassador to Israel. “The reason he asked me to serve in this capacity was because he was very frustrated with the way in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Canada was managing its relations with Israel.”
Bercovici said there were growing tensions between the prime minister and the public servants. “He was elected on a very clear policy with respect to his foreign policy.
He felt he was constantly undermined by the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – by the unelected officials.”
She says the situation became intolerable for the prime minister. “If Harper wanted to make a particular statement or enact a certain policy in Israel, the pushback was beyond insubordinate. For 8 years he put up with that.” But then he decided to nominate someone from the outside. Harper himself elaborated on this dynamics after he left office, in an event honoring Bercovici. She recalls, “The Prime Minister said that in all his years in office, the most difficult department he had to deal with was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the most difficult file was Israel.”
Coming from the private sector, Bercovici says she was stunned by the degree of power that the unelected officials had garnered.
“Politicians make their decisions. They live and die by them. Bureaucrats do not. They have zero accountability. Many of our public servants have lost their way. They started understanding their role as superseding that of the elected officials.”
Bercovici contrasted this situation to her legal career. “My job as lawyer is to understand and advise the client. I do not always agree with my client’s decision. I do my best job to get them to the best decision, but they make it at the end.”
Bercovici claims she encountered hostility from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa right from the start of her tenure. “One of the explicit mandates the prime minister and the foreign secretary gave me was to develop commercial ties with Israel,” she reflects.
“To get our anemic trade numbers to be on even remotely respectable levels.”
Bercovici says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not allow this policy to go through and actively sabotaged her efforts.
“They sanctimoniously let me know that we cannot do business with Israel, claiming that if Canada develops commercial ties with Israel, that would upset the Arabs.”
Bercovici says that even now it stuns her.
“These are astonishingly ignorant positions.
This could have been valid in 1985, but today? Anyone who knows anything about this region knows that for the last 30 years the companies have significant ties in both Israel and the Arab world, and also that there are back-channel ties between many Arab countries and Israel.”
She says that she remains frustrated by not being able to develop Canada’s trade with Israel, especially in the light of amazing Israeli innovations and cutting-edge technologies, which could help Canada. “I was openly blocked every time I tried to do anything meaningful on commercial ties,” she remarks. “Our trade numbers are beyond embarrassing.”
The feud over trade was just the beginning.
The gap between the pro-Israel policy of the Harper government and the cold shoulder of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs resulted in repeated conflicts. But Bercovici thinks the problem goes beyond substance.
“THE DIPLOMATS are whining constantly about not having enough resources.
When I saw how they used resources I was shocked,” she says. “They focus an enormous amount of energy on their petty bourgeois privileges – the big moment when they get to live in a villa with three personal staff.”
She decided to give up such perks and tried to redeploy the funds to programs.
“I do not really need a personal chef – this is not a cook for events, this is a personal chef. When I tried to end the position, Ottawa told me in a sinister and threatening tone – just leave it to the next person.”
Bercovici views this as an example of fundamental flaws in the way the ministry is managed. “If this was a functioning business, you would look at shekels in and shekels out, and you would see the results. I can tell you there are a lot of shekels going in, and I saw zero in terms of results, and zero in terms of performance.”
Bercovici tried to implement a result- driven approach when it came to Canada’s national day reception, but ran into resistance there as well.
“I organized a party. I found corporate sponsors, which was not done here before, and I put together a guest list. As we were ready to send invitations, I was told that is not how it is done. That we have to invite every single ambassador, defense attaché and spouses. By then, we were already at 300 and I do not see what this does for Canada.”
She insisted on implementing a different approach. “This is a business function,” she argues. “We are bringing people in to network so we can increase the commercial and other interaction with Canada. This is just not another night out for the diplomatic attachés. If I am going to spend Canadian taxpayers’ money, it better have a value proposition behind it.”
Notwithstanding criticism, isn’t there great value in the institutional knowledge and experience of public servants? After all, politicians and political appointees come and go, while public servants provide consistency. Bercovici acknowledges that in theory this is valid, but points to what she describes as “the outright ignorance” she encountered. “I was very surprised how poor the level of knowledge of the ministry was with respect to Israel. When I received my initial briefings, they were childish.”
Bercovici spares no one. “This is a serious case of arrested development. There is a lack of sophistication, both in terms of analysis and in terms of knowledge of the region. I would get thousands of pages of stuff and there was nothing in them.”
Having observed the game of diplomacy from the inside for two years, Bercovici is convinced it is time for a radical change.
“Foreign service is a post-World War II phenomenon,” she explains. “What we have today is largely unchanged. They said, ‘Let’s take what used to belong to the Oxbridge privileged class, and turn it into a profession, into a career.’ They were grooming mostly men to have all those conversations about world hunger and multilateral relations. There was a period of 20 years in which this was relevant.”
But Bercovici says the world has changed. “The way in which power structures engage globally today is very different now than it was then on many levels.”
She notes that heads of state now talk to one another directly and through their own advisers, reducing the need for embassies and diplomats.
Yet, diplomacy has not evolved, she says.
Referring to it as a “gilded cage,” Bercovici claims that the existing system of diplomacy no longer properly serves citizens and governments. “They are much more fixated on rules and protocols – whether there should be 27 minutes or 33 minutes between courses – and not on substance.”
On the question of how to change this situation, Bercovici thinks one needs to be radical. “How do you reform? How do you rehabilitate such a myopic inward-looking culture? You tear it apart!” SHE POINTS to a successful example of another foreign ministry that did just that.
“Denmark embarked on reform program.
They closed a bunch of embassies and for the ones they retained, they introduced a program of accountability.”
Bercovici commends the Danish model.
“If I am going to work with a business, I have to bill them. If Company X asks for help accessing a certain sector in the Israel economy, that company needs to pay.
There is a notion of value for service.”
Bercovici remains skeptical that deep reforms can be made in Canada and other Western foreign ministries due to unions and other practical constraints. This raises the alternative of having elected governments simply “ignore” their foreign ministries and work around them. “This is already happening,” Bercovici claims.
Interacting with her fellow European ambassadors in Israel also allowed Bercovici to understand the magnitude and depth of their Israel-bashing. “I interacted a lot with Europeans. I found some of their statements to be appalling – just reeking with disrespect. Nowhere in the world do you have diplomats malign and criticize their host country like that.”
Bercovici says that some European diplomats were unhappy with the aggressive positions of their county, especially while Israel was defending itself from incoming missiles from Gaza.
“I can think of one diplomat in particular who was really struggling, but he was a professional and was directed by his home government to take harsh positions.”
Bercovici notes that this is proper conduct of a diplomat. “That is what a professional does. He does not undermine the government he represents.”
She points to other cases of diplomats who, while communicating their official government positions, tried to get their government to change policy, but that, she says, was an exception. “It is human nature.
Diplomats can be lazy. They just say, that’s the policy and I want to make my spin class.”
Bercovici emphasizes though that the primary source of harshness to Israel does not emanate from the diplomats, but from their governments. “Certain countries encourage and reward Israel-bashing. There is no question about that. That includes European countries.”
Bercovici served as ambassador from 2014-2016, after which she made aliya, and currently lives in Israel with her younger daughter. In her third year as ambassador, Harper lost his bid for a third term, and Bercovici was dismissed by the new government under Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Having an inside look at diplomacy, the foreign ministry and the public service, she is convinced that it is time for a significant shake-up. Should Sir Humphrey and civil servants be worried? That, apparently, remains to be seen.