James Eayrs on Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations: A Retrospective

Article excerpt

A certain prestige and mystique once attended the art and science of diplomacy. Some of it even spilled over onto its practitioners. Lately, however, this perception has all but disappeared, and in its place is near universal scorn, rebuke and ridicule. Once revered, the profession now finds itself in large part reviled. Much was made of Prime Minister Trudeau's oft-quoted quip that he could get all of the information he needed about the world from the New York Times. Well in advance of that episode, however, James Eayrs, in his columns in the Toronto Star, on CBC radio, and in a series of books and lectures, was lambasting diplomats and diplomacy as relics from another age. Over the years, he has been joined by some very good company.

In trying to situate Eayrs's remarks, it is important to appreciate the historical context. Eayrs was deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam, which was at its height at the time he wrote most of the passages quoted here. He was furious over what might now be referred to as the collateral damage associated with imperial overstretch, and the dangers of blowback from that war onto the broader prospects for détente and world peace in the era of mutually assured destruction. He applauded Daniel Ellesberg's decision to go public with the Pentagon papers and was appalled at the revelations of Canadian duplicity while serving as a member of the various international control commissions. He denounced Canadian corporate complicity in war profiteering.

More particularly, Eayrs was disturbed by what he considered to be the callous treatment he received at the hands of representatives of the then-Department of External Affairs in response to his requests for research access to the department's historical record. In his own words, he felt "badly treated by authority." But his analysis of the shortcomings of the department and its staff-not to mention of the wider world beyond-transcend any of that.

My goal in this essay is to try to abstract from Eayrs' writing on diplomacy something of an integrated critique, with a focus on the Canadian experience, and to assess those observations against my own as developed over the past 25 years in the foreign service.'

The following seven sections sketch several of the central themes preoccupying analysts of international relations in the early 2ist century. To get at some of the key elements, we will excerpt snippets of the relevant commentary offered by Eayrs and follow up by considering, albeit selectively, aspects of the contemporary discourse. Readers are invited to draw their own parallels and to reach their own conclusions regarding the prescience of Eayrs's remarks.


Power consists in having things your way. To have things your own way, it sometimes helps to be strong. But it doesn't always help. There are other ways of having your way besides pushing people around. Friendly persuasion, for example....A mighty state may hesitate to use its might. Whereas a state deficient in all of the usual components of strength may sometimes get its own way, often in the face of greatly superior force. Power and force, so far from being directly correlated, may even be inversely correlated. It may so happen that to add to your force will diminish your power.... The paradox of power operates to the advantage of small states, as it does to the disadvantage of the great.

Much of the discussion in the study of international relations inevitably turns on a consideration of the exercise of power, its nature and uses, and, especially, on its possibilities and constraints. In recent years, Harvard's Joseph Nye has made a huge impression in both academic and official circles with his promotion of the concept and doctrine of soft power.2 The successful use of soft power amounts to making others want what you want through attraction rather than coercion.

The existence-or not-of soft power is based largely on perception, on the appeal of image and reputation, on the availability of appropriate tools, and on the engineering of a positive predisposition developed over time as a result of demonstrated performance. …