TWO DECADES OF SERVICE

Ambassador Ron Hoffmann has spent two decades in government service. If you want a crash course on how government works, there probably isn’t a better man to ask. Starting out as a parliamentary intern, he has now had six foreign postings, including ambassadorships to Afghanistan and Thailand as well as being Canada’s Senior Trade Commissioner in South Africa, Canada’s Commercial Counsellor in China and our Minister for Political Affairs and Public Diplomacy in the UK. One of his goals while stationed in Bangkok is to increase Canada’s profile. He says its an exciting period to be in Asia given Prime Minister Harper's personal commitment to the region, illustrated by the recent high profile visits to China, India and to APEC in Singapore. Hoffmann explains that the Harper government clearly understands the importance of Southeast Asia to Canadian interests and values, and that he has been sent to the region to be an activist Ambassador.        

Explaining why he chose diplomatic life, Ambassador Hoffman says, “I was born into an immigrant neighbourhood in Winnipeg in 1960; this was a formative experience, which ultimately led to what I’m doing now. Growing up, everyone I knew was born elsewhere, or their parents were born elsewhere. They left turmoil, conflict and poverty to settle in Canada. My parents were products of war, they came from provinces in Eastern Germany (Prussia), eventually lost to the Russians and Poles respectively. I grew up with a sense that the world mattered to Canada.”

 

 “I believe in public service, and I believe government matters, but government has to concentrate on its value added in a market based society and it needs to have clear priorities. Diplomats really can make a difference". Reflecting on his tumultuous time in Afghanistan, Hoffmann adds that "we are increasingly called upon to make life and death decisions”.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1984 with an Honours BA, Ron jump-started his future professional career by working as a parliamentary intern with the Ontario’s legislative assembly (before Manitoba set up its own such program). He then worked as special assistant to the Ontario Minister of the Environment, and as Economic Adviser in the Office of the Premier of Ontario (David Peterson), prior to joining the Department of External Affairs and International Trade in 1989, where he started out in the Export Finance & Capital Projects Division. His first foreign posting came at The Hague from 1990-93, as the Third and then the Second Commercial Secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Holland. He went back to Canada from 1994-96, where he served at Headquarters in first the Trade Planning and Coordination Division, and then the Africa & Middle East Trade Development Division. In late 1996, he took his second foreign posting, this time as Head of the Canadian Trade Office in Johannesburg. He stayed there for a year before being shipped to Beijing where he served as the embassy’s Commercial and Economic Counselor until 2001. A highlight of his tenure in Beijing was leading the final negotiations for Canada on China's WTO accession. It was at this stage in his career, that he seriously considered leaving diplomatic life; he was sought out to take the job as the Executive Director of the Canada-China Business Council, which would base him in Toronto.

But life as a funny way of intervening;  just as he was about to leave government service, Hoffmann was offered the position as Senior Departmental Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, first John Manley and then Bill Graham. He couldn’t say no. Then 9-11 happened and everything changed. Almost overnight, Ambassador’s Hoffmann’s focus went from economic and related issues to defense and security, so it was fitting that he became the Director of the Defense and Security Policy Division from 2002-2004. It was a difficult time and he juggled myriad issues ranging from dealing with NORAD and NATO, to the OSCE, the Iraq War, and our troops in Afghanistan. With the help of Wikipedia, let’s review just how important John Manley’s work was back then – and remember Ambassador Hoffmann was his right-hand man for the department: “John Manley was widely applauded for his work in foreign affairs, particularly for helping to ease strained Canada-U.S. relations. He was seen as able to communicate with the U.S. administration, and had a good working relationship with both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. David Rudd, then director of Toronto's Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies said: ‘Under Manley, the government of Canada talks to Washington, not at it.’ In January 2002, Manley was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and given special responsibility for security in response to 9/11. For his performance in these roles, he was named Time Magazine's ‘Canadian newsmaker of the year’ in 2001.” As the world started to return to greater normalcy after 9-11, London came calling and from 2004-2007 Hoffmann was made the Minister for Political Affairs and Public Diplomacy at the Canadian High Commission in the UK. Then in 2007, he became the Deputy Head of Mission to the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan, a newly created position, before becoming the chief of mission and Ambassador the following year (he requested the two-year stint, a hardship posting like that is usually only one year in length). And in August 2009, he became ambassador to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.

Before assuming their positions in Thailand both Ambassador Hoffmann and his predecessor David Sproule served as Canada’s Ambassador to Afganistan, but their experiences couldn’t have been more different. Ambassador Sproule’s administration was dominated by military-led engagement while Ambassador Hoffmann's focus was on dramatically revamping Canada's approach to give pre-eminence to nation-building and a new whole-of-government integrated approach. With a civilian presence which grew some 400 percent during his stint, to become one of the largest Canadian diplomatic efforts on the planet, Canada ramped up investments and programming in democratic institutions, civil infrastructure, social programming and the Afghan police force.  ‬ ‪Hoffmann played an active role in communicating Canada's approach in Afghanistan to Canadians and to allies. He stresses that Canada is there under a UN mandate and at the request of the Afghan government and people. Although much fuss has been made about the corruption surrounding the recent Afghan election, Hoffmann points out that it was the first general election the Afghans ran themselves.  Ultimately, Canada is in Afghanistan to help the country get back no its feet and assume control of its own affairs.

Some will think that a posting in Thailand is a cushy reward for having survived the trauma of Afghanistan, but you might want to think again. Ambassador Hoffmann’s area of responsibility not only includes Thailand, but Burma, Laos and Cambodia as well – that’s an area of 140 million people, and a wide spectrum of Canadian engagement. Canada used to have its own embassy in Phnom Penh, but cutbacks resulted in its closure last year. Canadians in need of diplomatic trouble while traveling through Cambodia can now seek assistance at the Australian embassy as they can in Laos and in Burma.       

Here’s one challenge for Ambassador’s Hoffmann’s posting; the Burmese junta has promised a democratic roadmap to normalize affairs in the country, including elections in 2010. Now, naturally many are skeptical of this, but if democratic progress does occur Ambassador Hoffmann wants to ensure that Canada is right there to help foster and support forces of reform. We are already doing a lot of work behind the scenes in the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border, but we are also discreetly within Burma itself. As a nation known for its respect of human rights and good governance, we are working and training people who may one day lead Burma into a new era of freedom and prosperity. As the Ambassador says, “We want to help the Burmese capitalize on change when it comes, and it would be a tragedy if we lose an opportunity to help accelerate reform and move Burma towards a more meaningful and enduring democratic system.” As evidence of the Ambassador’s commitment to this cause, he’s made two trips to the border camps in the first three months of his tenure as well as a trip to the new surreal Burmese capital of Naypyida, 320km north of Rangoon.       

When it comes to Laos, the TCCC has asked the Ambassador to lead a Canadian delegation to that country looking at investment opportunities in the natural resources sector including the hydro-electricity, energy, and mining fields and the service and engineering sectors affiliated with those industries. A follow up business mission is also being planned for Cambodia. Hoffmann says Canada’s expertise in green and clean energy can be beneficial to both Laos and Cambodia as can sophisticated IT and agricultural technologies we have developed. In Thailand, Hoffmann is impressed by the number of large Canadian firms who are not only doing business here, but using it as a regional base to service countries as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan. He also was encouraged to find a rich array of smaller Canadian companies operating here, specialized players as he calls them.                 

One of the ambassador’s main objectives is increasing Canada’s profile and influence in Thailand. He wants to intensify high-level dialogue with key political decision makers. He has already met much of the upper echelon of Thai politics, including, among others, the Thai Ministers of Finance, Industry, Foreign Affairs, Commerce, Defense, Agriculture, Interior, and the Heads of the Privy Council and the National Security Council. And he is actively establishing relationships with non-governmental players of importance to the bilateral relationship, notably business leaders, university presidents and the top brass of the media sector. Hoffmann says the Thai bureaucracies are also important, so he is reaching out to Permanent Secretaries and Directors General too. The key with senior officials is they tend to have more permanency in their roles and continuity of influence.

He’s worried that Thailand’s perception of Canada is “obscure and fuzzy” and that we do not have a high enough profile here. He wants to change that and has already made some tangible progress.  Ambassador Hoffmann was helped recently by a visit from the Honourable Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, who headed up a trade mission made up of 10 Canadian energy companies. The aim was to promote Canada as a supplier of high-quality goods and services to Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. “We must take advantage of the Government of Thailand’s new energy strategy by showcasing Canadian expertise,” said Minister Day. “This trade mission will help open doors for Canadian businesses that have an expertise in areas such as oil and gas exploration and production, natural gas vehicles, biomass energy, and wind, solar and nuclear energy.” The Thai government’s new energy strategy focuses on achieving greater energy independence and security through both conventional resources and alternative and renewable resources, such as compressed natural gas, bio-fuels and nuclear power. Canadian direct investment into Thailand has been increasing over recent years, reaching $1.3 billion at the end of 2008. As well, Canadian exports to Thailand also grew by 20 percent last year, particularly in the areas of machinery, wood pulp, cereals and vehicle parts.

By the way, the Ambassador has much praise for the TCCC and its work on its own and in conjunction with the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in making the Thai government aware of problems and concerns its members have in operating and doing business in Thailand. And on 1 July 2010 in celebration of Canada’s birthday, the Ambassador has responded positively to calls by the business community to join forces in using the day as a platform to reach out to Thai partners, decision-makers and opinion leaders. Plans are underway for an Embassy-TCCC jointly sponsored series of events, including a major gathering of Thai and Canadian business and government leaders at the Four Seasons hotel. This won't transplant the traditional family-oriented event at the British Club, but rather serves as a centre piece for a possible week of events and activities to signal that Canada is a serious partner to Thailand and prospects are positive for the bilateral relationship to grow and deepen in the 21st century.         

The Ambassador has accomplished a lot in his professional life, and there’s no reason to think that will change during this posting. The next few years should be an interesting time on the 15th floor of the Abdulrahim Building on Rama IV Road.      

 

 

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