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World: Analysis From Washington -- Outsourcing Foreign Policy

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ottawa has asked a private Canadian oil company to help end the civil war in Sudan, yet another example of a worldwide tendency by governments to use private firms to prosecute official foreign policy.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced on Monday that he wanted the Calgary-based Talisman Energy company to work in concert with Canadian officials to see if they could help end the fighting between the Sudan People's Liberation Army and the central Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Axworthy's announcement came on the heels of criticism of that company by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for Talisman's involvement in the southern Sudan oil consortium, an involvement she suggested was undermining efforts to settle the 16-year-long civil war.

At one level, Axworthy's suggestion that he wanted to involve Talisman in efforts to reach a settlement in Sudan is little more than a response to Albright's comments. After all, Axworthy went out of his way to say that "We've always said that Canadian companies and Canadians ... should not be involved in any support for human rights abuses."

But at another and more fundamental level, the suggestion that a private company like Talisman should play a positive role or more precisely that a government can outsource its foreign policy in this way raises issues that both countries which may use firms in this way and other countries where foreign firms are active now face.

When governments use firms in this way, they simultaneously cover them with the majesty of the state. Private firms are not normally in a position to speak for their governments, but used in this way, they become as it were a kind of government agency.

That may be helpful to particular governments in particular cases. After all, it gives the government deniability in the event things go wrong. But it also can mean that the government loses control over part of its foreign policy agenda to the extent that the firms it tries to use in this way act more independently than the government might like.

Some observers have suggested that Russia's Lukoil, among others, falls into that category.

But such use of private firms by governments inevitably casts a shadow over not only these companies but all other foreign firms in the countries where they are operating. Once a foreign firm acts on behalf of its government, those living in the country where it is acting may come to see it as more official than any firm can in fact be.

Even more seriously, when one firm acts that way explicitly, many people are likely to conclude that other firms are doing so covertly. Sometimes such perceptions will be true, but they are likely to cast a shadow on all companies and thus complicate the work of these private enterprises.

In the current case, the Canadian government is making use of a private firm for an entirely legitimate and even praiseworthy purpose -- the defense of human rights and the ending of a civil war.

But the historical record suggests that other national governments may be prepared to do so for less legitimate and less praiseworthy ends and that as a result, such efforts at outsourcing the conduct of foreign policy may backfire, if not on those who engage in them than on the international system as a whole.

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