Thursday, August 09, 2018

Saudi Foreign Policy and Canada

It is easy to speculate about others actions when you don't know much about a country. This is the Canadian dilemma with regard to Saudi Arabia. While I suspect most Canadians could find the country on a map and are aware that it is a major oil producer with a state religion ... that is likely about it. For one reason or another, Saudi Arabia has made Canada the brunt of its vindictive and it is pulling out all the stops ... or, at least all the stops it can. It is sending the Canadian ambassador home, selling off Canadian state investment it owns (and perhaps private investments as well), stopping flights back and forth to Canada, and recalling a whole bunch of its students (perhaps up to 16 000) studying at Canadian universities.

By Canadian standards this is big stuff. Canadian knowledge of foreign policy often begins and ends with whatever has been on the news of late and the United States. And, these are often the same thing. Canadians are aware of things going on in other parts of the world, to be sure, and they often have deep -- and conflicting -- views on those subjects (say, Israel and Palestine, nuclear disarmament and North Korea, Russian intervention in other parts of the world, etc.) But ... Saudi Arabia ... in a spat with Canada and ... over a tweet .... seriously ... a tweet ...  that was, well, more or less the mildest form of criticism that the Canadian government could possibly have offered. You can find an assessment here.

What is going on -- that is, what should we learn from this -- and what should Canada do about it? This is a two part question, but a potentially important one for the development of Canadian foreign policy. So far, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has stuck to its guns but what is also clear is that this government does not know a great deal about foreign policy and is having a very difficult time navigating international waters. In large measure, I want to argue, this is because the world is different and IR theories that developed and were designed for past times -- even the recent past -- won't work. Canada needs, in other words, a foreign policy -- even a foreign policy of criticism -- that is conscious of its historical moment. So far, at least from what I can tell, neither the current government nor its critics have really demonstrated that. Instead, they are recycling the debates of the Harper era and that will not get Canada where it wants to go.

What is going on is several things. First, there are things specific to Saudi Arabia. It has established a particularly aggressive foreign policy of late: supporting rebels in Syria, attempting to internationally isolate Qatar, and conducting a destructive civil war in Yemen. It is embroiled in a three way fight for influence in its region of the world (with Iran and Turkey) and beyond. At home, it has cracked down on peaceful dissent, which includes (among others) women's rights activists. What are the wider implications of this?

Several inter-related factors are important to consider: the world of the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia was a repressive but internationally peaceful and predictable client state of the US has now passed. Saudi Arabia will not step on US toes, because of US power, but otherwise it will follow what it perceives to be in its own interests and it will use hard power mechanisms to accomplish its aims. This has occurred, again, for a couple of reasons:

(A) Saudi Arabia lacks soft power options. It shouldn't. Its oil-based bankroll should allow it to develop a fuller range of foreign policy options, including effective diplomacy. For whatever reason, the Saudi government has chosen not to take that course but to instead focus on hard power options. Or, in the case of Canada, as hard a power as they can muster. The neglect of soft power foreign policy options, in other words, has left Saudi Arabia with few alternatives to a bellicose -- and potentially irrational --  foreign policy that seems intended to force other states into its line.

Canada is a good example. While the Canadian government would likely continue mild criticism of Saudi Arabia (as it does with a range of other states), that criticism is meaningless and, in the case of the current government, more or less intended for domestic consumption. In other words, these kind of tweets appeal to soft-centre-left Canadians who support human rights, were horrified by their almost complete irrelevance to the Harper government, and want to see their government saying the "right things." In point of fact, this is the kind of international human rights engagement against which supporters of human rights in Canada have been quick to argue. Talk that really does little.

And, make no bones about it, Canada was not actually going to do anything serious about the Saudi human rights record. It didn't want to because the current government does not really know what it is is doing on the world stage and the Conservative opposition is more interested in potential military sales than anything else.

What this means, of course, is that the Saudi effort to create a one-state embargo of Canada was meaningless. In fact, I'd guess that a lot more Canadians are aware of Saudi Arabia's human rights record today than they were a week ago. I'd guess a lot more people are scratching their head about the Saudi government and wondering about the political rationality of its policies now than a week ago. Not only has Saudi Arabia drawn more international attention to its own bad record, but it can't cause Canada to back down.

Why? Because whether we like it or not, the discourse of human rights is a selling issue with Liberals and long has been. Trudeau's father was, of course, a huge supporter of rights (think Charter) but so are people like Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland and so are the people who vote Liberal or whom the Liberals want to vote Liberal. The Liberals have no monopoly on human rights, of, but the issue seems to resonate with significant sections of the Canadian population and those are the sections where the Liberals are looking for votes. Put in different terms, if Canada misjudged Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has misjudged Canada.

In terms of realpolitik, Saudi Arabia is playing a losing game here too and this is a key point. Saudi economic interchange with Canada is simply not great enough to have any effect. Imagine, for instance, that the highest estimate of Saudi students in Canada is true and 16 000 university students disappear. This is a tiny number. According to Universities Canada there are 1.7 million students in Canadian universities. The CBC this morning made much of the 700 or 800 Saudi medical students in Canada, but ... are we  to believe that there are no students, say in Canada, who might like those spots in medical school?  Sending an ambassador home is a big diplomatic move (that is why most countries never do it) but it is largely meaningless in terms of policy. Cancelling flights inconveniences people who fly but it does not stop transit between Canada and Saudi Arabia. It just inconveniences ordinary people looking to make the flight, perhaps university students who now have to look for a new school that will accept their credits less than a month before school starts (less than a few weeks before the US fall semester begins).

(B) This is not, however, just an instance of Saudi Arabia looking to exert its authority on the world stage. It illustrates a transition in world power away from the US/USSR binary of the Cold War era or the single super-power of the post-Cold War age and toward a more multi-centered international power system in which different countries compete internationally with each other and with "the west" for international influence and authority. In this regard, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, among others, are all engaged in the same international politics. The issue, in other words, is only Canada a little bit. It is really about other things and this is what the current Canadian government might have misjudged.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think Canada should be silent in the face of international human rights abuses and I don't think that Canadians should back down in front of aggressive hard power politics ... when they are in the right. I'll get to this in my next post.

What we are seeing, however, is what a multi-polar world looks like. The increased US evacuation of international politics under Trump is facilitating this development. While the previous US government, for instance, would almost certainly have "sided with Canada" (at least in terms of public statements), the current one has not and likely will not. Their approach is this: "this is none of our business and we wish both sides well. We hope they solve their problems." Likewise the EU -- preoccupied with its own issues -- took basically the same stance.

What does this mean? Well, it means that Canadians should not look to the US or the EU for support for our actions on the international stage. I watched CBC this AM and there was mild surprise that others -- our traditional allies -- have not sided up with us. But, the fact that our media at least were looking for this illustrates how much they have misjudged the world.

Not only is easy and ready support for an "international consensus" on human rights at hand, but it is not clear that there is an international consensus on human rights.

Again, don't get me wrong. I think the ordinary person -- the ordinary Canadian, American, Briton, German, South African, etc. -- is completely in favour of human rights. But, exactly how much political capital their governments are prepared to spend on it is not clear. We know from polling in the US that there is a decline in empathy, particularly among Republican supporters. Put in other words, things that we all could have previously assumed ... might not be easy to assume.  The new right in Europe, for instance, seems simply to not care about the lives of refugees. And, we have all see the problems with child-parent reunification in the US. Lots of people care, to be sure, and show that care every day. But, lots of others ... don't and this is giving, I think, their governments pause.

The influence of the decline of empathy on domestic politics, then, has the interesting and important effect of emboldening human-rights violating regimes. They were violating human rights before, that is clear, but they did so in different ways. Now, criticism of the violation of human rights is construed as "meddling" in another state's internal affairs. And, the declining international power of the US and indifference of European states facilitates that process.

For Canada, this means -- and Canadians should note this -- there is cavalry riding the rescue.  Canada needs to be deliberate in its actions and secure in its ability to stand on its own feet. (Again, more on this in the next post.)

The wider picture is this: this is what the post-New World Order -- the post-global age --  looks like.  It is not necessarily pretty. Rather than regionalized economic power blocks figuring out how to collaborate with each other under the umbrella of the WTO, what we have is militarized quests of influence based in little else than hard power. It is not pretty at all. But, perhaps even because of this, now is the time to rethink Canadian foreign policy. We should not abandon a commitment to human rights but we need to figure out exactly how to meet that aim in changing circumstances.

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