Monday, September 17, 2018

And ... you already forgot about it: Canada and Saudi Arabia

In the world of international diplomacy and foreign policy, there are certain unwritten rules. One of them is that mild criticism is to be expected and is to be either ignored or politely refuted if it is meaningless in practical terms, as was Canada's criticism of Saudi Arabia. For those who missed it, and I can actually see why you would, a number of weeks ago the Government of Canada issued a tweet critical of Saudi Arabia's human rights record. It was the mildest form of international criticism that one could have -- sort of like a cap and trade is the mildest form of environment protection policy one can have other than not protecting the environment or encouraging pollution, but that is another story to which I will circle around again. It is not intended as a point of international dispute, nor to disrupt relations, nor even to elicit a response. It may, as I suggested in my previous post, even be intended for domestic consumption. To be clear: Canada was going to do nothing with regard to Saudi Arabia. What upset the Saudis -- what triggered their effort to construct a one-country hard power-based boycott of Canada -- was a tweet suggesting that human rights were good.

What I want to do in this blog is further explore the fallout from this tweet in order to think about what it tells us about contemporary public life. I'll conclude by thinking a bit about how Canada should respond to this. But, and this is the key point I want to emphasize, it is fair enough to ask: what bad happened? Despite some prognostications of really bad stuff happening ... well, nothing did. The Canadian economy did not collapse; Canada's relations with the rest of the world were not harmed; the supposed mass withdraw of Saudi medical students and residents that would cripple the health care system did not come to pass and the journalists who reported these things as if they were true have now moved on to other matters.

This is important and ties into a series of other developments related to Canadian public life. The first and most obvious is the power of social media. But, to be clear, I think this is, in fact, the least important element of this story. Social media allows this story to happen in "real time" ... well, sort of .... but what happened here sped up developments that were occurring anyway. To be clear again, I think social media does have an effect on public life. I recommend Angela Nagle's book _Kill All Normies_ for a good study. But, in this case, the issue was not social media per se, but a government that was not interested in "taking" what it saw as criticism and which it construed as "meddling" in its internal affairs.  Social media makes statements -- like the one made by the Government of Canada --easy and, potentially, gratuitous, and that is a problem. But if we were to prioritize issues, the issue here is an unwillingness to accept criticism.

What is important in this regard -- and what is telling -- is the shockingly limited and mild character of the criticism. The Canadian government, in fact, issued the mildest possible tweet that carried with it no practical consequences.  That is a problem for the supporters of human rights, but it is not a problem for the Saudi government. I'd guess that the Canadian government was shocked by the Saudi response. This is a sign of how much times have changed. In the past, one might have expected the Saudi's to ignore the criticism or to register some sort of diplomatic response.

What this shows us, I previously argued, is the degree to which Saudi Arabia lacks serious soft power mechanisms of foreign policy and so must "go for the jugular," as it were, of hard power right away. But, what it also illustrates is the degree to which governments are unwilling to bridge any criticism and reject even the mildest form of progressive politics.  The Trump detainment of children in the US is an example. The that the proper response to gun violence is more guns is another. In Canada, the Ford government's rejection of cap and trade (the mildest most capitalistic form of environmental protection) is another example.

What this illustrates is not simply limited capacity to take other actions but an unwillingness to meet even the mildest of progressive concerns about human rights, families, safety in schools, or the environment.

I know my language is loaded, but in the US polls demonstrate among Republicans a marked decline in empathy. In other words, people are having a harder time putting themselves in others shoes and thinking through public life from that perspective. In the past, even opponents of environmental protection would have recognized that something needed to be done. They would have low-balled it. What is going on now is something different. In effect, the government of Saudi Arabia is saying not only do we reject the idea of gender of equality but we will do everything we can to shut down anyone who  thinks they can promote it. What Ford is saying with the end of cap and trade is not simply "I'm skeptical about global warming" but "I feel that the off chance that cap and trade might end up costing the average Ontarian a few bucks is too much."  What is Ford's plan to deal with environmental change? Well ... he has none because he has just ditched the mildest possible form of environmental protection.

What has gone on here, then, is another sign of the changes in politics and changes in public life. In the US, the opponents of immigration and no longer willing to say "yes, children should be protected" but now see children as an enemy. In Canada, the opponents of environmental protection see even the simplest and least intrusive mechanisms of trying to protect the earth as too costly. The opponents of gender equality in Saudi Arabia, see even soft, mild, and meaningless criticism as a step worthy of as much vindictive as one could possibly mount.

What should we do about this? Well, it changes politics and there is a broader issue that needs to be addressed in that regard. I have no intention of crapping on progressive politics. Instead, I will argue that I think progressive politics needs to re-evaluate its approach to public life. How that is done is another story.

Right now, I don't think Canada should back down before Saudi Arabia or Doug Ford. There are good signs still out there. Ford's campaign against the carbon tax went nowhere (although I am worried about the time it is taking the Liberals to get the ball rolling on this). He will lose whatever constitutional challenge he thinks he can mount (although I suspect that he knows that and whatever challenges are coming are intended to delay implementation as long as possible, hoping for more provincial political winds to change). But, backing down is not the solution. He has had to resort to extreme means to reduce the size of Toronto City Council.

Let's look at Saudi Arabia. The issue is not Canada versus Saudi Arabia. In fact, if we accept that logic and buy into that discourse, we are buying into the discourse that Saudi Arabia wants us to buy into.  Many Saudis support expanding human rights. Their government is among the least democratic on the face of the earth (which is why many people argued against military truck and trade with them). Frankly, I could care less what an undemocratic militarized government thinks of my government. It makes no difference to me and to anyone who thinks seriously about this issue. But, I think, as well, that we can and should refuse the discourse they want us to accept because it makes it look like everything in Saudi Arabia is just peachy but for those nasty meddling Canadians and if you think that is the case ... well ... I happen to own a bridge to PEI that I'll sell you cheap.

Instead what is at issue is two things:

1. Is Canada good to its word? If the Canadian government -- any government -- backs down before hard power threats (in effect, what the Saudi government is saying is "we will do all we can to hurt you") ... they will be backing down on ... well ... just about everything else. And, the things that Canada supposedly stands for will be lost.  Don't read what I am not writing. I am not arguing that Canada is perfect, that Canada's human rights record is good, that there is not a great deal that Canada needs to do.  What I am asking is this: what is the price of our morals? Or, personalize it, what is the price or your morals, values, and ethics?

The truth of the matter is that there is little Saudi Arabia can do to hurt Canada. It can sell off some government bonds but someone else will buy them. It can cut flights but ... so what? That won't stop transit. It can send the ambassador home but that is purely political theatre without any meaningful effect. And it can recall some students but those are Saudi students anyway. Messing up the education and careers of Saudi students is kind of silly and sort of like shooting one's self in the foot but, hey, if they want to do it ... go ahead.

The issue is nationally, what is our morality worth to us? If we back down, when there is nothing significant on the line, we say ... gee, even the smallest price is something that we are not willing to pay. We become, in other words, the progressive version of Doug Ford.  I'd like to believe that, as a people, we stand for something more than a few extra pennies in our pocket at the end of the fiscal year.

2. The second issue is whether or not we accept the shifting parameters of political discourse. Mild and meaningless criticism is not meddling in another country's internal affairs. If it were, Donald Trump -- whose criticism of Canada is far from mild and might not be meaningless -- would be the world's biggest meddler. Speaking only for myself, I am concerned about a political environment where even the mildest form of progressive politics -- politics intended to improve people's lives, to get them out of jail, say -- is viewed as a bridge too far.

Canada may not be able to go to traditional allies and partners in this new world of more extreme discourse and response but, in my view, that should not stop Canada from trying to be a positive force in the world. That is hypocritical. I know. Canada has much too look after and one's morality is not license to mess around in other countries.  Explaining how the two can be melded is another blog that I'll write sometime. But, I suspect that Canada will find that there are partners with which we can work to promote positive change.  It might not be the US or Saudi Arabia, but it might include some nifty countries and might provide a change to create some non-traditional relations. Working with those partners is Canada's next step in foreign policy.

Finally, the point I made at the start of this blog, one needs to avoid over-reacting. If some of the critics of the current government were to be believed, Canada should have retreated right then and there and/or never offered even the mildest of support for human rights. Yet, a few weeks later, the storm has blow over, other issues have become more pressing, and disaster has not occurred. I have no doubt opposition politicians will, later, try to "make hay" on this event: the government screwed up relations with .... But, if nothing significant has happened, how actually could that case be made? In this day and age of social media, evidence does not seem to really need to be in supply. All one seems to need to do make a vague assertion that can strike a memory.  It is up to those of us who support human rights to correct this vague assertion and memory.

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