Friday, April 05, 2019

Revisiting Saudi Arabia or What Price Your Ethics?

This is not an "I told you so" post, but it is an issue that I think needs to be periodically revisited because its implications are important. You might recall that a number of months ago -- last August -- the government of Saudi Arabia took offence to what were, in fact, fairly standard comments made, late on a Friday, by the Canadian state in defence of human rights in that country. In response, the government of Saudi Arabia did a bunch of things (suspending visas, stopping shipment of good through Canadian ports, recalling Saudi students, etc.). If you need a refresher, this CTV story provides it.

There were people -- including friends of mine -- who thought Canada has misstepped. I will confess I did not.  In retrospect, the government of Saudi Arabia's actions were completely out of character for normal diplomatic relations. It was a deep and serious over-reaction and no one should lose site of that matter. Governments make such statements all the time. The government of the US, for instance, routinely criticizes the governments of Canada and Mexico for its policies. People find this annoying and upsetting but we recognize that this is part of a domestic political strategy and serves domestic political interests in the US. Those criticisms (including some pointed personal criticism of Chrystia Freeland) actually changed nothing. They did not speed up the negotiating process of the new trade deal (which now seems to be on a rocky road for other reasons) or succeed in gaining concessions from Canada. One government says X or Y and and another government says Y or X. It is the character and nature of politics.

What happened with Saudi Arabia, we can now see, was something else and I do, actually, hope those Canadians who lined up against Canada by suggesting that Freeland or the government should not have embarrassed the government of Saudi Arabia are now a bit embarrassed themselves. For whatever reason, the government of Saudi Arabia has decided to double down a series of pretty bad foreign policy measures. Its war in Yeman is little short of a disaster; its intervention in Syria has failed; it has assassinated a dissident in one of its own foreign embassies, and the gulf coast alliance with which it works is springing leaks (its plan to isolate Qatar is going nowhere in the UAE started supporting its own side in Yeman).  Why criticize Canada? What was there to gain?

I think someone in the Saudi government spent too much time reading about hard power policies and their effectiveness at some western university because SA is a walking example of how badly hard power has failed and they have tried to use the hardest power. Does the government think it can win concessions from Canada. Hardly and if one pauses for a second to think about it, the oddness of this strategy (at least with regard to Canada) comes clearly into view. Saudi Arabia is just not an important part of Canadian foreign policy or international trade. While there were some minor inconveniences, most Canadians have not even noticed a diplomatic conflict. Did you? Were there any real world implications to the actions taken by the Saudi government for Canada?  If Saudi Arabia was trying to control the response of the Canadian government by "punishing" (as the news story says) the country, well, that punishment amounted to ... well ... nothing because our limited interchange means it can amount to nothing. Not only, in other words, did the government of Saudi Arabia over-react, it over-reacted without effect. Rather than being somehow embarrassing for Canada, what the Saudi government did was to illustrate its own powerlessness, at least with regard to Canada, and that is precisely thing a believer in hard power seeks to avoid. Said differently, their strategy has highlighted the limited value of their strategy. 

Thus, one of the upshots of this conflict is not to say "see, Canada was right," but to say "see, be careful when you double down on a hard power strategy." The fact that you tried to remobilize a strategy (hard power) that failed in Yeman, failed in Syria, and was failing with some of your traditional allies, should have highlighted the limits of that policy; not its potential usefulness is another situation.

For Canadians, we should not walk away and think either: (a) we need to be quiet when confronted by a potentially hostile other country or (b) we were right, yay!  Instead, those who were quickly willing to criticize the government for its (admittedly meaningless) defence of human rights should ask themselves: am I on the right side? Before asserting that the Government of Canada has done anything wrong in issuing a statement about human rights, one might ask, who might I be implicitly defending if I reject the Canadian position? What human rights violations might I be suggesting we ignore?  To what governments might I be suggesting we give a free pass? What price, in other words, am I putting on my ethics?

This is not an idle or academic question. If one says "the government should sit quietly by so we don't lose visas or shipping fees or student places," one is putting a price on one's ethics and, in the case of SA, one would have been selling them at a bargain basement price because the actual cost -- the "punishment" -- that SA could inflict on Canada was so low. You might want to sell your ethics. You might believe that it is OK to do so. But, surely, even if this were the case, you would want to set a higher price for them. Instead, those who criticized Freeland and the Canadian government basically said "my ethics are sold at Value Village." And, this says something interesting, the implications of which might not have been well considered. If your ethics can be sold so cheaply ... why would I want to buy them? If you are willing, in other words, and to use a different metaphor, to cut and run at the first sign that there might, possibly, on the outside chance, be something that bad  that could, maybe, happen in a very small way ... well ... why would I (or, anyone else) pay any attention to you in the first place.

To say this in blunt terms: if Canada backed down before every well-to-do non-democracy looking to defend its scratch ... why would anyone (Canadians included) take Canada seriously with regard to anything?

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