Just before the August long weekend, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland published a tweet calling-out the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for imprisoning social activist, Samar Badawi. The Kingdom’s response has been furious and swift: cutting of diplomatic ties, calling on Saudi’s studying in Canada to abandon their education here, and pulling all Saudi flights to and from Toronto. The incident should cause Canadians to ask some important questions – not necessarily about Saudi actions, but about our own.
The first question deals with how we should expect our government to communicate policy within the context of international relations. In this case, Twitter was the medium. In a Globe and Mail article, Colin Robertson makes the case that diplomacy by tweet is a ‘bad idea’, and that the Saudi reaction is evidence of that. Despite this, politicians have always been early adopters of new communications technology.
During the First World War, King George V of England ruffled more than a few monarchist feathers when he took to the airwaves to address the nation. At the time, the use of the relatively new invention of radio was seen as below the dignity of the King. Fast-forward a few decades, Royal broadcasts and Presidential fire-side chats were the norm.
The same can be said for television. In the 1960 U.S elections, the impact of T.V changed the game. Richard Nixon had been a fairly smooth operator, experienced and knowledgeable in U.S politics – but when stood next to a cool looking Kennedy in a televised debate, his presidential stature evaporated. Historically speaking, new technology has always been a disrupter in the political world, so why make such a fuss over it in this case? The answer is in the audience.
Both King George and JFK were using new technology to communicate to their own domestic audience – not a foreign government. That said, Minister Freeland’s tweet was only reiterating long-standing policy in terms of the Canadian Government’s position on human rights in Saudi Arabia. I think what is bothering so many people about the use of Twitter is the ease with which it can be used. As an instrument, foreign policy is meant to be more than a 240 character slap on the wrist. No sooner did the news break, than this writer immediately thought of the much more difficult policy option of cancelling the $15 billion arms deal Canada has with The Kingdom. In terms of foreign policy, such a move would send a much more robust message about the value Canadians place on human rights. So why not cancel the deal?
On January 17, 1960, in his farewell address, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans to beware the ‘military industrial complex’. The outgoing president stated, ‘Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.’ What is happening right now with Canada and Saudi Arabia is an excellent example of the push-pull relationship between the economics of war, and what our ‘peaceful methods and goals’ should be on the international stage.
Domestically, cancelling the contract could mean the loss of Canadian jobs for London Ontario based General Dynamics Land Systems. In fact, one is left to wonder if Freeland’s tweet was meant to provoke the House of Saud to withdraw the contract – thus allowing the Liberal government to blame Riyadh for the cancellation and thus save face. Regardless, at the time of writing the deal is still in place. So, while Canada tweets concern over Saudi human rights abuse, our government is still providing the means for the regime to continue the bloody status quo. Unless the Trudeau government cancels the deal, Canada lecturing Saudi Arabia on human rights is the equivalent of your drug dealer telling you to get your shit together.
In defence of the Trudeau Liberals, it should be mentioned that the deal was initially made under the Harper government. Chrystia Freeland has also pointed out that both our U.S and British allies continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Finally, the Kingdom has promised that equipment supplied will not be used to kill it’s own citizens or commit human rights abuses – the fact that our government had to seek such guarantees should be argument enough to put a stop to the shipment. You would think common sense would dictate, ‘if you have to ask…’
The justification of our U.S and British allies continuing arms trade with the Kingdom is also a weak basis for persevering with the deal. Other allies, such as Germany, Sweden and Belgium have all put an end to trading in weapons with Saudi Arabia as a direct rebuke for the regimes human rights record. All this is to say, if the UK and US jumped off a bridge… you get the point.
Finally, what is perhaps most disturbing about this particular diplomatic fiasco is the much larger, more sweeping question concerning the West’s, including Canada’s, overall policy towards the entire Middle East. Since Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the West has maintained a colonial tunnel-vision in the region. Despite calling for more democracy, more equality, more human rights, Western governments have, for the past century, promoted the exact opposite.
Right now, we are at a turning point in terms of regional stability in the Mid-East, and we’re dangerously close to getting it wrong once again. In 1953, Winston Churchill persuaded the Dulles brothers of the U.S State Department to use the CIA to overthrow the moderate, and democratically elected, government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. That decision set the table for Islamic extremism in Iran, and eventually, the chaos that was 1979. Fast-forward to 2018, and again the West is actively pursuing a policy of demonization and sanctions against Iran, despite the fact that Iran has a large demographic of moderate, well-educated young people who could, if given the chance, bring real reform.
In addition to our myopic distrust of Iran, Canada has also maintained long-standing relations with not only Saudi Arabia, but also Israel – taken together they are the dynamic duo of human rights abuse. No, the Saudi/Canada spat is simply another example of a Western state tripping over it’s own two feet intent on maintaining a status quo that has not, nor ever will, work.