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Opinion The Saudis deliver a sobering lesson: In diplomacy, words do matter

David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is doing her best to sound undismayed in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s furious reaction to Canadian comments on Twitter about the Kingdom’s recent detention of women’s-rights activists. But the Saudi response, which included a plan to withdraw all state-funded Saudi students (as many as 20,000) from Canadian schools, the suspension of Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto and a freeze on new trade and investment, and a selloff of Canadian assets, is almost certainly far more than the minister bargained for. The relationship is now effectively on hold, with high-level channels shut down until the Saudis decide that we have corrected what their foreign minister described as our “big mistake.”

We should care about what’s happening. Saudi Arabia’s one-step-forward, two-back approach to basic rights for women is deeply troubling. There is also a Canadian dimension to the crackdown. One of the detained, Samar Badawi, is the sister of the imprisoned writer Raif Badawi, whose wife, Ensaf Haidar, recently became a Canadian citizen.

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But we clearly didn’t anticipate that the Saudi response to our commentary would be so swift and damaging. Twitter-based diplomacy is a high-stakes exercise, particularly when you are trying to gauge how far you can push a prickly and secretive totalitarian regime. It’s attractive because it allows a hands-on foreign affairs minister, such as Ms. Freeland, to intervene in real time. But it is no substitute for careful analysis, co-operation with allies and patient engagement at all levels of Saudi society.

Although the attention paid to precise language in diplomacy can seem excessive, words do matter when one state tries to communicate with another. Insecure regimes, as with insecure people, react badly to highly directive words such as “immediately,” which was the timeline we urged the Saudis to adopt in freeing the detainees. The possibility of a negative reaction increases exponentially when the message is delivered in public.

When asked on Wednesday whether we could resolve things through an apology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was vague. Ottawa wordsmiths are probably already hard at work on a very carefully worded expression of regret. But the Saudis may want the deep freeze to continue.

That’s because Canada was also a target of convenience, big enough to serve as a sobering example for Saudi Arabia’s many other critics, but not so big that it couldn’t be punished with relative impunity.

It didn’t have to go this way. The Chinese government’s recent decision to allow Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel laureate and human-rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, to leave house arrest in Beijing and travel to Germany owes much to the quietly effective diplomacy of Chancellor Angela Merkel. She and her diplomats worked patiently to make this outcome seem a natural outgrowth of their respectful, mutually-beneficial relationship with China. I suspect that the Germans did as much listening as talking.

We seem to be doing far more talking than listening, favouring a form of megaphone diplomacy that only seems to work with smaller countries that need our diplomatic support or our aid dollars. Yet we stubbornly favour broadcast mode even when it comes to major powers, something that contributed to our recent diplomatic debacles with China and India. We’re strangely reluctant to believe that our “values-based” foreign policy can come across as preachy, insensitive and interfering.

It’s safe to assume that, back in May, Saudi diplomats in Ottawa shared with their headquarters a widely circulated photo of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna high-fiving our ambassador to Ireland as they publicly celebrated the victory of the “Yes” side in Ireland’s recent referendum on abortion. Such a high-level Canadian intervention would have seemed unprecedented but for the fact that Prime Minister Trudeau had already inserted himself into the campaign.

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We’re generating the perception among emerging powers that when we talk about human rights, we’re arrogantly insisting on the adoption of an agenda that reflects the worldview and biases of the secular West. Among our Western allies, we’re increasingly seen as dilettantes, promoting our values agenda because we have no real interests to pursue.

Up until the Trump era, this didn’t matter much. For decades, we benefited from the fact that the main objectives of any foreign policy – security and prosperity – were conveniently built into our neighbourly relationship with the United States. We could afford to dabble in diplomacy elsewhere.

Although the world has changed, we’re still dabbling. It’s time to get serious. Our diplomacy has suffered serious setbacks in Beijing, Delhi and Riyadh. We need to understand that punching above our weight involves more than simply talking above it.

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