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What did we learn from Canada’s spat with Saudi Arabia? It wasn’t a lesson about foreign-relations Twitter, or whether Canada is right to stand up for human rights. It’s that this is an unpredictable, dog-eat-dog world, where this country doesn’t have such a comfy, protected position — and we’d better start taking that seriously.

It turns out that as much as we like to tell ourselves that “the world needs more Canada,” authoritarian regimes aren’t waiting for us to bestow this gift in public lectures. When they snap at us, our big brother in the United States isn’t necessarily going to defend us. So what now?

Canada needs a hard rethink. Its foreign policy drifted into some lazy habits: failing to take a hard-nosed look at Canadian interests, politicking abroad for ethnic diasporas at home, shallow virtue-signalling without real legwork and a short attention span with other countries.

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That’s not to say that Canada was to blame for the Saudi dispute. The tweet that triggered it may have been less artful than it could have been, but it wasn’t wholly out of the blue or beyond the pale for Canada to call for the release of arrested activists. The Saudi overreaction suggested a tantrum.

The whole dispute probably won’t have dramatic consequences for Saudi Arabia or Canada, either. But “it’s important for what it reveals,” said University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, who was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first foreign-policy adviser.

Other countries can hit back. Donald Trump’s United States isn’t just challenging trade rules, but alliances, and it’s not leading a community pressing for norms on things such as human rights.

It’s nice Canada talks about those things, but far nicer to advance them in practical ways. Saudi Arabia has also fired back at Sweden and Germany for critiquing its rights record, though less dramatically. Mr. Paris argued Canada should speak to such countries about how far they’d press their concerns, and how they might deal with Saudi Arabia’s reaction. That practice should apply to dealings with others, too.

Canada is a middle power, after all, not a major one.

Constancy helps. Canada is not a player in Saudi Arabia. The two had stop-start relations. Making a sharp critique is more effective with countries with whom you have substantial relations.

And just when Canada needs more substantial relations with key players, it is focused, albeit understandably, on the U.S. and NAFTA. “The urgency of Canada-U.S. relations has sucked attention away from the rest of our foreign policy,” Mr. Paris said.

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But the problems go beyond the current chaotic world — and beyond partisan blame on one government.

David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, wrote that the most obvious sign of “our lack of seriousness” is the way politicians use foreign trips for outreach to “politically important ethnic communities,” leaving foreign leaders unimpressed.

That’s an apt criticism of Mr. Trudeau’s February trip to India, but Mr. Mulroney wrote those words in 2015, criticizing increasing politicization of foreign policy under Stephen Harper. The use of foreign policy to signal domestic virtue has continued.

Canadians can debate a free-trade deal with China, but Ottawa’s attempt to include vague references to gender issues in a deal was never going to be accepted by a Communist Party that has no interest in accepting new domestic policies from abroad. So what was the goal?

Mr. Mulroney argues Canada has become used to the idea that its interests, such as security and trade, were handled in Washington, so it felt free to view its foreign policy as disinterested advocacy of international principles.

Now, Canada needs a new look at its interests. Mr. Mulroney said that includes advancing Canadian values — expanding democracy and rights are part of our long-term interests. But it has to keep in mind what’s possible and effective.

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For one thing, Canadians have to stop thinking they bestow relations on countries they like, he said. Diplomacy is mainly to deal with difficulties. Big countries, such as China, might be connected to “unsavoury things,” but you can’t talk about the global environment, for example, without China.

It is not the Saudi Arabia spat that matters. Other countries, maybe bigger ones, might rebuff Canada or retaliate. It’s a less comfortable world. We’ll have to be more serious about making our way in it.

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