The painful confrontation with Saudi Arabia is yet another example of the continuity-of-error that defines much of this Liberal government’s approach to Canada in the world.
“It’s a sad tale of unfulfilled promises and possibilities left unexplored and amateurish stumbling about,” says Daryl Copeland, a foreign policy analyst who spent three decades as a diplomat at Foreign Affairs. "And it needn’t be so.”
Chrystia Freeland’s mishandling of the contretemps with the Saudis is truly baffling. Yes, Riyadh wildly overreacted to the tweets from the Foreign Affairs Minister and her department demanding the release of human rights activists. But the prolonged detention of those activists is now virtually guaranteed, which is the very opposite of what Ms. Freeland hoped to achieve.
Beyond that, Canada earned the hostility of an important power in the Middle East. Other regional players have lined up in solidarity with the Saudis, and Canada’s traditional allies, including the United States and Britain, refuse to take sides. We are very much alone.
"Why don’t we just talk to them? Why do we have to tweet about it?” asks Richard Nimijean, a political scientist at Carleton University. Traditionally, Canadian governments have secured the release of political prisoners through quiet diplomacy. Those tweets were neither quiet nor diplomatic.
All this appears to be part of a general Liberal incoherence on foreign policy. A key aspect of that incoherence is the government’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver.
So a “Canada is back” commitment in Paris to fight climate change morphed into the nationalization of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, to the alarm of environmental activists.
And while Mr. Trudeau promised that Canada would resume its traditional role in peacekeeping, the government took forever to commit to the mission in Mali, and that commitment was far less than originally promised.
Then, there is the Liberals’ high-minded promotion of human rights internationally, which at times has harmed this country’s national interests. Canada’s insistence on including labour, gender and environmental issues as part of trade negotiations with China caused China to walk away from those talks. Members of the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement are still fuming over Canada’s last-minute demands, which included new environmental and cultural provisions. And now, we have the Saudi imbroglio.
People in the Prime Minister’s office appear to be receiving bad advice from officials at Global Affairs, or ignoring good advice – the latter seems more likely – leading to gaffes and embarrassments. Remember the trip to India?
“The government is spread thin, and they are making missteps,” says Lana Wylie, a political scientist at McMaster University. "They’re making rookie mistakes, though they’re not a rookie government any more.”
Mind you, standing up to an angry tyrant such as Prince Mohammed bin Salman is popular at home. Odds are good that polls will show most Canadians support Mr. Trudeau’s refusal to back down in the face of Saudi demands for an apology. If foreign policy is really domestic politics in disguise, then the Saudi affair may be politically savvy.
And then there is the card that could trump all others, for better or worse. Nothing – not offending the Indians, affronting the Chinese, enraging the Saudis or upsetting the environmentalists – matters more than successfully renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to cancel.
If the government is spread thin elsewhere, that’s because so much attention and so many resources have been dedicated to saving NAFTA. Success on this file matters more than all other issues combined.
“If the government secures a good deal with NAFTA, then all will be forgiven,” predicts Jason Zorbas, who teaches Canadian foreign policy at University of Saskatchewan. But failure, or a renewed deal in which Canada is forced to sacrifice key interests, such as a dispute resolution mechanism, would be disastrous. We may know the outcome in a matter of weeks.
On good days, Canadian governments find a niche role for a middle power with good intentions but a tight purse. Fighting apartheid in South Africa under Brian Mulroney. Helping establish the International Criminal Court and the landmines treaty under former prime minister Jean Chrétien. Stephen Harper’s maternal health initiative.
On bad days, Canadian foreign policy is an unwholesome mix of high-minded declarations, inadequate commitment and confusion. The Trudeau government has experienced more than its share of bad days. It’s time to post some wins.