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Opinion What Canada’s spat with Saudi Arabia reveals about Trudeau’s scatterbrained foreign policy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in Montreal on Aug. 8. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The worsening spat between the governments of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been mostly analyzed from the Saudi angle: a case study of the kingdom’s eggshell sensitivities and bossy expectations of deference. Yet the story also reveals much about Trudeau’s own inadequacies as a statesman, and the thoroughly confused nature of his foreign-policy priorities.

Trudeau is often elevated as one of the west’s champions of principled liberal internationalism, a world leader who offers a marked contrast with the populist nationalism of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, et al. Insofar as Trudeau has been an outspoken proponent of immigration, multiculturalism, and Muslim empathy, the contrast is undeniable. At the same time, his commitment to a broader world order seeking to consolidate the gains of liberal reform and resist the pull of authoritarian chauvinism has always been tenuous, in large part because the prime minister appears to have persistent difficulty in distinguishing the two.

While in opposition in 2014, Trudeau led his party in voting to oppose Canada’s participation in airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, and later, Syria, for blandly pacifist reasons. It was a move that isolated him from every progressive leader in western Europe, as well as the one in the White House, who saw the mission as a rational use of force. Upon his election as prime minister two years later, he used his inaugural phone call to President Barack Obama to formally announce that he would be ending the military involvement his predecessor had started. The war on ISIS, accordingly, was won without much help from Canada.

On the campaign trail, Trudeau vowed to restore diplomatic ties with Iran, which Canada had severed in 2012. Following a rash of high-profile human rights outrages, including the detention of an Iranian Canadian widow of a prominent Iranian liberal, he was forced to backpedal. In 2016, Trudeau mourned in flowery terms the passing of Cuba’s Fidel Castro — “a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century” — and was mocked across the globe for his ignorance. In April, Canada made the dramatic decision to recall all diplomatic families from Havana after embassy workers showed symptoms of unexplained brain injuries.

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April also saw the prime minister make a high-profile visit to China, a country whose “basic dictatorship” he once praised for its efficiency. He brought visions of free trade, only to have the Chinese flatly refuse Ottawa’s list of “progressive” labor and environmental provisions. The rejection stung, coming just a few weeks after an even more spectacularly unsuccessful trip to India. Rather than herald the beginning of a new partnership with the country’s dynamic new leader, Narendra Modi, a series of severe diplomatic missteps plummeted relations to what an former minister described as “rock bottom.”

And now, a dispute that has seen Saudi Arabia play every possible retaliatory card against Canada, from sending home its ambassador to boycotting Canadian grain. At issue is an uncredited tweet from the Canadian foreign affairs department demanding that Saudi Arabia “immediately” release from detention feminist campaigner Samar Badawi, as well as “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”

Saudi Arabia has long faced an uphill PR battle in Canada. On the left, it is routinely portrayed as the quintessential example of a repulsive “ally” exposing the moral hypocrisy of the Ottawa elite; a vicious dictatorship given billions in arms to satiate Canada’s addiction to fossil fuels. On the right, the kingdom serves a standard shorthand for Sharia tyranny, whose oil imports are an embarrassing reminder of Canada’s under-utilized natural resources. This confluence of ideological interests has, thus far, helped ensure Trudeau’s Saudi crisis is more politically salvageable than earlier diplomatic snares. As the prime minister doubles down on support of the offending tweet, a broad right-left coalition happily takes Saudi bad faith for granted, as when a Saudi group posted a picture of an Air Canada jet flying over Toronto and many on social media demagogued about the kingdom “threatening to 9/11 Canada.”

Yet from a higher vantage point, one sees a familiar story: A Canadian prime minister whose ability to identify friends and enemies is out of sync with the moment of history he inhabits. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose detention of activists is antithetical to Canadian democracy. But this can just as easily be said of Cuba and China, whose regimes Trudeau has showered with cartoonish affection. The distinction is that, while the ruler of Saudi Arabia is a young reformist exerting targeted effort to scale back some of his government’s hideousness, including Wahhabi fundamentalism, Trudeau happily seeks opportunities in dictatorships far less self-conscious.

It’s entirely possible the crown prince will not be successful in his efforts. However, if Canada’s goal, is a foreign policy oriented to endorse the spread of global liberalism, it is not at all obvious how a prolonged fight with Riyadh is more principled than tighter trade ties to Beijing or an embassy in Tehran.

Analogies to the ISIS war or the Modi summit seem apt. A country like Canada cannot affect much of consequence on the international stage. But if the goal is future relevance, the Trudeau administration should, at least, possess awareness of where its incompetence is best directed.