Canada has limited foreign policy options

When the Liberal government came to power, it did away with the approach to foreign policy practiced by its Conservative predecessors and replaced it with something a bit more “idealistic.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embarked on an international media tour during which he repeatedly declared himself a feminist. The foreign service, all the way up to Minister Chrystia Freeland, began to loudly champion environmental and human rights causes in other countries.

For a time, this appeared to be working nicely. International media ate it up. Canadians seemed proud that their self-image as a kind and gentle country was reflected in the words and public positions of the country’s diplomats.

Inevitably, there were awkward moments along the way, specifically the costume drama debacle in India. Tensions with Saudi Arabia also surfaced last year when Freeland Twitter-cized the kingdom over its human rights record. It was a shot across the bow at Riyadh that prompted weeks of recriminations.

But recent weeks have brought more serious tests of the Trudeau government’s approach to foreign policy.

First, there is escalating tension between Canada and China over our detention of Huawei executive, Meng Wanzhou. It is hardly a fair fight — China is a fully emerged superpower whose real issue is with the United States, not Canada. Unhelpfully, our country, with its inherent resolve to uphold the rule of law, is caught between the two.

Not only that but Huawei’s problems elsewhere in the world are making the problem even more challenging. For example, Poland has arrested a Huawei sales director for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, while other countries have formally put the mobile phone maker on notice that the company will be precluded from participating in their 5G networks.

And now, the stakes have become even higher with lives now on the line. This week, a Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, was hastily sentenced to death by a Chinese court, and other citizens, caught in the Huawei crossfire, appear to have been unjustly detained.

If that’s not enough, the acrimony between Canada and Saudi Arabia has further escalated. Last week, Freeland challenged that country again by personally welcoming teenage refugee Rahaf Mohammed, who had been on the brink of deportation back to her homeland before Canada proactively intervened.

In both instances, we saw the typical diplomatic tit-for-tat play out: statements were issued, fingers were wagged, ambassadors were recalled, and so forth. In an election year, when a government is inclined, for domestic political purposes, to flex its foreign policy muscles, when push comes to shove, the government’s range of options on the international stage are quite limited.

The truth is, the Liberals can do little more than huff and, on a good day, puff that China is acting “arbitrarily,” as the Trudeau government did when it issued a travel warning. Or say, “Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” as the prime minister did when explaining the government’s rationale for taking in Mohammed.

But beyond these statements and the usual diplomatic quid pro quo, the Trudeau government has yet to take meaningful retaliatory action. China sentences our citizens to death; Saudi Arabia withdraws critical investments and repatriates its many foreign students. Meanwhile, Canada does little more than make speeches about our values.

What would decisive action look like?

For starters, Canada could join the ranks of its Five Eyes peers in putting restrictions on how Huawei participates in country’s telecommunications infrastructure. It could terminate the contract to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia for use in a war that has been internationally denounced in Yemen.

These actions, though meaningful, would come at an enormous cost to both government and Canadian business (upwards of $1 billion in the case of arms sales to the Saudis), and inevitably invite further retribution from the bullies on the world stage.

With all this in mind, one sees the appeal of virtue-signalling in lieu of a more muscular foreign policy. It is telegenic, it builds on Canada’s international brand as a mild-mannered do-gooder.

But it may well come at a higher cost than the government ever imagined.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

(Published in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 20, 2019)