Saturday, August 18, 2018


On July 2, 2018, Canadian Foreign Secretary  Chrystia Freeland proved once again that conducting foreign policy by Twitter is fraught with danger from over simplification, impulsive and/or careless, or simply not well thought out  pronouncements.  While not in the same league as U.S. President Trump’s daily deluge of Twitter carelessness, her short declaration set off a diplomatic storm with the government of Saudi Arabia.  The subject was the arrest and imprisonment  by Saudi authorities of one of several female activists who were detained for criticizing the government. Freeland’s “Tweet” was as follows:

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

This seemingly innocuous protest would typically be  the subject of a brief statement of rejection or be simply ignored by most of the world’s authoritarian governments.  However in the case of Saudi Arabia, the broader context is somewhat different.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy.  It describes itself as “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.  Like all authoritarian, i.e. non-democratic governments, it relies on suppression of basic civil and human rights to maintain itself in power.  In the Kingdom, it has always been so.  Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic state is currently under pressure on its borders from Iranian  sponsored Shi’ite forces attempting to overthrow the government of Yemen, as well as Shi’ite militancy in neighboring Bahrain. 

As the birthplace of Islam and the home of the two holiest sites of that religion,  Saudi Arabia has declared that its constitution is the Koran and the Sunnah, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.

In spite of the social and legal constraints imposed by this strict adherence to conservative Islam, Crown  Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the thirty-three year old de facto head of government, has embarked on a massive modernization program.  This  includes a long range plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from dependence on it’s vast oil reserves, a moderation of social restrictions on Western style entertainment, a recent end to the decades old ban on driving privileges for females and a reduction in the powers of the religious police.  These reforms have not come without resistance from Islamic conservatives and Salman is sensitive to criticism which might seem to be pushing him to far, to fast. 

Thus the Saudi government’s response to Freedland’s Tweet was severe.  The Global News’ reports that:

“Since the Middle Eastern kingdom launched the dispute on Sunday evening over tweets sent the week prior, Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador, expelled Canada’s ambassador, frozen new business and trade, ordered Saudi students studying in Canada to go somewhere else, ordered Saudi citizens seeking medical care in Canada to go somewhere else, blacklisted Canadian wheat and barley, and ordered the asset managers of their central bank and pension funds to dump Canadian assets “no matter the cost.”

It’s hard to know how seriously the Canadian government takes these events.  So far neither Foreign Secretary  Freeland nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seem too publicly  concerned.

Trudeau summed up his position briefly:  “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights ... at home and abroad, wherever we see the need.”

“Canadians expect that, and indeed people around the world expect that leadership from Canada,” he said.

Despite this slightly grandiose claim, the Canadian government has a particular interest in the case of the Badawi’s. Samar Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi a Saudi blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1000 lashes for religious apostasy and criticism of the Saudi regime.  His wife and three children sought amnesty in Canada and are now Canadian citizens.

In a sign that the Saudi reaction is more troubling than is publically admitted, Foreign Minister Freedland is reported to have sought the assistance of officials in Germany and Sweden, both of which have experienced similar confrontations with Saudi Arabia over criticism of alleged civil and human rights violations.

The importance of this episode is that it is a reminder in the age of national interest based “Trumplomacy”, which is the subject of harsh partisan criticism, of the tension between reality based foreign policy and idealistic based policies.  It is an obvious fact that the world would be a better place if all nations observed liberal democratic standards of human and civil rights.  Not only would this be a victory for common moral codes, but such codes when embodied in legal systems would produce democratic political systems.  Such systems are much less likely to engage in armed conflict with each other, would produce healthier economic conditions which would benefit their citizens and facilitate more efficient international trade and reduce the world’s immigration problems.

But the reality barrier is significant.  Freedom House’s “Democracy Project” uses a measurable list of categories to evaluate each of the world’s nation  states. These include: free and fair elections; rights of minorities; freedom of the press; and the rule of law.  Similar standards are included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) which together are labeled the International Bill of Rights.

In 2018, Freedom House found that 25% of countries holding 37% of the world’s population, were “Not Free”.  Another 30% of countries with 24% of the world’s population were only

“Partly Free” thus leaving only 45% of the world’s countries with only 39% of the world’s population categorized as “Free”.

While the majority of the offenders in the first two categories are in the developing world, a few, i.e. Russia, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia have such high levels of international importance in terms of geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and international economic influence that they require a difficult assessment of the proper response to human/civil rights violations in those countries. 

This problem is complicated by two other realities.  First, at what point does violation of rights within a nation, require a violation by other nations of the offending nation’s sovereignty, a concept also enshrined in international law ?

A  second reality is the question of what kind of external policies toward offending nations if any, would be likely to be effective in bringing about changes in the internal policies of the offending nations?

Admonitions, condemnations, public protests by government officials, non-governmental organizations and various public groups, all have a poor record of success in these types of issues as in the case of Raif Badawi whose ten year prison sentence and corporal punishment became an international  “cause celebre ” which was summarily rejected by the Saudi government. Although Badawi’s lashing was suspended after fifty strokes, he remains in prison.

Although President Trump has been criticized for not supporting the Canadian position on both Samar and Raif Badawi (Britain has also declined), he has taken the opposite tack with regards to a similar event in Turkey.  In 2016, American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson who had lived in Turkey for twenty-three years, was imprisoned in a wide spread reaction to a coup attempt against Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan. Brunson was accused of espionage and terrorist related charges and is currently being tried in a Turkish court. 

The Trump administration has denied those charges and demanded that Brunson be released. The Erdogan government has refused and President Trump has resorted to economic sanctions in the form of tariffs on the importation of Turkish steel and aluminum.  Turkey has responded with tariffs on U.S. cars, electronics and several consumer goods.

While Trump’s strong reaction to Brunson’s predicament should provide him with some cover over the Left’s criticism of his diffidence in the case of the Badawis, the differences in the two cases are obvious.  First, Trump is Trump, and he gets no relief from the criticism by the Left no matter what the facts are.  Second, Brunson is an American citizen and entitled to the protection of the American government; the Badawis are Saudis in trouble with their own government.  Third, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are currently more important than U.S. relations with Turkey or Canadian relations with Saudi Arabia.

This last, may seem harsh to human rights advocates but this fact has the potential to impact many more lives in the U.S. and in the Middle East than the plight of two Saudis whose situation has little hope of redress no matter what the level of outcry from foreign actors. Nonetheless, U.S. relations with Turkey are important in their own right and imposing economic sanctions on Turkey was an over reaction which makes the Brunson situation a face saving situation for Turkey. This complicates Turkey’s role in NATO and U.S. opposition to its support for Iran in the face of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposition of sanctions against that nation.

However, Saudi Arabia stands with the U.S. and Israel against the terrorist support and regional and nuclear ambitions of Iran.  An of course there is the issue of the international oil market which is heavily influenced by Saudi production and influence in the OPEC cartel, plus the sales of military equipment by the U.S. to the Kingdom.

Also, because Turkey’s economy is currently in a state of high inflation due to mismanagement by the government and Erdogan personally, Trump’s economic sanctions have unusual weight.  While the charges against Brunson seem preposterous, once again, the position of the Erdogan government is based on maintaining resistance against an attack on its national sovereignty. The result so far is a deteriorating impasse.

Dealing with authoritarian governments has been part of international diplomacy throughout history and as the  Freedom House report indicates, it remains a harsh reality today and for the foreseeable future.  Despite the moral impetus for strong advocacy of human rights/civil rights there is little reason to believe that authoritarian governments and their leaders would be willing to risk their regimes by voluntarily liberalizing the repressive laws and political culture which supports them.

That doesn’t mean that some progress on individual cases need not be pursued.  However, quiet diplomacy involving quid pro quos have more chance of success than public condemnation or simple “demands” that appear to be interference in the internal affairs of target nations. Trump recently had such success with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un when he successfully negotiated the release of several American citizens who were being held captive in N. Korea.

 Basically, a substantive change in the political culture of a nation towards improvements in civil and human rights requires broad support from the people in those states as it did in the Eastern European republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  However, some cultures which are divided by heavy tribal, ethnic and religious influence are not ready for Western style liberal democratic systems, a fact which the Bush administration found in its failed “nation building” strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such conditions provide opportunities for authoritarian governments to prevail or simply replace similar governments after social uprisings, as was the case in Egypt.  Indeed, all the  “Arab Spring” movements, with the possible exception of Tunisia, fell victim to such conditions.

In the Badawi and Bruson cases Trump made the mistake of major over reaction which created another set of problems; Freeland made the mistake of not understanding her adversary and using an inadequate and one way public communication tool for a complicated problem.  Both her and Prime Minister Trudeau’s public comments appear to be directed more towards civil and human rights advocates than to Saudi government officials.