What the Saudi arms deal says about Trudeau’s foreign policy

Trudeau made a big show of saying Canada is back, but what does that really mean?

Two soldiers are shown in the new upgraded Light Armoured Vehicle as it's unveiled at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., on Thursday, January 24, 2012. Mark Spowart/CP

Two soldiers are shown in the new upgraded Light Armoured Vehicle as it’s unveiled at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., on Thursday, January 24, 2012. Mark Spowart/CP

When beheading is a big part of your political brand, you might think you’re going have some problems warming yourself under the halo of Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways, but apparently not so much. After Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including controversial Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion shrugged off any questions that it would inhibit trade. Why stop the $15-billion sale of military equipment from General Dynamics Land systems to the Saudi’s over a few dozen decapitations?

Actually, Dion didn’t totally shrug it off. He first applied a bit of verbal varnish, condemning the executions, and then he did nothing. Of course, the message was somewhat mangled, a pattern that is already becoming alarmingly typical of Dion. He famously contradicted the minister of defence on the timeline for pulling out the CF-18s from the combat mission—Dion said it would be a matter of weeks, while Minister Harjit Sajjan has not set a date at all. I was wondering what Minister Freelance would do this time.

Dion’s director of communications first explained to the Globe that the government is not in the business of cancelling contracts from a “private company.” A good answer, but unfortunately, just not accurate. Call that a second coat of varnish. There actually are federal rules that bar arms sales to countries that might use them to harm the local population.

The next day Dion moved away from that line and said, in a series of interviews, that the contract was signed under the Harper government and that Liberals won’t change past deals. Third coat of varnish applied, but this one even thinner. Dion forgot for a moment the major Liberal election promise to cancel the F-35 purchase. Mind you, he did say new arms sales contracts will be reviewed in the future so… so, let’s wait and see.

In any case, most of Canada’s allies sell arms to Saudi Arabia, as Dion pointed out, and in the world of real olitik, where the Saudis are on the front line fighting our common enemy, ISIS, this is how the world works. That might be refreshing pragmatism, but it’s worth noting that, like the new government’s actions in the combat mission in Syria and Iraq, it still adheres exactly to the former Conservative line.

What is all this telling us so far about how the Liberal government will act on the world stage? Trudeau made a big show at the climate conference in Paris that “Canada is back,” but we still don’t know what that means. Probably the best way to find out is to get to know the guy whose job it is to define it, and that is Roland Paris, Trudeau’s chief adviser on foreign policy.

Paris is a highly regarded former associate professor at the University of Ottawa, known as a multilateralist who was openly critical of many of the Harper government’s actions. Paris decried the Conservatives’ Manichean view of the world, the black hats versus white hats. He believed the closing of the embassy in Iran was short-sighted and that the Harper government’s relationship with the Netanyahu government in Israel was too cozy. Back in March, before he became a Trudeau policy whisperer, Paris wrote an article that has been widely quoted in places like the National Post, that said: “Canada is not powerful enough to dictate to others, even if we wished to do so.”

If his language was a bit wimpy—Why shouldn’t a G8 country be able to dictate terms? If we can’t, who should?—it stressed his view that Canada ought to revert back to the Pearsonian vision as a black belt in mediation, a master of the dark arts of multilateral deal making. Paris argues that Canada’s influence must be as a power broker, not a power player, so we should avoid taking sides. There’s lots of debate about that—how effective is the UN as an international body and can Canada be a leader inside that world?—but it does help explain how the Liberal government wants to function on the world stage.

Unfortunately it also explains why Dion so blandly tried to separate an arms sale to Saudi Arabia from any larger foreign policy ideals. I assume Dion concluded Canada is just not powerful enough to dictate to the Saudis, or to General Dynamics Land Systems. Or maybe it’s a policy of constructive engagement. But whatever fancy terms you want to wrap it in, Canada is more than happy to sell arms to our pals, no matter how many heads they lop off.

Still, it’s worth pressing pause. Before we dismiss these first tentative foreign policy steps as a mixture of naïveté and optimism, those Harper-following, foreign policy realists and neo-cons have long had their day and frankly, they’ve done little except screw things up. Iraq remains a tragic mess, and its bastard child of a conflict, Syria, only gets worse. Libya was supposed to be the NATO triumph of direct action but it’s a failed state that is now a national-sized petri dish breeding extremism. Iran has become more powerful, not less. Shia-Sunni relations are worse, not better. And let’s not start on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Realists and unilateralists love to justify all these quagmires by suggesting these are simply “intractable” conflicts. They argue they will take “generations” to solve because there is so much deeply rooted hatred and resentment. Too much blood has been spilled to expect any peace. Maybe so. But the Roland Paris multilateralist types believe in solutions, that these situations can actually be solved proactively. Rather than springing from a well of naïveté, this belief comes from hard-won experience and a much deeper pool of blood than we could ever imagine today.

It’s become a cliché to invoke the lessons of the Second World War but I think that’s a mistake. The Marshall plan and the long peace that has followed that war, the emergence of the European Union, and trade with Japan, are remarkable examples of vision triumphing over violence, of building over blood. They are concrete examples of people who had the audacity to ask citizens who just fought and died against an enemy, to then go help the former enemy rebuild. It was the greatest act of optimism in foreign policy history.

Over the holiday my kids were introduced to a man who survived the Auschwitz death camp. He rolled up his sleeve and showed my 11- and 12-year-olds his tattooed number. It is still a startling thing to see. I could see them suddenly look through the door of history and then walk through.

“Were you a slave?” my son asked.

“Yes, I was,” he said.

Suddenly the faraway stories from a different millennium were real, standing in front of my kids as a man. The past is not so far away after all. Our memories forget faster than the years are actually going by. But do my kids associate any connection to modern-day Germany? Of course not.

The same for Japan. The U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, but cars and electronics are the fundamental association most of us have with Japan today. They could not be closer friends or allies.

Compare, if possible, the scale of tragedy from that time to this. The Holocaust alone is almost the equivalent in its horrific death toll of one 9/11 a day, continuously, for more than five years. It’s hard to imagine. But even harder to imagine is the peace that followed. The productive trade. The good will.

Gen. Marshall often spoke about the plan to rebuild Europe as a job for each country to figure out. His job was not to dictate the how, the individual methods, but to convince people of the why—why they ought to support the massive endeavour. As the great military planner later said about peace, it is not only a matter of military means, but of “spiritual regeneration to develop goodwill, faith and understanding among nations.”

Can you imagine a leader today talking about spiritual regeneration? But those are the words of an ultra-realist and ultra-multilateralist like George Marshall, the man who literally rebuilt the world. If the Trudeau government and the likes of Roland Paris don’t get too jaded, or too bogged down, or drift off into the self-justifying jargon of the status quo, maybe Canada does have a job on the international stage: to be the keeper of the why. Why peace is possible. Why we have to look beyond the violence. To have the audacity of optimism about settling conflicts.

That’s not a bad leadership role to have.


What the Saudi arms deal says about Trudeau’s foreign policy

  1. I am so happy to be rid of Harper and the conservatives. I listened intently to Trudeau talk about peace and diplomacy during the election. Today I see a government that is virtually no different ethically than its predecessor. I only have one question. Where the hell is the NDP? We need them more than ever now. Why isn’t Mulcair on the front pages condeming this Liberal farce.

    • The reason Tom and the NDP are not out in front of this is because, the NDP remaining party members, are waiting for Tom to resign so as they(NDP MPs) can cross the floor and join the liberals in order to keep the Cons from ever forming government again. Tom is as they say “toast”, he is cooked, time for the NDP to join the liberal party, if they don’t, they will become dinosaurs like the Tom.

      • and make room for a new principled social democratic party that hasn’t lost its way.

      • In that event Blue Libs. would cross the floor to the Cons. Then we would have a two Party system.

    • How do you see a government that is no different ethically than the previous government? The previous government is the one that bartered and signed this deal with Saudi Arabia. The present government cannot simply cancel the deal – there are financial and diplomatic penalties to doing that, as well as a need to then re-re-asses and adjust the Liberal budget forecast, expenditures, and possibly even the mandates of ministers. This would also affect Canada’s GDP, and the debt-to-GDP ratio, which the Liberal party has pledged to have 4 years of continued reduction.

      Also, who will pay manufacturer’s compensation for the deal cancellation? Insurers, who might then sue the government, or the federal government itself? How much would have to be paid, and how would that affect the Liberal platform, election pledges, budget forecast?

      The Liberal party is in a bind which was created by the previous Conservative party. It is not appropriate to at this time say that this is a statement on the Liberal party, when there would be so much fallout and accusations against the Liberal party if they did cancel the deal. Many opportunistic opponents would point to the very large deficit that would incur, as example of Liberal financial mismanagement, even though it would have been entirely due to Conservative incompetence that the Liberal party picked up the tab for.

      • Chretien Liberals had no trouble cancelling the helicopter contract costing Canada $500,000,000.

    • Why??? becasue the NDP is irrelevant. Angery Tom will be given the boot in April and Canada’s answer to the the communist party will drift into oblivion.

    • The NDP wouldn’t cancel this deal. These are union jobs in one of the few reliable NDP (both federally and provincially) ridings in SW Ontario.

    • If you’re wondering where the NDP has disappeared to, it’s really quite simple. After helping the Liberals gain power by ignoring them as a threat for the last two years and treating them with respect, the NDP have taken their usual place in politics. They are now the official lapdogs of the Liberal Party and will bark on Trudeau’s command whenever he waves his hand. By the way, wanting the Harper government gone by voting for the Liberals, but longing for the NDP to be a force is much like leaving your wife for another woman only to discover you like her married sister better.

  2. I like your conclusion and it makes me so hopeful for the future. Canada is back. You have essentially defined our best role as a peacekeeper and a rebuilder. And I think we stand a chance with Trudeau
    Of course there will be journalists and politicians who play out the “defined roles” of finding controversy and inconsistencies. But there will always be outrage on the lines of “how can you do business with such a disgusting group who abuse basic human rights in a most barbaric fashion? ” so journalists and media will have a hey day of subjects to write about and discuss.
    Many will say Trudeau is a wuss. I say he is showing great courage and wisdom.

      • Yes, when he’s not beating the crap out of Conservatives he’s…well…not hiding in closets.

  3. I like his hopeful and optimistic conclusion about Canada’s role. And he doesn’t quite resolve the inconsistencies of selling tanks to Saudi Arabia, when Saudi is clearly the aggressor in this latest “tit for tat”. Should we or shouldn’t we? But the again that is the job of a journalist to enlighten the reader on the issues. He leaves the conclusion to the reader. It’s fodder for certain groups of readers and it is comfort to another group of readers.
    I like the way Trudeau is handling it right now. Dion did a good job on Power and Politics today. We need to keep the talks open between these Saudi and Iran. Not pick who is the badder of the two.

  4. Amazing how nobody created this flak when the Conservatives bartered and signed this deal. Apparently Canada supporting Saudi Arabia is acceptable when the sociopath party is in government. Also, to cancel this deal would drop Canada $15 billion in its budget, which would mean a very large deficit for Canada, which the Liberal party would be responsible for, and which would be used against them and as fodder to say that they have further abandoned their election pledges – despite it all being the effect of the Harper Con party. Also, Canada would have to pay a penalty to Saudi Arabia, and so Canada would incur even greater financial losses.

    Maybe it still is the best thing to do for Canada to cancel this Harper deal to Saudi Arabia – but then people must allow that the Liberal party is innocent of the financial burden that comes as a result, and that the Harper Con party is responsible for the large hit to Canada’s budget that follows.

    Evan Solomon is once again presenting himself as a small-minded ignorant, naive or uncaring of the details, when he cites this arms deal as a statement against Trudeau and his philosophy, when it is entirely a bind that the previous government has put Canada into. Canada cannot simply cancel the deal – there are financial and diplomatic penalties to doing that, as well as a need to then re-re-asses and adjust the Liberal budget forecast, expenditures, and possibly even the mandates of ministers.

    • As well as all the criticism that would be received in Canada from political opponents, citing the very large deficit, the missed election pledges, possibly including the pledge to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward trend for 4 years… and also any manufacturer compensation that could be involved to cancelling the deal, which could be huge itself.

      I think that cancelling the deal would be a principled and possibly right move, but only if the Canadian public is educated on what the consequences to doing so are, and lay the blame appropriately where it belongs – at the feet of the monster Harper and the rotten Conservatives, who brokered this deal and made it an ugly smear in Canada’s international conduct, reflective of the Conservative’s own identity.

    • I apologize for calling Solomon a small-minded ignorant in my above post. It wasn’t deserved, and Solomon presents some quality thoughts in this article.

      I think that the Dion and the Liberal party is not trying to coat the unpalatable, but is struggling with expressing the message of a situation that they understand is not their creation, but is something that they have to deal with, and has ramifications whichever way they go. I think that the situation puts the Liberal party in the clear, but that there are many considerations to it, and it can be difficult to hold all those considerations in thought at once, to be able to work them into a coherent form.

      If the Liberal party had done this already, they would be able to express a message that the Canadian public would receive and be satisfied by. If the journalists had done this themselves, they’d have written an article about it. Neither has managed to do this, so far. I think that my comments above provide much of the considerations that are missing in both the Liberal message, and the Canadian journalist analysis.

      I guess both those groups are still without the complete Why, regarding what to do in this situation. Though the Liberal party has, at least tentatively, chosen to protect their platform, their budget forecasts, their pledge to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio on and downward trend, and their economic record.

      To cancel the Saudi deal will possibly put all those things into jeopardy, and make a target of the Liberals for their accusers on many fronts. But if the public can be given understanding the whys, then they will see that all the repercussions are the results of the Conservatives party having been an unscrupulous party of no morals, or ethical conduct, and no good stewards of Canadian reputation, internationally, and domestically.

  5. These are all the ramifications that I see to Canada pulling out of the $15 billion Saudi arms deal.

    Pulling out of the deal will require Canada to pay a financial penalty to Saudi Arabia, who will use that money to buy the arms they need elsewhere, and so Canada will have funded the Saudi state’s oppressiveness all the same. Cancelling the deal also may include payments to the Canadian manufacturers who would have possibly already started production. Those manufacturer’s might be protected by insurance, though the insurers might sue the government of Canada for losses (how sound a defence is “out of principle”, for reneging on legal contracts?) – or maybe the manufacturers themselves might sue the government of Canada for losses, and further compensations.

    So there would be a baseline of $15 billion in finances for the Canadian government. Then penalties to S.A., then possible compensation to Canadian groups, and if so, also legal fees. Cancellation of a $15 billion arms deal could mean $18 – $30 billion in losses for the federal government.

    That’s just financial penalties. There are still political ones, domestically, and abroad.

    Also, how would the Liberal party offset that $18 billion + shortfall in their budget, platform, and mandates? What if they didn’t, and let the loss sit in the federal treasury?

    One of the Liberal pledges is to have 4 consecutive years of debt-to-GDP ratio reduction. Cancelling the deal might change that – and then it would be called a broken promise, and example of Liberal financial mismanagement (even though it would have been a principled decision, made to correct a Conservatives’ unprincipled decision).

    And what if the Liberals pulled a Conservatives move, and cut important Canadian services, or maybe raised taxes? All these moves would be held against the Liberal party by their Conservatives opponents.

    There could then also be diplomatic penalties between Canada and Saudi Arabia, and between Canada and whoever it aims to have future negotiations with. Canada could be perceived as a risky, flip-flopping partner, and that could affect Canada’s leverage, and opportunities with others. And when Canada is trying to improve free trade with China, a sign of Canadian trade-agreement inconsistency could drastically harm Canada’s reputation and ability to form agreements that are as good as they should be, for Canada.

    Even though cancelling the deal may be the right move, there is a lot more to be taken into consideration than just pulling out. And if pulling out is the right thing to be done, then the public needs to be educated on the effects of cancelling, and that the Conservatives party is squarely the ones responsible for all these things, and that they’ve cheated Canada out of its long-term well-being – which, by the way, is the common result to letting a sociopath CEO manage a company for too long: short-term appearance of benefit, but long-term damage that takes a long time to undo. That is now the situation Canada has entered into due to Conservatives party mismanagement.

    Remember that Harper is a failed economist: http://www.pressprogress.ca/6_charts_show_stephen_harper_has_the_worst_economic_record_of_any_prime_minister_since_world_war_ii

    • Correction: “… the major Liberal election promise to cancel the F-35 purchase.” The Cons did not ‘purchase’ the F-35.

      Now, let’s not waste any more time and actually purchase a sensible alternative.

      • Minister of Defense says F-35 still in the running. Justin said it was gone and a cheaper model would create savings to be used elsewhere. We are waiting! Who is right?

  6. Nauseating , pie in the sky drivel designed to shield the rank hypocrisy of the lying Liberals

  7. a reactionary reaction would be fruitless. time and a realpolitik approach may become canada’s small contribution. and perhaps that is already in place.

  8. The Saudi deal is a done deal.

    If you want to look at Trudeau’s foreign policy look ahead, not back.

    • Except for the Yemenis been ripped apart by the LAV’s 25mm guns. Let’s not look ahead to that.

  9. Canada is back! Back to the days of Martin and Chretien unfortunately! “Sunny days my friends”!!! That is a big laugh!

    • Actually,

      Canada won’t be “BACK” to the good old days…..until we once again learn of select Liberals stealing tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars from the public purse. then, we can truly say that Canada is back…..or rather, the Liberals are back.

      • Trudeau has a team of Ontario Liberals trained in the art of looting the public purse for the benefit of the Liberal Party and their friends.

        e-Health, ORNGE, MaRS fiasco, gas plant election fraud, alternative energy boondoggle.

        There is pretty much nothing left to loot in Ontario so they’ve moved on to Ottawa.

        • Actually, WhyshouldIsellyourwheat

          The Toronto Star has a story on the organization in charge of tire recycling. When the “leaders” of this group aren’t spending tens of thousands of dollars on catered food, expensive wine, and exclusive hotels and yachts…..they are using public money to make some sizebable donations to the Liberal party.

          SO yeah…they’re still stealing from us. But people who vote Liberal know that the Liberals steal…they just don’t care.

  10. What the Saudi arms deal says about Trudeau’s foreign policy, is that it is made up on the fly, just like pretty much every other Liberal policy. The Liberals are clearly just making up it up as they go along, and increasingly it is apparent that the easiest way to do this is just to continue down the path laid down by the Conservatives, such as this arms sale, climate change, or the TPP.

    “Real Change”? I don’t think so.

    • True, the arms deal to Saudi Arabia (and the 3000 jobs attached) were the result of the former Governments focus on trade.

      Point of hypocrisy though: The tories are now coming out and demanding that Trudeau stop the deal until we have proof the saudi’s won’t use it against their own poeple.

      Of course, this opens them up to the same question. “Why did you agree to sell arms to them without confirming they wouldn’t turn the weaopns on their own people?

      pathetic…..and I say that as a Conservative supporter.

  11. Typo Alert:
    When beheading is a big part of your political brand, you might think you’re going [TO] have some problems warming yourself under the halo of Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways, but apparently not so much.

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