Chris Wattie/Reuters
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 10.

Saudi arms deal tests Canada's 'boy scout' image

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pushed to restore Canada's reputation as a peacekeeping middle power. But do economic interests trump those efforts?

Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 prisoners this month set off violent protests in Iran, instability in Yemen – and soul-searching in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government said last week that it’s going ahead with a controversial arms deal with the Saudi government that secures thousands of jobs for Canada’s tumbling economy. But the deal has some of Mr. Trudeau’s most loyal supporters feeling betrayed over his promise to turn Canada once more into a global "honest broker.”

“It is a lot of jobs, but in the grand scheme of things it's confusing,” says Sophie-Anne Bergeron, a project manager who worked for the Liberal party for eight years. “It's not quite what the Liberals stand for.” 

Analysts say the arms deal is the first foreign-policy test for a government that will often see economic and geopolitical pressures clash with Canadians’ self-image as a peacebuilding middle power.

“Canadians have a worldview of themselves and as a country very much wedded to the idea of the honest broker,” says Fen Hampson, a professor at Carleton University who studies global security issues.

“What governments find once they're in power is that reality does not conform with myths or nostalgia,” he adds. “Economic national interest is going to be forefront of any government, but particularly during hard times.”

A foreign policy myth?

Brokered by the preceding Conservative government, the $14.8-billion deal is Canada’s largest military contract in history. It would send Saudi Arabia light armored vehicles equipped with anti-tank weapons.

The government estimates the deal would create 3,000 manufacturing jobs in southwestern Ontario, a key battleground in last October’s election. Those jobs are particularly coveted amid this week’s projection of oil slumping to $20 a barrel and the Canadian dollar plummeting to its lowest value in 13 years.

Critics who opposed the deal point out that the tanks resemble those the Saudi Army used to dispel protesters in Bahrain in 2011. Washington-based Freedom House has ranked Saudi Arabia among "the worst of the worst" for political rights each year since 2010. The recent executions, which included a prominent Shiite cleric, sparked international outrage. 

Despite his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said Canada’s reputation would suffer if it reneged on a government contract.

“Almost all of our allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia,” he told CBC News in an interview last week. “It’s part of the world in which we are.”

Dr. Hampson agrees that Canada would lose wealth and credibility by cancelling the deal, even if it flies in the face of a treasured national myth he calls “Canada's Boy Scout vocation.”

“The idea is that we can be the fixer in the world; that the world is just waiting for Canada to come and solve its problems,” he says. “That has become very much our mythology of the middle power.”

Toronto’s main airport is named after Lester Pearson, a Liberal prime minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the United Nations peacekeeping force sent to Egypt and Israel to soothe tensions during the 1956 Suez crisis.

In the cold war, Pierre Trudeau – the current prime minister’s father – positioned himself as a mediator between US and Soviet leaders. In 2003, Canada refused to join the Iraq invasion because it wasn’t approved by the UN. 

But the past decade saw former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government chart a consciously divergent path. Declaring “a principled foreign policy,” Mr. Harper cut all ties with Iran, openly disparaged Russian President Vladimir Putin, and championed Israel and Saudi Arabia as allies.

In 2010, after easily winning a seat on the UN Security Council every decade since its 1945 formation, Canada lost its bid for the first time. For Conservatives, it was a minor rebuke from an irrelevant institution, but Liberals panned it as a major blow to Canada’s image.

“The Conservatives were perhaps too much focused on hard power, and not enough on soft power: the UN and multilateralism,” Hampson says. “The Liberals have talked a lot about soft power but they still haven’t figured out what that means." 

For example, Trudeau is standing by his vow to pull Canada’s jets from the fight against the so-called Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, but has recently mulled providing more battlefield advisers and aid.

‘An uglier world’

Much like the Saudi deal, Trudeau will have to consider public skepticism towards China’s human rights record as he plans an upcoming trade mission to the country.

Economic issues weigh more heavily on foreign policy in Canada than they do in the US because Canada’s exports are overwhelmingly commodities, says Janice Stein, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

“China was the big sucking engine that was eating up seemingly endless commodities,” Dr. Stein says. “But now you see a fundamental change in the Chinese economy, and that has enormous implications for this country.” 

Canada made billions of dollars by selling minerals such as nickel and copper, whose value has declined in recent months. Projects to export oil to China have been hampered by tumbling global prices, while Chinese consumers aren’t spending as much on wood and fish products sourced from Canada. 

A widely published photograph of Mr. Harper, the former prime minister, shows him cuddling a panda during a 2012 trade mission to China. But Stein recalls Harper starting his term a decade ago by criticizing the country’s human rights record, before eventually courting Chinese investment. 

“Every government comes into office with a foreign policy idea that shapes with the world,” Stein says, noting that Trudeau left for his first official trip on the evening of last fall’s terrorist attacks in Paris. “The government is now crafting a response to an uglier world than they had hoped for.”

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