Policy by twitter

It has become more and more fashionable to announce ~ even in President Trump’s case to make ~ policy using Twitter. Several analysts are worried about the impact.

In an article that was, originally, published in the Calgary Herald and then, reportedly at the request of the family, deleted, and then republished in the Calgary Sun, veteran journalist Licia Corbella says, and I agree, that “The Trudeau government’s obsession with virtue signalling via Twitter is costing us all greatly … [and] … It was a tweet from Trudeau, after all, that ostensibly erased our southern border and tore up Canada’s immigration laws, with tragic results for legitimate refugees and immigrants waiting to start new lives here … [and now] … The latest fiasco is just a few days old, caused by the federal Liberal cabinet’s biggest (until this point) star — Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland … [because] … On Thursday, Freeland sent out a 247-character tweet criticizing Saudi Arabia’s detention of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for writing things that the oil-rich, intellectually poor, oppressive, terrorist-exporting kingdom doesn’t like.

Ms Corbella explains that “Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens on Canada Day. Now, Badawi’s sister, Samar, has also been arrested and detained … [thus, she says] … It’s perfectly reasonable for Freeland to try to have the Badawis freed. Canadians expect it. But it should never have been done publicly. By doing so, Freeland has likely ensured the Badawis won’t be released any time soon and could put their lives in jeopardy … [and] … After tweeting that she was “alarmed” by Samar’s arrest, Freeland wrote, in part: “We continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”” It’s that middle bit, in yellow, that likely upset the Badawi family.

Licia Corbella says, next, that “David Chatterson, Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the purpose of any country’s foreign policy is to advance its own interests … [and he said] …  “When I heard about the tweet, my question was, well, what’s our objective here?” …  “Was it to mitigate the circumstances of Badawi? In which case we failed,” he said to CBC News … [or] … “Was it to inform the broader direction of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?” he asked rhetorically. “Again, I don’t think we’ve done that. Have we advanced Canada’s interests? Definitely not.”

Chatterson said,” Ms Corbella reports, echoing what others have said, that “Canada should have approached this issue and others like it in a “much more professional, much more respectful manner.”

Licia Corbells says, and I agree that: “Perhaps the belligerence and bullying on Twitter that takes place almost hourly by U.S. President Donald Trump is rubbing off on the likes of Trudeau and Freeland … [and] … If so, that should stop. If the question is to tweet or not to tweet, the answer must be to never criticize another state … [because] … Tweets, which can be only up to a maximum of 280 characters, are not the ideal way to get across one’s point of view, never mind to conduct diplomacy.

Meanwhile, over in the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson says that “The painful confrontation with Saudi Arabia is yet another example of the continuity-of-error that defines much of this Liberal government’s approach to Canada in the world.

He too, cites experienced diplomats: ““It’s a sad tale of unfulfilled promises and possibilities left unexplored and amateurish stumbling about,” says Daryl Copeland, a foreign policy analyst who spent three decades as a diplomat at Foreign Affairs. “And it needn’t be so” … [and, Mr Ibbitson explains] … Chrystia Freeland’s mishandling of the contretemps with the Saudis is truly baffling. Yes, Riyadh wildly overreacted to the tweets from the Foreign Affairs Minister and her department demanding the release of human rights activists. But the prolonged detention of those activists is now virtually guaranteed, which is the very opposite of what Ms. Freeland hoped to achieve … [and] … Beyond that, Canada earned the hostility of an important power in the Middle East. Other regional players have lined up in solidarity with the Saudis, and Canada’s traditional allies, including the United States and Britain, refuse to take sides. We are very much alone … [another expert, Richard Nimijean, a political scientist at Carleton University, is quoted as asking] … “Why don’t we just talk to them? Why do we have to tweet about it?”” Why, indeed? In the Age of Trump and Twitter many, many (most?) foreign ministries and many minsters and heads of government have active social media accounts but, President Trump excepted, I suppose, they don’t replace diplomacy … most seem to be used to explain things to citizens, not to conduct foreign relations. “Traditionally,” Mr Ibbitson says, “Canadian governments have secured the release of political prisoners through quiet diplomacy. Those tweets were neither quiet nor diplomatic.

John Ibbitson says, and I agree, that: “All this appears to be part of a general Liberal incoherence on foreign policy. A key aspect of that incoherence is the government’s tendency to over-promise and under-deliver … [and] … So a “Canada is back” commitment in Paris to fight climate change morphed into the nationalization of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, to the alarm of environmental activists … [and, further] … while Mr. Trudeau promised that Canada would resume its traditional role in peacekeeping, the government took forever to commit to the mission in Mali, and that commitment was far less than originally promised … [and, then] … there is the Liberals’ high-minded promotion of human rights internationally, which at times has harmed this country’s national interests. Canada’s insistence on including labour, gender and environmental issues as part of trade negotiations with China caused China to walk away from those talks. Members of the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement are still fuming over Canada’s last-minute demands, which included new environmental and cultural provisions. And now, we have the Saudi imbroglio.” That’s a pretty sad litany. Why is it happening?

People in the Prime Minister’s office,” Mr Ibbitson suggests “appear to be receiving bad advice from officials at Global Affairs, or ignoring good advice – the latter seems more likely – leading to gaffes and embarrassments. Remember the trip to India?” I doubt that the PMO is ignoring good advice from the people at Global Affairs. I think our foreign service was, systematically, dismantled and then reassembled in the late 1960s and 1970s by Pierre Trudeau who, it appeared, disliked the advice he received from the Oxbridge trained men (they were almost all men in 1967) and, even more, that he disliked the men themselves. I heard rumours, back in the early 1970s, that Mitchell Sharp, Pierre Trudeau’s foreign minister and a veteran civil servant, tried to save the foreign service that gave us e.g. Mike Pearson and a global reputation for skilled diplomacy, but to no avail. Pierre Trudeau, it was said, didn’t want sound strategic advice from skilled diplomats who have worked with their friends and colleagues in Washington, London and Canberra to, quite literally, remake the world after 1945 … he just wanted some “yes men” (and women) who shared his very restricted vision of Canada in the world. The foreign service was, by the 2010s, a mere shadow of its former self and it was in near open revolt against both Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who both preferred the advice of outsiders ~ especially academics from Oxford and Cambridge and Canadian Army generals ~ who advocated for a principled and muscular, even interventionist foreign policy. Our people at foreign affairs felt their brains beginning to explode after Prime Minister Martin committed us to fight in Kandahar rather than just wring our hands at cocktail parties in Geneva and Kabul. The workers at foreign affairs were thrilled when Justin Trudeau was elected … and now they’re telling him what he wants to hear: no one, not Prime Minister Trudeau, not Chrystia Freeland and not the staff at Global Affairs, is interested in Canada’s vital interests in the world.

John Ibbitson explains that ““The government is spread thin, and they are making missteps,” says Lana Wylie, a political scientist at McMaster University. “They’re making rookie mistakes, though they’re not a rookie government any more” … [but, Mr Ibbitson adds] … standing up to an angry tyrant such as Prince Mohammed bin Salman is popular at home. Odds are good that polls will show most Canadians support Mr. Trudeau’s refusal to back down in the face of Saudi demands for an apology. If foreign policy is really domestic politics in disguise, then the Saudi affair may be politically savvy … [and] … then there is the card that could trump all others, for better or worse. Nothing – not offending the Indians, affronting the Chinese, enraging the Saudis or upsetting the environmentalists – matters more than successfully renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to cancel … [thus] … If the government is spread thin elsewhere, that’s because so much attention and so many resources have been dedicated to saving NAFTA. Success on this file matters more than all other issues combined … [but] … “If the government secures a good deal with NAFTA, then all will be forgiven,” predicts Jason Zorbas, who teaches Canadian foreign policy at University of Saskatchewan. But failure, or a renewed deal in which Canada is forced to sacrifice key interests, such as a dispute resolution mechanism, would be disastrous. We may know the outcome in a matter of weeks.

Mr Ibbitson concludes that “On good days, Canadian governments find a niche role for a middle power with good intentions but a tight purse. Fighting apartheid in South Africa under Brian Mulroney. Helping establish the International Criminal Court and the landmines treaty under former prime minister Jean Chrétien. Stephen Harper’s maternal health initiative … [but our good days ended in 2015, and now] … On bad days, Canadian foreign policy is an unwholesome mix of high-minded declarations, inadequate commitment and confusion. The Trudeau government has experienced more than its share of bad days. It’s time to post some wins.

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