Politics and social media have at least one thing in common: A single action has the potential to cause an overreaction.
On August 2, 2018, Christia Freeland, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, sent out a tweet that called for Saudi Arabia to release Samar Badawi, a Saudi female rights activist, and Raif Badawi, a blogger. This was followed up with a similar tweet by the Foreign Affairs Department.
In response, Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salma, imposed retaliatory measures against Canada. These include suspending diplomatic relations, cancelling funding for 16,000 students, and banning imports of Canadian wheat.
The Liberal government’s diplomatic breakdown with Saudi Arabia shows that no lessons were learned from Justin Trudeau’s falling out with Donald Trump.
Diplomacy lesson #1: If you criticize an ally publicly, you risk starting a feud.
Case in point: In June, following the G7 summit in Quebec, Trudeau told reporters that Canada “will not be pushed around” by the United States. By suggesting that Trump is a bully, Trudeau “poked the bear” and started a feud. Since then, Canada has been shut out of NAFTA negotiations, and there may soon be tariffs on our auto sector.
Two months later, the Liberal government now has a feud with Saudi Arabia.
It is human nature to react negatively to public criticism. When we have a friend or ally, we expect to resolve our disputes in private.
Justin Trudeau doesn’t understand this aspect of human psychology.
Following Saudi Arabia’s punitive measures, Trudeau defended his government’s Twitter diplomacy by saying, “Canada will always be very clear on standing up for human rights. We will make sure that the message is clear in public and private.”
Diplomacy lesson #2: Don’t say things in public that will provoke the person you want to make a deal with—even if they are true—or you are less likely to make a deal.
Does Trudeau naively believe that criticizing the Saudi government on Twitter will result in the release of the prisoners? While public criticism can be an effective tool to change the actions of an elected politician, it won’t work with Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy.
A country that beheads and crucifies criminals will not bow to the public pressure of two tweets from Canada. The tweets only provoked the Crown Prince, not unlike an annoying mosquito that bites you on the ass.
Worse still, the tweets have made it less likely the prisoners will be released. Criticizing Saudi Arabia caused the Crown Prince to lose face, and as a strongman, he would look weak to release them. Instead, he has punished Canada to make himself appear strong.
Diplomacy lesson #3: If you provoke a strongman, expect blowback.
When the Trudeau government came to power in 2015, it tried to influence Saudi Arabia privately to release Raif Badawi from prison. But after years of talks, the Saudis have not changed their position.
This is because a strongman like Mohammed bin Salma will only respond to strong actions.
The truth is, Canada only has a limited ability to influence Saudi Arabia. We are not a superpower like the United States.
Nevertheless, if Justin Trudeau really wanted the prisoners released, he could have taken additional measures. For instance, he could have imposed tariffs or sanctions and urged other countries to do the same.
But Trudeau was never willing to take any action like that. He won’t even impose retaliatory measures against Saudi Arabia. Trudeau thinks that “standing up” to Saudi Arabia is something you do on Twitter, or by talking to reporters.
The Liberal government’s diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia has had one positive consequence for our Prime Minister though: A recent poll found high levels of support for his criticism of Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps that was the real purpose of the tweets all along. By “virtue signalling” on Twitter about the Saudi prisoners, Justin Trudeau is now more popular with Canadian voters just as he was when he “stood up” to Trump.
Meanwhile, Samar and Raif Badawi remain in prison with no hope of freedom.