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Munk professor on Saudi arms deal: Canada has done the right thing

Saudi soldiers on patrol

Saudi soldiers on patrol. Photo: Carolyn Cole/Getty Images.

“A loathsome regime, but an ally”

Controversy continues over the federal government’s decision to approve export permits for the sale of combat vehicles worth $15 billion to Saudi Arabia. U of T News talked to Munk School of Global Affairs international security expert Randall Hansen about the deal.

There has been a lot of moral outrage expressed over the Liberal government’s decision to approve export permits for the $15 billion Saudi arms deal. Is this outrage justified?

Only to a degree. The Liberals, perhaps unwisely, gave the impression that their foreign policy would be different from and morally superior to that of the Conservatives. They therefore opened themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. On the other hand, the deal is a perfectly legal one, approved by Parliament. Saudi Arabia is in many, perhaps most, ways, a loathsome regime, but it is an ally in a neighbourhood in which the choice of friends is unappealing. On balance, the Government of Canada has done the right thing. It may not make people feel warm and fuzzy – as they presumably do following a selfie with the PM – but that’s not the primary purpose of foreign policy.

Critics argue that Canada should weigh a country’s human rights record when making deals or approving private deals. Do you agree?

It can certainly be a consideration, but only one.  The overriding driving force behind foreign policy should be, and generally is, national interest. Most efforts to create an “ethical” foreign policy have failed for obvious reasons: the international system is made up of states, we have to deal with those states even when they don’t like them, and we often have to choose the least bad state as our partner. What’s more, refusing to sell arms to unpalatable regimes does not mean they will not acquire arms. They will simply purchase them from another state, possibly one with laxer reviews and fewer conditions.

In the 1970s, U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried a foreign policy approach based on human rights with mixed results. Do you know of any governments that have successfully based foreign/trade policies on human rights or other ethical issues?

I only know of governments that unsuccessfully tried to base foreign and trade policies on human rights. The UK government promised an ethical foreign policy in 1997 and it quickly ran into the same charges of hypocrisy. Morality in foreign policy is a bit like religion. It’s well intended but often toxic. Two great interventions were driven by moral concerns: the 2003 invasion of Iraq (for the British) and the 2011 bombing of Libya (for the British and Canadians). Both were utter disasters, and neither could be justified on the grounds of national interest.

Is there an element of superiority/condescension in demands that Canada consider other nations’ human rights records when deciding whether to do business with them?

There’s certainly an element of moral preening, at which elements of the Canadian commentariat excel, often to a grating degree. But the more important point is the first one I made: foreign policy should be driven by the interests of Canada and Canadians. Ethical considerations are a consideration, but they are not necessarily the primary one and they certainly do not hold a veto. As our interests change, so do our allies. We opposed Russia, rightly, over Ukraine, but we need Russia in Syria. Saddam Hussein was a monster, but he was preferable to Ayatollah Khomeini. Assad is disgusting, but he is better than ISIS. And on and on and on. Charles de Gaulle famously said that no country worth its salt has any real friends, by which he meant permanent friends (or permanent enemies). He was right. If people want Canada to be morally unassailable, then the country should exit the foreign policy game. The country will retain its moral virtue and ensure its utter irrelevance.