How Much Virtue?
In 1850, Lord Palmerston the British government’s Foreign Secretary threatened war when Greece dealt unjustly with a pair of Queen Victoria’s subjects living abroad. The so-called “Don Pacifico Affair” led to a ringing assertion of the willingness of a nation to back claims by its passport holders no matter where. Palmerston felt that his country was “bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad … as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say “Civis Romanus sum”[I am a Roman citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.”
On August 3, the government of Canada issued a statement of concern about the way that Saudi Arabia was treating a number of its citizens who had been agitating for further human rights inside the most Islamically conservative jurisdiction on the planet. Quite why our Foreign Affairs Minister felt moved to this action is a puzzle; activists of all sorts are repressed around the world on a daily basis, and any national interest of ours is of the most gossamer sort: one of those arrested was, apparently, the sister of an arrested blogger who is married to Ensaf Haidar, a woman with Canadian citizenship. Thus, Ottawa has imitated imperial Britain and taken its presumption one step further: now any far-flung sister-in-law of a Canadian may utter “Civis Canadiensis sum” and feel assured that our Dominion will act on her behalf.
Well, that escalated quickly. To everyone’s surprise Saudi Arabia did not take our righteous Twitter post in a spirit of chummy goodwill. It instantly declared our ambassador persona non grata, pulled their own emissary out of Canada, and ordered a legion of Saudi students and medical patients home from the land of the interfering infidel. Trade deals were threatened, Canadian grain was banned, Canadian assets were sold off, and an ominous warning emerged on a government-linked website that seemed to promise Canada the same treatment Saudi terrorists gave the World Trade Center on 9/11. Considering that Canada was hoping to soon consummate a lucrative sale of military hardware to the Saudis, it would be fair to say that our well-meaning intervention will cost our country billions of dollars.
However startled our government might have been by the Arabian response, Ottawa is not backing down. The Prime Minister has stated, “We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and universal values and human rights. Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights.”
This surely prompts the question: how much virtue signalling can our country afford? What will be the price tag of Canadian demands that the USA and Mexico accept our views on gender equity in NAFTA? How far are we willing to go to make our position on Canadian values count, let us say, in a Chinese context? Are we willing to jeopardize our prosperity by interfering in Korean, Indian, Russian, or Brazilian affairs? This is an important issue on which it is possible for reasonable Canadians to disagree but we must have the debate, and soon.
Fortunately, there is a way in which we can profitably and morally stand up to trade and diplomatic bullying by one of the world’s most noxious nations, a country which still thinks that public crucifixion is a civilized response to crime. Canada should immediately cease to buy Saudi oil and replace it with western Canadian petroleum, transported securely by a pipeline. Quebec and Maritime consumers will thus be spared the sin of supporting an evil regime and see their fuel prices fall; the western Canadian economy will blossom; and Wahhabi fundamentalists will gnash their beards in impotent rage. That sounds like a win-win situation for us.