THE BLOG
08/09/2018 10:17 EDT | Updated 08/09/2018 11:19 EDT

Canada Shouldn't Have Scolded Saudi Arabia On Twitter

Governments should not be conducting sensitive diplomatic negotiations or applying pressures via these platforms.

Conducting diplomacy by Twitter is as effective as arguing with your significant other over text: assumptions are made, issues are misunderstood and room for a needless spat becomes abundant.

While governments have in recent years used social media to make statements on the nature of their relationships, such as to announce brokering a peace deal or trade agreement, they shouldn't be conducting sensitive diplomatic negotiations or applying pressures via these platforms.

While the issues of human rights, suffrage, freedom of expression and social activism should be matters of public concern and discourse, governments have different tools to discuss, negotiate and pressure.

RONALDO SCHEMIDT via Getty Images
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, at a press conference in Mexico City, on July 25, 2018.

Social media isn't the forum to do so, unless the objective is to name and shame, or is part of a calculated diplomatic strategy where the response is anticipated.

As such, while I fully support Canada's decision to raise concerns with the Saudis regarding the imprisonment of human rights activists, I find the use of social media to do so disturbing.

Canada has many better avenues to pursue its global human rights agenda.

These include resorting to mutually friendly governments to mediate, using the good offices of international organizations to intercede or even using trade negotiations to nudge the Saudis.

One of the cardinal rules of diplomacy, particularly when engaging with an ally, is to understand the other country's social, economic and political frame of mind, and anticipate their response to a diplomatic initiative.

This, according to Francois de Callieres, who wrote the book on international diplomacy more than 300 years ago, is absolutely necessary in order to work toward a win-win situation.

Sadly, the way both countries have been carrying on this week is much more of a lose-lose situation.

The tweet from the ministry last week embarrassed the Saudis

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Canada stands by its position on the issue of detained activist Samar Badawi.

Absolutely. This is the principled thing to do.

But perhaps the Foreign Ministry could avoid blindly drawing inspiration from the Trumpian School of social media diplomacy. Freeland should slap a moratorium on using Twitter for communicating foreign policy directives, especially in regard to sensitive issues.

Many have come to Freeland's defence, saying her position is consistent with Canada's decades of foreign policy on global human rights issues. Indeed. But that's not the point.The tweet from the ministry last week embarrassed the Saudis, who have in the past 18 months launched a publicity blitz to show a reformed, more progressive monarchy.

If the tweet was designed to pressure the Saudis into releasing Samar Badawi and others from jail, it backfired.

The Saudis aren't exactly reasonable when it comes this type of pressure, or what they would consider undue intimidation and interference in internal affairs.

Charles Platiau / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses as he arrives at the Hotel Matignon in Paris on April 9, 2018.

Their petro-dollar wealth has meant getting their way regionally and globally for decades. They are used to being the billion-dollar bully-cum-brat in the Arab League, strong-arming other countries into senseless embargoes and conflict, dictating energy policies in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and suppressing individuals and movements calling for sociopolitical freedom.

Riyadh's over-the-top retaliation betrays the inner workings of a rash, reactionary monarchy, not the one that millions of dollars of advertising have tried to show as progressive, modern, and reaching out to the West.

But Canada shouldn't have been swayed by the advertising campaign, and should have instead anticipated the response the tweet would bring.

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There is a long road to walk back from this, and the row hasn't yet come to an end. Neither side looks particularly good, but in the long run, the Saudis have to learn how to avoid derailing their own image reform campaign.

In the meantime, Canada has asked its Western allies to mediate with the Saudis to alleviate the fallout, but Riyadh already shot this idea down. The Saudis say Canada made a mistake and should correct it — almost definitely a signal that Ottawa should issue an apology, even if doing so would be a blunder for Canadian foreign policy.

With Canada's allies staying out of this spat and Saudi Arabia's friends rallying around it, Freeland may eventually have to find a short sword to fall on.

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