Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced significant criticism last week while visiting Africa to solicit support for Canada’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
In Senegal, home to a regime that continues to criminalize homosexuality, Trudeau was alleged to have “pulled his punches” when given the opportunity to publicly deplore the heinous law.
To be sure, the prime minister had it coming. Back in 2018, in the midst of a dispute with Saudi Arabia that erupted after Global Affairs Canada criticized Riyadh’s imprisonment of female human rights activists, Trudeau proclaimed:
“Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world. We will continue to do that, we will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion.”
In this case, the prime minister did speak up politely, but he was hardly strong, firm, and clear.
But even if criticism of his hypocrisy is warranted, that doesn’t mean that his actions were ill-considered.
Since the end of the Cold War, successive Canadian governments have conditioned us to believe that international relations are all about feeling good inside. In that sense, there is little difference between the Harper government’s principled foreign policy and the values-based posture currently trumpeted by the Trudeau Liberals.
Both approaches appeal to a sense of Canadian pride. We in Canada know best, they seem to suggest. The world could learn a lot from following our lead.
Such sentiment, sometimes referred to as virtue signalling or pulpit diplomacy, is not only arrogant, it is also a rather unhelpful approach to international relations.
For one, it rarely works. As UQAM’s Justin Massie noted on Twitter recently, Vladimir Putin did not leave Crimea because Stephen Harper told him to. Indeed, Russia’s still there.
Similarly, no African leader is going to change their country’s laws on LGTBQ+ rights because Justin Trudeau called them out on the world stage. Canada simply doesn’t have that kind of clout.
Second, the focus on values distracts Canadians from a difficult truth. At its core, foreign policy is an exercise in advancing the national interest, and sometimes doing so means making awkward compromises.
That’s why the virulently anti-communist British prime minister Winston Churchill willingly cooperated with the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the Second World War. (And yes, they even shook hands a few times.)
Does that mean that the government of Canada should ignore the repression of members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world? Of course not. But there are more effective means to promote sexual freedom than by ‘standing up for Canadian values’ with our chests puffed out.
Here are a few ideas:
First, accept more refugees. Provide more members of the LGBTQ+ community with a haven from persecution, and make sure that their path to citizenship is affordable and accessible.
Second, increase international assistance for non-governmental organizations that promote LGBTQ+ rights around the world. They are best positioned to determine the most appropriate strategies to effect change from within.
Third, if you do plan to go public with human rights concerns, do so as part of a coalition of like-minded states and non-state actors. When it comes to calling out world leaders, there is strength in numbers.
Finally, try not to put this country in the position of needing to curry favours from unsavory regimes in the first place. Had the Trudeau government not insisted on bidding for a Security Council seat that was already contested, this particular situation could have been avoided.
The classic critiques of Canadian diplomatic posturing include Fen Osler Hampson and Dean Oliver’s “Pulpit diplomacy,” Kim Richard Nossal’s “Pinchpenny diplomacy,” and Denis Stairs’ “Canada in the 1990s: Speak loudly and carry a bent twig.” For fresh thinking on Canadian foreign policy, take a look at the Generations Project launched by my colleague Andrea Lane and Dalhousie University’s Brian Bow. They will be releasing a new book later through UBC Press this year.
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