Recently the King of Saudi Arabia died and he was replaced within a few hours by Prince Salman. In the wake of his death, commentators wrote about the relationship of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Western World. On the chat lines many people questioned why we had relations with that country and presenting their views, mostly and largely uninformed. I do not know why politicians love to use the term our good friends in country X or the expression we are shoulder to shoulder with this country, blah blah. It is simply a false statement, a delusion, it is true that Statesman can see eye to eye on a specific point of mutual benefit and interest but that is usually limited in time and focused on a specific topic.
What most people do not seem to know or take into consideration is the fact that all relations between nations is dominated by self-interest, fierce competition, one upmanship and little else. It is true that in the last 70 years countries like Canada have enjoyed peaceful political relations with many other countries, some relations are old and well established, there are many common interest but at the same time elements that devise and irritate the other party. This is true of our relations with the USA, the UK, France, which historically have been mixed at many levels. Our first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald knew this and he always kept a weary eye on both London and Washington.
Somerset House Conference 1604, Peace between Britain and Spain.
To return to the events of last week, in the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia we have to think of the geopolitics of the region and its long and old history. How the Arab Monarchies of the Arab Peninsula dislike Iran and fear its influence. Currently Iran is negotiating with the USA on nuclear matters and preventing Iran from developing Nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia is fearful of a deal or arrangement which would leave them out. Iran is a regional power and has been influential in the region for a very long time, centuries in fact. Iran supports military groups in Lebanon and Syria. It enjoyed good relations with the Assad regime, father and son. It plays a role in Iraqi politics and supports Shia politicians and their armed groups. This to the great displeasure of Saudi Arabia who is a new regional power, new in the sense of since 1973 when the oil prices jumped and created new wealth for the Saudis.
Canada has relations with Saudi Arabia, again relatively new relations, we are newcomers to this region compared to Britain. Our relationship is also very different in historical terms. We have more than 500 post-graduate students in Canada and this alone brings in millions of dollars to our Universities, cities and in taxes not counting also consumer goods they buy. This is a wealthy group of students who often drive luxury cars and live in tony neighbourhoods. Many Canadian companies do very profitable business with the Kingdom, Canadians profit economically in many various ways. Our politicians need to consider this carefully when making decisions on Foreign Policy matters.
It seems that for the average person issues like women having to wear a veil or not being able to drive or having their civic rights curtailed by tradition and culture. Every one has a horror story they read in the newspapers about Saudi Arabia. A country were the death penalty is still applied with a high number of executions per year. Such items in the news always disturbs Canadian sensibilities and that would be enough reasons to cut off diplomatic relations for most people. Luckily such decisions are not in the hands of public opinion. Breaking diplomatic relations would be very shortsighted, it would go against our self-interests.
The same reasons could apply to many countries, according to that train of thought we should simply walk away from such countries, because they are corrupt or have a justice system different from ours or their culture and history is offensive to us. Public opinion says shame them for behaving contrary to our norms and beliefs. Such reactions are emotional or based on ignorance. Diplomatic relations are far more complicated than that, because you must never forget that if you break relations with one country, it will be very difficult to re-establish them later and many years may pass before being able to negotiate a new understanding on mutual relations, concessions may be asked which may not be to our liking and then what about Consular relations and the protection of your own citizens who visit countries with whom you have no relations. Currently Canada has broken off relations with Iran and Syria. Other countries may seek to exploit the vacuum for political and commercial reasons. They will step in to take your place economically and politically, those same countries may be a NATO ally or a country with whom you have long peaceful relations. They will profit at your expense and you will lose because you want to stand on principle. Principles are fine but in the end such a narrow position would not be sustainable economically nor politically. Careful analysis must be made of every situation and disagreement before taking action you may later regret.
The ambassador of Siam at the Court of the Sun King presenting gifts.
Diplomacy and Foreign Relations is not about morals or ethics, Diplomacy is an amoral business. You have to be a hard nose realist and pragmatic in any relations you conduct, emotions and feelings have no place in Foreign Relations. Our Prime Minister likes to say that we conduct a moral or ethical Foreign Policy, that for domestic consumption is great speechifying and the common person may rejoice that our PM will tell those people what is what. Think again, it does not work that way at all and Harper found out the hard way with China. He snubbed China for three years and made hostile and intemperate statements at home to please his local base of right wingers. When he finally went to China, the Chinese made him apologise and publicly rebuked him. Harper understood that commercially the Chinese were far more important than he had ever imagined or understood.
China is pursuing an aggressive Foreign Policy, they have the population and economic might to regain the old glory of Imperial days and despite the fact that they may say that they are bridging the gap, resolving differences through mutual understanding, all that is again words for the naive. In any negotiations the Chinese are very tough and unyielding, they know their weight and know that Western consumers want cheap products, Western governments cannot refuse to satisfy the demands of shoppers back home. At the same time the Chinese understand the limits of aggressive behaviour in Asia against neighbours with whom they have irritants with Vietnam, Japan, India to name a few countries. The Chinese are also careful not to get involved in International crisis by taking sides, Crimea, Syria, North Korea, ISIS or ISIL terrorism etc.. they always say that they do not want to get involved in what they consider internal crisis. Their interest is to protect their markets and economic development. At home the Chinese Communist government can only survive if they give the population more wealth and if the country prosper.
China has routinely blocked with its Veto any economic sanction measures at the UN all the while negotiating that Veto vote with the countries most concerned by proposed sanctions. China is only doing what is good for China and its people. Though some have suggested that with its increased International profile China will have to get more involved in crisis around the world that is unlikely to happen.
European Embassy being presented to the Ottoman Sultan, La Sublime Porte
Relations between Canada and China are interesting, China sees us as a supplier of raw resources and nothing else. We do not matter much to Chinese geopolitical way of thinking. On the other hand our politicians believe that because we have a large Chinese population made up mostly by Cantonese speaking Southern Chinese (AKA Hong Kong and Guandong Province) we must matter to China, you know we had this Canadian Norman Bethune who helped Mao in the late 1930’s and we supplied wheat to China during the great famine of the late 1950’s that must mean something. Wrong, it means little though the Chinese are very clever at playing this up knowing we think it is important. When Canadian politicians travel to China be it a Provincial Premier or a Mayor of some metropolitan area, said Canadian politicians fully expect to be received at the highest level of the Chinese Government, i.e. the President or the Prime Minister of China. Wrong again, usually Provincial premiers will be lucky to meet with a member of the Politburo the Chinese judge to be of an equal level as the Canadian provincial premier. As for Canadian Mayors usually the calculation is based on the population size of the City in Canada compared to a neighbourhood in Beijing. A deputy Mayor for that area of the Chinese Capital will meet with the Canadian Mayor. Many Canadian politicians have been dismayed at the polite, courteous but junior level reception they got. So our Canadian politician must make a big deal of any trip to China and show results at home but it is usually pocket change investments for the Chinese.
The Chinese are experts at assessing the opposite side and responding at the level they judge proper in relation to their own view of the world and their place in it. Can we call China our great friend? No not at all, we have correct business like relations which are often difficult and that is it.
Another area where interest matter is commercial contracts. Trade as always been since time immemorial the driver of much of the diplomatic ties between Kings and Princes and today between States. The power and wealth of Nations depends on trade, not just military strength. Venice is a prime example as a City State, the Hansa of Northern European Cities is another, Spain and Seville after 1492 and under Charles V was the wealthiest of Empire due to the riches from the Americas and the trade in goods that were then sold to other European States, Britain and its Empire, German industrial might and its merchant navy, etc.
Trade disputes often lead to war with devastating effect. Then you have the case of France, it had many African colonies and it decolonized in the late 1950’s early 1960’s but to this day France keeps a tight watch on so many of its former colonies for commercial reasons which favour French Companies. The diplomatic relationship in this case is incestuous, patronizing and the success or downfall of any French speaking ex colony depends very much on how much the President for Life of country X is willing to play ball with the Elysée Palace in Paris. France will not hesitate to send troops to any of its ex-colonies to protect commercial interests disregarding National Sovereignty of those countries, i.e. Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, etc.
Interestingly the Middle-East is another region where France played a role prior to the Second World War, a secret Treaty Sykes-Picot of 1916 created Lebanon to protect the Arab Christian population with allegiance to France. Was the population consulted, of course not, one could argue cynically this was done for their own good. Same for much of the Middle-East, Syria, Iraq, Jordan created by Britain out of a promise made to Sheik Hussain of Mecca with the help of T.E.Lawrence who was the British Liaison Officer in the great Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule.
France today would like to play a greater role in the Middle-East but would have to be let in by the USA. France did not participate in the Wars involving Iraq and various coalitions since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990-1991. France was suspicious and angry that US oil companies in the event of victory and an overthrow of the Saddam Hussein Regime would lose oil contracts it had negotiated for TOTAL the French oil company. TOTAL did lose its contracts in Iraq.
Here in Canada the Harper Government has badly played its hand in its diplomatic relations with the White House and the Obama Administration. It is obvious that our Prime Minister is much more philosophically in tune with the GOP and the Tea Party in Congress and in the Senate. He does not hide his preference and that is bad politics and diplomacy. President Obama does not like him much and is tired of being hectored by the likes of the now ex-Foreign Minister John Baird, who according to former Canadian diplomats, the worst Foreign Minister we’ve ever had in Canada. However Baird was a faithful servant of his master Stephen Harper. This in itself is the job of any diplomat to carry the message of your master no matter how distasteful it may be to you personally, you must defend the message and endorse it that is what a diplomat does. So no Canada does not have friendly relations with the USA and the USA is not our friend. We have a complex relationship based on commercial interests, supply of energy products and military dependency for our National Defence. People can be friendly towards each other and this is very often the case but not Governments, simply because they have other objectives and interests.
King Louis XV
In closing a bit of music by Jean-Philippe Rameau composed to celebrate a diplomatic & military victory of France with the successful conclusion to the War of the Austrian Succession during the reign of Louis XV.