It has been some time since I last attended to this space and, perhaps, a political rant is not the best re-introduction. Still, I was provoked. Irked, really, by the astounding lack of empathy and general good sense of a so-called “international security expert.” To be clear the personage in question, one Randall Hansen, is not some internet hack but a professor at the illustrious Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. For those not familiar this is one of Canada’s most prestigious institutions in the area of international relations. But enough preamble. The provocation: “Saudi arms deal: Canada has done the right thing, says Munk professor.” The reference is to Canada’s 15 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The deal was made under the previous Conservative government, and has not been halted by the current Liberal administration. In the article Professor Hansen applauds the government for its refusal to bend to the “warm and fuzzy feelings” of ethical criticism.
Hansen’s rationale for supporting the deal is simple. Saudi Arabia, no matter how repugnant the regime is, is our ally. Besides, if we didn’t sell to them, somebody else would, possibly a “state with laxer reviews and fewer conditions.” Basically it is good business and is in our interest. This is key for Hansen whose view of foreign policy is centred around states acting in their own self-interests. He has little time for “moral preening” and views ethical concerns in foreign policy as harmful. “Morality in foreign policy is a bit like religion; its often well intended but often toxic.” The Professor is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it is unfortunate that the “best and brightest” Canadian minds should be subjected to such a hodgepodge of utter nonsense. Hansen’s article reads like a weak-minded editorial against “bleeding heart liberals.” In its final crescendo he invokes De Gaulle against the Canadian public. No country should have friends. “If the people of Canada want to be morally unassailable then they should exit the foreign policy game.”
But the question isn’t about being morally unassailable. It’s about having an ethical compass. Professor Hansen, who is unable to differentiate between the “warm fuzzy feeling” of a “selfie with the Prime minister” and objections to humans rights abuses and crimes against humanity, does not have such a compass. And yet he still speaks about “doing the right thing” and makes moral judgements between the bad and the worse. (Saddam Hussein was worse than Ayatollah Khomeini, Assad is worse than ISIS.) No clear reason is given, other than, presumably, Hansen’s own moral intuition. Is the point of public discourse around foreign policy that we should leave its moral dimension up to the private intuitions of “experts” like Hansen? This Ivory Tower kid who can’t even distinguish between arms deals and military interventions? Should a man who can say stuff like “Most attempts to create an ‘ethical’ foreign policy have failed for obvious reasons; the international system is made up of states and we have to deal with these states even when we don’t like them…” Does the learned Professor know the meaning of the word ethical? Ethics is very clearly involved in foreign policy, unless we are willing to say that it is a matter of purely arbitrary decisions. Ethics also exist because moral decisions are sometimes difficult. Does this mean we should dispense entirely with moral reason, in favour of… what exactly?
National interest. National security. These are the terms Professor Hansen is banking on, and it seems to me that they are pretty much conceptually bankrupt. It is not obvious that selling weapons to a gross perpetrator of human rights abuses and the seedbed of Wahhabist extremism is in the interests of international and national security. It is also not clear, except in a sort of vague “it’s good for the ‘conomy, stupid” way that this deal is in the interest of Canadians.
What is more clear is that Canada has violated its own laws and codes of ethical conduct in order to have this deal go through. This is probably why the Professor feels the need to downplay ethics and morality and pretend that it’s all namby-pamby feeling good stuff that doesn’t pan out in the cold hard world of pragmatic politics. Sorry, Professor, but you’re wrong. Ethics, in this case, is about the rule of law. It is about international standards of conduct and human rights. It is also about global public image, perhaps something even the Professor could understand. Canada cannot be a relevant and effective presence in the international scene if they are reviled by the international community as cynical cash-grabbers who are willing to violate their own code of integrity in order to make a buck. Ethics is not just about feeling good, it is about establishing reliable connections between nations.
But what irks me most is the title of the essay, “Canada did the right thing.” Professor Hansen has jettisoned the language of ethics and morality, by what right does he speak about right? It would be one thing if he had made an argument establishing how the arms deal was ethically viable given the codes of conduct to which Canada holds itself responsible. This would be a hard argument to make, and would involve a lot of moral gymnastics. It wouldn’t convince me, but at least he could have made an ethical argument. The other option would be to simply say that the Canada-Saudi Arabia arms deal benefits certain weapons manufacturers, who may have industries based in Canada, and that the lives of Middle Eastern people aren’t worth much anyway. This is the argument Professor Hansen has made, but he has made it using weasel-words like “national interest” “the interest of Canada and Canadians” “unpalatable regimes” and “moral preening.” Debate and conversation is foreclosed, since the Professor really gives no indication of how we adjudicate between the bad and the worse. Nor does he offer insight into how ethically dubious deals make Canada or the world a safer place. Professor Hansen is a spokesman for the weapons manufacturing industry, hiding behind the veneer of academia and international affairs. His propaganda, there is no other word for it, is cynical and vile. Not only is it morally incoherent, it is incoherent period. The advice from this “international security expert” will not make the world a safer place. It is not conducive of peaceable affairs between nations. In his support of the Canada-Saudi arms deal Professor Hansen has consigned Canada to a diplomatic and international obsolescence, but he has done so on the side of moral vice.
Who needs a teacher like that?