After the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted concern about Saudi Arabia’s imprisoning of a women’s rights activist, the crown prince there seemed to go nuts.
Saudi Arabia announced that it was expelling Canada’s ambassador, halting flights to Canada, ending purchases of Canadian wheat, recalling students from Canada and selling off Canadian assets. Did the United States or other Western countries stand up for an old friend and ally, Canada?
Not a bit.
“The United States doesn’t have to get involved,” Heather Nauert, then the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters.
Yet Canada stuck to its principles. When a young Saudi woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, fled to Bangkok last month and warned that she would be killed by her family if she was forced home, it was Canada that again braved Saudi fury by accepting her.
Freeland was at the airport to welcome Alqunun as a “very brave new Canadian.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We’ll stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world.”
Canada may be one of the world’s boring countries but it’s also emerging as a moral leader of the free world.
There’s no other. The U.S. is on a nationalist tear. Britain seems determined to drag its people over a Brexit precipice. France is distracted by protests. Germany is preparing for succession.
So Canada is stepping up.
During the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis, President Barack Obama admitted just 12,000 Syrians and provoked a backlash, including Trump’s Muslim ban. Canada accepted 40,000, with Trudeau at the airport to hand out winter coats to the new Canadians.
All around the world, doors to refugees were clanging shut, but Canadians were so eager to sponsor Syrians that organizations were clamoring for more.
Canada has been quietly working since 2017 to help organize the Lima Group of 14 nations pushing for democracy in Venezuela. When Canada recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, he won credibility because nobody sees Ottawa as an imperialist conspirator.
Canada has spoken up about the mass detention of about 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China even as Muslim countries have mostly kept mum, and it detained a Chinese executive at the request of the American government. China retaliated by arresting Canadians and sentencing one to death, but Canada is sticking to its guns.
For aid programs in the developing world, countries usually try to finance big, glamorous projects that will get lots of attention. Instead, Canada champions programs that are cost-effective but so boring they will never be discussed on TV — like iodizing salt to prevent mental impairment.
Canadians pursue policies that are preternaturally sensible. They regulate guns, oversee the banking sector so as to avoid financial crashes, and nurture entrepreneurship and economic growth without enormous inequality.
Typically, more Canadians use mass transit, and the country has better traffic safety laws. The vehicle fatality rate is half that of the U.S. If the U.S. had Canada’s rate, we would save more than 20,000 American lives a year.
Today there’s a vacuum of constructive global leadership. Canada may be incapable of a mean tweet, but it’s tough when necessary — and it may be the leader the world needs.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.