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HomeBlog2021 Canadian Foreign Policy Outlook: Major Challenges Ahead

2021 Canadian Foreign Policy Outlook: Major Challenges Ahead

Image credit: Chelsey Faucher

By Alexandra Slobodov

Canada is undoubtedly in for a challenging year ahead. The ongoing pandemic and a transition in the White House will take up much of Canada’s attention throughout 2021. A Biden administration has revived hopes for a solution to the Meng Wanzhou case, which could lead to the release of two Canadians detained in China since 2018, and an overall ease in Sino-Canadian tensions. In the Middle East, 2021 will mark the end of a five year and $3.5 billion Engagement Strategy. Also on the docket will be addressing climate change, where special attention should be paid to its effect on Arctic security both domestically and internationally.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in full swing and case numbers soaring across multiple provinces, Canada’s first major priority will be tackling the pandemic. Despite Canada’s purchase of more vaccine doses per capita than any other country in the world, distribution of the vaccine has been met with criticism for moving too slowly, with reports of thousands of doses sitting idle in freezers

Following a failed UN Security Council bid, Canada can spend the next year working to reinvigorate its role on the international stage by engaging in health diplomacy. This could take the form of playing a leading role as a friendly and productive global actor in reforming multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO). It could also mean actively engaging in international vaccine distribution to ensure equitable and efficient access for countries less equipped to deal with the pandemic.

When not focusing on the pandemic, Canada will be busy adjusting to the incoming US presidential administration. Given Canada’s reliance on its southern neighbour and primary ally, its foreign policy will continue to reflect and be constrained by decisionmaking in Washington. The shift from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden is expected to usher in a warming in relations that have become strained throughout the past four years. In fact, even Canadians’ perception of Americans has suffered, with public opinion studies showing that only 60% considered the US to be a friend in 2020, as opposed to 89% in 2013. This week’s unrest in Washington is a case in point that it may be high time for Canada to work toward reducing its reliance on the US, given that another unpredictable leader could only be four years away.

While Trump’s departure will mark a move away from the tariffs that have defined bilateral trade since he took office, Biden’s “Buy America” program is also expected to prioritize the American market over Canada’s. An effort to instead promote “Buy North American” could help mitigate some of the impact. With respect to the newly implemented Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), Canada will need to play a leading role in supervising the deal to avoid potential trade disputes. Canada’s other trade priorities will be the negotiation of a new trade agreement to succeed the interim deal signed late last year intended to mitigate tariffs that would be re-imposed once the UK officially left the EU on December 31, 2020.

Canada’s relationship with China will remain a focal point this year. A recent report by the Wall Street Journal suggests progress has been made on the case of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou who was arrested in Canada on an extradition treaty with the US. This could present an opportunity to secure the release of two Canadians who have been detained in China since 2018 (in what some consider to be a response to Meng Wanzhou’s arrest).

The incoming Biden administration is expected to take a less aggressive approach to China, which would allow Canada to increase its engagement with the world’s second largest economy. However, this will likely not reverse the larger trend of Sino-Western competition and Canadian dependence on the US for its China policy. In a report released last November by the Canadian International Council, Director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, Gordon Houlden, wrote that “Ottawa will continue to face pressure from Washington to adjust its China policies to minimize US discomfort. These pressures will fluctuate in response to the ups and downs of US-China relations and will remain a significant factor in Canadian foreign policy calculations.”

As the effects of climate change continue to become increasingly apparent, calls for the inclusion of a climate change component to Canadian foreign policy have grown louder. Last year, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, a Canadian Armed Forces commander, warned that if the growing number of floods and fires “becomes of a larger scale, more frequent basis, it will start to affect our readiness” to address traditional national security concerns. The focus on climate change will be important no less because of Biden’s commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement and support environmental initiatives such as the Green New Deal.

In Canada’s North, the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent. While Canada has increased its efforts to secure and develop its vast Arctic region over the last decade, it still trails behind other Arctic states. Currently, Canada’s Arctic Policy within its Northern Policy Framework focuses partially on “promoting [its] interests and sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic.” The Canadian Armed Forces engage in the yearly Operation NANOOK, with one of the key aims of defending and securing the Canadian North. However, in order to develop a stronger presence in a region quickly growing in geopolitical importance, Canada will need to continue to work with the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization that serves a critical role as a forum for cooperation between Canada and other Arctic states. Canada will also need to make further investments in order to protect Canada’s sovereignty and security in the Arctic.

On the other side of the globe, Canada will see two major milestones in its relations with the Middle East. Canada’s five-year Middle East Engagement Strategy, which has worked to address the crises in Iraq and Syria, is set to end in 2021. Also expiring this year is the Canadian Armed Forces mission to Iraq, Operation IMPACT, which supports NATO in working towards keeping Iraq stable and secure.

In Afghanistan, ongoing peace talks have stalled, and former Canadian ambassador Chris Alexander has warned that over a decade of Canadian efforts to stabilize the country could be lost if Canada ceases to actively support the discussions. In November 2020, Canada pledged $270 million over the next three years in developmental assistance to Afghanistan in order to build its self-reliance.

Facing multiple urgent challenges pulling Canada in different directions, 2021 may turn out to be one of the more difficult years for a cohesive Canadian foreign policy. If able to successfully address the pandemic and a rocky presidential transition in the US, Canada will find its relationship with China, its Middle East strategy, addressing climate change and securing its Arctic as the next critical items on its foreign policy to-do list.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor