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Is Canada Still a Middle Power?

Image credit: Jason Hafso

By Zachary Paikin

What are Canada’s interests in a shifting international order? This question presents two layers of difficulty.

First, it requires that Canada think systematically and strategically about the scope of its core interests on the world stage, how to prioritize those goals, and how to achieve them. A laundry list of varied, disconnected wants is insufficient. In other words, what is needed is not just new policy but rather an overarching policy paradigm. For a country whose political class has grown more accustomed to speaking about values than interests, this may prove especially challenging.

Second, it necessitates a firm grasp of the features of the emerging international order (or disorder). These, however, are not yet entirely apparent. As the University of Ottawa’s Roland Paris has argued, today’s world is “returning to normal” compared to the hyper-liberalism and unipolarity of the 1990s, but also boasts a distribution of liberal democracies that – despite challenges – remains widespread by historical standards.

Given this level of uncertainty and complexity, the most prudent course of action would intuitively be to maximize the array of one’s policy options. Unfortunately, Canada is entering this period of global transition with its relations with several leading global powers in tatters. Ottawa has also lost two consecutive bids – one decade apart – for a seat on the UN Security Council under governments of different stripes. Under these circumstances, it is unclear whether Canada can play a substantive role in shaping the rules and parameters of the fledgling order, or whether it will be forced to define its interests more narrowly and pursue more limited goals. The time has come for Canada to decide definitively what sort of power it wants to be.

A frequent criticism leveled since the turn of the millennium is that Canadian foreign policy has become too “values-centric” and overly focused on “megaphone diplomacy”. This could owe itself to Canada’s overdependence on the United States in a post-Cold War era that has featured continental free trade and an ever-expanding “liberal international order”. Moreover, the decline of national unity debates since the passage of the Clarity Act may have led to intellectual complacency concerning the nature of the Canadian project and its role in the world. However, Canada now faces a challenge of an entirely different order: a shifting global balance of power. Unlike Canada-U.S. relations or domestic debates, this is a structural challenge whose dynamics lie outside of Canada’s control.

As the Balsillie School’s Ann Fitz-Gerald argued last week during an event hosted by IPD, Ottawa’s core interest during the Cold War lay in preventing a clash between the U.S. and the USSR. Given that Canada could not directly guarantee this due its limited power, it focused instead on attempting to de-escalate tensions elsewhere, such as through peacekeeping. For decades, multilateralism provided Canada with an avenue through which to shape global order. However, the world’s multilateral fabric is now growing increasingly fragmented and decentred, requiring more flexible coalitions between states to remain robust. The scope for Canadian impact on global affairs has therefore potentially narrowed, even as the question of where Canada should precisely focus its efforts is becoming more complex.

Intellectual deliberations within Canada had a global impact as recently as two decades ago, including the birth of the International Criminal Court and the development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Yet the international system has undergone a profound transformation in the intervening years. The 2003 Iraq war and 2011 NATO intervention in Libya cast doubt on the ability of the hegemonic West to exercise restraint and play by international rules. Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crisis both emboldened China and fostered distrust in public institutions in Western societies. As the University of Calgary’s Jean-Christophe Boucher noted during IPD’s recent panel discussion, a simple return to the internationalism of the past is no longer possible, but nor is the status quo in Canadian foreign policy tenable.

These circumstances appear to demand a fundamental re-evaluation of Canada’s foreign policy. Yet resistance to this idea strangely persists in Ottawa, despite no formal foreign policy review having been conducted since 2005. In fact, despite vocal disagreements between the Liberal and Conservative parties on issues such as the United Nations and China, there has been a notable consistency in Canadian foreign policy this millennium regardless of which party is in power.

At our event, the Canadian International Council’s Chris Kilford stressed that both Liberal and Tory governments in recent decades have presided over low levels of defence spending, similar framings of Canada’s defence outlook, and a general shift away from peacekeeping toward greater emphasis on NATO. Similarly, IPD advisory board member Jocelyn Coulon asserted that the Trudeau government has attempted to re-embrace internationalism without verily departing from Stephen Harper’s policies. Nor has it helped that Canada’s two most recent prime ministers possessed no experience in government and the traditional levers of Canadian statecraft before earning the top job. Sharp differences in partisan rhetoric, paired with relative consistency in policy outcomes, together present the worst of both worlds: a failure to project an image of reliability to other countries and a failure to adapt to novel international circumstances.

The reality is that the core pillars that guided Canadian foreign policy throughout the second half of the 20th century are no longer present in today’s world. A special relationship with Washington and reliable access to the U.S. market can no longer be taken for granted. Multilateralism is, if not in crisis, then at least in a period of profound transition. And not only will Atlanticism lose its relative importance as the global distribution of power shifts eastward, it has also become an uncertain means of constraining American unilateralism in an era that features an increasingly zero-sum great power rivalry.

Canada will need to face up to this new world with intellectual clarity. It must soberly assess the extent to which developments in distant yet adjacent geographic theatres, such as Europe and Asia, genuinely affect its national security and prosperity. If it determines that the impact of such developments is minimal in relative terms, then Canada should abandon its outdated rhetoric of being a “leading middle power” that “punches above its weight” and content itself with the security provided by vassal status. Ottawa could retain an independent trade policy but would cease its efforts to conduct an independent foreign policy, which in many ways now differs from U.S. foreign policy more symbolically than substantively. Canada would continue to police the North American continent to the minimal extent necessary to ensure its formal independence from a southern neighbour that views continental defence and its national security as synonymous. Such a strategy would align well with a post-hegemonic world in which local actors are increasingly assuming responsibility for managing their own regional affairs.

Alternatively, if Canada’s leadership decides that its security interests do not stop at the water’s edge, then it must develop a bipartisan, long-term strategy that lays out which national resources will be developed or deployed in the name of pursuing those interests. This must be accompanied by a conceptual framework that explains how Canada’s varied interests across different regional theatres can be coalesced into a coherent national strategic posture.

Although technically a member of the G7, it is difficult to argue that Canada is as geopolitically prominent a country as France, Germany or Japan in today’s world. In part due to its underinvestment in Asia in a decade where the Sino-American rivalry will take centre stage, it may already be too late for Canada to play a substantive role in shaping global order over the medium term. But as a country with a growing population and a proud history of international engagement, Canada cannot avoid asking itself what kind of international actor it wants to be as this century unfolds. Does it genuinely want to – or even need to – work hard to regain middle power status at a time when global power is becoming increasingly diffuse, or can it be content with the real-world and psychological consequences of possessing more limited ambitions?

Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).


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