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Canada and the Great Power Triangle in the 2020s

Image credit: The White House

By Zachary Paikin

As U.S. President Joe Biden celebrates 100 days in office, it has become possible to discern preliminary patterns in his administration’s foreign policy. These, in turn, can inform how we should think about Canada’s evolving place in a world framed by great power rivalries between Moscow, Beijing, and Washington.

At a CNN townhall event during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden famously labeled China a “serious competitor” while defining Russia more unambiguously as an “opponent”. Such characterizations conform with conventional analyses that cast China as the key beneficiary of the globalization and “the rules-based international order [that] have facilitated its rapid economic rise” that seeks equal influence and heightened status within the existing system, view Russia as a hostile outsider aiming “to overturn the current liberal order” that has left it marginalized, and believe America capable of managing disruptions to this order and maintaining its leadership role through its network of international alliances.  

When paired with the political climate resulting from the Russiagate debacle, it was safe to assume that a Democrat White House would adopt a more hawkish posture toward Moscow than that taken by the Trump administration. At the same time, in part due to the need for cooperating on issues such as climate change and global health, many experts predicted a mini-détente in U.S.-China relations at the outset of the new administration, even if the growing trend toward Sino-American confrontation would prove difficult to arrest over the course of Biden’s term in office.

More than three months after the inauguration, events have played out differently. Washington and Beijing have skipped any attempt at a reset, with a high-profile shouting match between American and Chinese representatives in Anchorage marking a new phase in the escalation of tensions between the two powers. The Biden administration has also retained the containment-centric “Indo-Pacific” nomenclature employed by its predecessor and has emphasized deepening the Quad strategic partnership that features the U.S. along with Australia, Japan, and India. While one could claim that the latter represents a change in tactic by the Biden administration away from American hegemony and unilateralism toward coalition-building, it nonetheless demonstrates the strength of the newly formed bipartisan anti-China consensus that now prevails in Washington.

In contrast, since Biden’s perhaps undiplomatic comment labeling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer”, U.S.-Russia relations have thawed a bit. The White House readout of a call between the two presidents last month noted Biden’s desire for a “stable and predictable relationship with Russia”. Shortly thereafter, when imposing a fresh round of sanctions against Russia, Biden was careful to stress the proportionate nature of the measures and called for a de-escalation of tensions between the two countries. Biden and Putin now appear set to hold a bilateral summit next month at the former’s initiative, although the shadow of Ukraine looms large over any talks.

Biden is the first American president in the post-Cold War era not to enter office in the context of an offer to reset, improve, or normalize the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, contends that a Biden-Putin summit would not mark the dawn of a new Russo-American détente, but rather merely a meeting between two “adversaries” or “unfriendly powers”. Still, these recent developments, when paired with the administration’s pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 9/11, demonstrate Biden’s commitment to prioritizing restraint in certain foreign policy theatres in order to devote more resources to competing with China.

Of course, the Euro-Atlantic security theatre remains laden with flashpoints which could further escalate tensions between NATO and Russia, particularly in Ukraine. But for the time being, it appears as if the dividing lines on the continent have calcified and a new modus vivendi has de facto been reached. Russia will not attack NATO countries, which the US has promised to defend, while Washington will not lend active military support to any country that it has not already brought under its security umbrella. 

Recognition of Russia’s great power status has effectively been restored, with Western countries now forced to consider Moscow’s perspective before acting on security-related matters. At the same time, while the U.S. has not dialed back its pursuit of global leadership, it has tempered its enthusiasm for the unconstrained expansion of the “liberal international order”. At least in this respect, while the European security order may remain fragile and fragmented, it is no longer characterized by uncertainty.

This context presents some favourable conditions for the development of an independent and substantive Canadian foreign policy posture. In fact, despite various instances of policy coordination with Washington, Ottawa’s overall approach to relations with Russia and China is the inverse of the new strategy being pursued by its southern neighbour. While the U.S. under Biden has accelerated its competition with China, the Trudeau government has trodden a careful line and attempted not to alienate Beijing excessively, for example by abstaining on a parliamentary vote to label the human rights abuses in Xinjiang as a genocide.

Meanwhile, Russo-Canadian relations remain largely frozen as the Atlanticist pillar of Canadian foreign policy continues to monopolize Canada’s presence in Europe. If current trends persist, with Atlanticism waning in importance as global power shifts East and the U.S.-Russia rivalry stabilizing from an “active pressure campaign” to a more sustainable dynamic of deterrence, then Canada might find itself with the opportunity to adopt a more cooperative and inclusive approach to security matters on the European continent.

In a recent article, former Munk School Director Janice Stein posits that Canada faces two ideal-type options for navigating the emerging great power rivalries: 1) to pursue economic security through deeper ties with Washington, but at the cost of being forced to follow the Biden administration’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Beijing; or 2) deepen trading relations with China and the rest of Asia in the name of preserving Canadian autonomy. While on paper a fully integrated North American market would seem like a welcome development, in the absence of an EU-type arrangement of sovereignty pooling and collective decision-making, such a move would inevitably do away with what little is left of Canada’s global influence.

One could argue that the values-based foreign policy discourse that would accompany closer alignment with Washington could give Ottawa the opportunity to focus on developing its soft power, compensating for its declining clout after back-to-back failed UN Security Council bids and strained bilateral relations with several powers. This reduced influence has already curtailed much of Canada’s ability to have a meaningful impact on the future of the international system over the coming decade in an autonomous fashion, leaving it with little to lose by positioning itself closer to the US.

That said, the next few decades will prove indispensable to Canada’s ambitions to enhance its international profile by way of demographic growth, with the global population set to begin leveling out after the midway point of the century. Such long-term thinking depends on a national strategy that weaves domestic and international policy into an intellectually consistent whole. In a rapidly shifting world, a proactive posture tailored to Canada’s unique imperatives is necessary to provide a consistent basis for the development of national policy. Forgoing the pursuit of an independent foreign policy to focus on challenges closer to home would prove entirely self-defeating, leading to yet another lost decade for Canada on the world stage.

Attempting to cherry-pick from both scenarios may leave Canada with the worst of both worlds, without the benefits of a reliable relationship with the United States and bereft of a national strategy. If Canada wants to become a player that is taken seriously on the world stage, a more decisive approach is in order. This requires a clear and detailed vision of what norms, institutions, and mechanisms Ottawa should foster to build a more stable international order complementary to Canada’s core interests. Reacting to crises as they emerge with moral grandstanding and self-righteousness coupled with sanctions and repeating platitudes about the rules-based character of the existing order will not suffice.

Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Nonresident Research Fellow at IPD and a Researcher in the Foreign Policy unit at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels.


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