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HomeCanada’s Role on the Global StageStrategic Questions Facing Canada Post-Pandemic: An Interview With Irvin Studin

Strategic Questions Facing Canada Post-Pandemic: An Interview With Irvin Studin

Image credit: Irvin Studin

Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) interviewed Irvin Studin – President of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, Chair of the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic), and Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief Magazine – to tackle strategic questions Canada faces in the post-pandemic world. This interview is part of a series of analyses and interviews that IPD is publishing during the Canadian federal election campaign.

Here is an overview of what the interview will cover:

  • Canada’s foreign policy challenges
  • Implications of a changing international order for Canada
  • Canada-US relations
  • Canada-China relations
  • Arctic affairs
  • Intersection of Canadian domestic and foreign policy interests
  • Canada’s security and grand strategy

What would you say are the biggest foreign policy challenges facing Canada today?

Our biggest challenge is to survive and exit our current position – legal, political and psychological – as a vassal state to an admirable country and neighbour that is, on all the evidence, declining in its importance in the world and on which we cannot fully rely for protection or to advance many of our basic interests. All of this occurs in the context of increasingly wicked international circumstances for our country – a basic de-stitching of global arrangements during the pandemic, new and difficult borders and border relationships, and an enemy-to-ally ratio that, in demographic terms, is 2-to-1 in our disfavour.

Canada can, by definition, have no foreign policy as a vassal state. And that is where we are today. No leader of international importance visits our country these days because there is nothing to discuss. We have outsourced all decision-making in law, fact and reputation to a foreign capital. So our job – a huge one – is to reinstate a Canada that thinks for itself, underpinned by all the strategy, resources and leadership required by the times.

Are the changes affecting the international order today more profound than those of previous eras? If so, what implications does this bring for Canada?

The pandemic ushered in the end of the post-Cold War period, which had been very kind to Canada, strategically speaking. The present and near-term future will be far less kind, requiring us to think and play at a far higher level if we’re to survive and succeed. No one owes us survival as a country.

The post-pandemic era marks the real start of the Asian century, with China by far the central player in both strategic and economic terms. This Asian century comes on the heels of the aforementioned de-stitching of the post-Cold War globalization that was underwritten by American power, American capital, American talent and, to some extent, American standards.

And yet, as I have argued for the last decade-plus, China is effectively our neighbour – closer to Canada than to Australia, the latter of which typically fancies itself “in Asia”. This means that our current national mental map, which is mostly preoccupied with America, is too primitive for our complex realities. We need to incorporate China to our west and Russia to our immediate north (across the melting Arctic). Europe, in all its diversity, is to our east. The result is an “ACRE” (America-China-Russia-Europe) mental map that has four vectors and, on the math, 15 combinations of pressure and pull across our country’s huge geography and information space. Post-pandemic, unless we play at the right level, we could quickly get crushed or disintegrated by these forces.

How will Canada-US relations evolve in this changing global context? Is closer coordination between Ottawa and Washington needed, or rather should Canada be more cautious about the risks of overdependence on its southern neighbour?

We have two broad options as a country. Either we double down on the vassal position with respect to Washington, which is clearly the present and easier course of affairs, or we “de-vassalize” and “think for ourselves”. This means that Canada’s international affairs cannot reduce to a simple “theory of the border”. After all, that border is still largely closed today.

Of course, thinking for ourselves is hard work and takes time. And it is not certain that we can succeed. But it is, by some margin, the surest way for Canada to ensure its post-pandemic survival and success on its own terms in the context of its 4-point, 15-combination strategic game. It is also, in my submission, the more dignified course, as I find the idea of being vassalized to an unimpressive American decision-making class ever-embarrassing, if not insufferable. 

Now, if we double down on the vassal position, consciously or unconsciously, we are making a strategic bet that America will a) protect us in a pinch (again, within our 15-combination game); and b) assure or amplify our other basic national interests. Perhaps it will, perhaps it won’t. Who knows? If we get the bet wrong, we die: Canada does not survive this century. If we get it right, we continue to muddle through, strategically, as a vassal state, where foreign policy is largely tactical or ornamental, but never serious.

Question: What if, given Biden’s present woes, there is to be a Trump 2.0 presidency? Not only another Trump-like administration would not necessarily defend us in a pinch, but could well be predatory on Canada – especially because of our happy vassalization. The easy vaccine access we enjoyed during the pandemic would, in future, come with great conditions and pressure, as would border openings and overall trade relations. Canada’s inability to protect its borders could also create pretexts for American annexation pressures – once thought extinct, but today very much du jour. For example, we tend to think of Russia as our major northern border pressure, but we neglect to understand that it is America that could well run our own Arctic and North on their terms and in their own interests if we do not get our act together – at the right level and at scale.

Canada-China relations have soured rapidly over the past 2-3 years. Can this tendency be reversed? Should it be? What would be required for a course correction in the bilateral relationship?

Given our wicked strategic game, our goal must be to have equal-to-equal, peaceable relations with China. There is nothing foreordained in the current Canada-China disputes. In fact, I see no reason why we can’t have mature, largely friendly relations with China in the coming decades.

Let’s start with a few basics. China is geographically very close to Canada (Whitehorse and Inuvik are closer to Beijing than is Sydney, Australia), but Canada does not really “know” today’s China at all. Why? Because at the very moment of Confederation in the late 19th century, China had just suffered defeat in the second of the Opium Wars. It took China almost a century and a half to recover from that original destabilization, through occupation, civil wars, two World Wars (the second particularly brutal for China), other smaller wars and, finally, terrible internal political turmoil.

That century and a half coincided almost exactly with the modern political life of Canada – meaning that we Canadians do not know what it means to have a stable, sophisticated, prosperous China at the centre of the world and on our doorstep. The Chinese, however, have studied us very carefully over the last several decades – multiplying delegations to our country to learn, study and exchange. We have not reciprocated at all – to our great detriment. No Canadian delegations travel to China – or indeed any number of non-like-minded countries around the world – to learn and contrast, and to bring lessons home. Our incuriosity works, instead, to confine our country to increasingly backward conclusions about our progress – in education, business, public administration, infrastructure, culture and overall national achievement.

The near-term conflict with China is largely of American genesis. While Russia was, in the political and public discourse, enemy number one for Canada after the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, President Trump, newly elected in late 2016, decided that China was America’s principal adversary. We pivoted, largely unconsciously, with the U.S., particularly in the information (social media) space. 

The Meng Wanzhou dispute with China followed directly on Canada’s agreement in the USMCA, for all practical intents and purposes, never to have full-on economic relations with China without the express say-so of Washington. We put this into law – one of the major strategic mistakes in modern Canadian history. I still cannot believe it. 

This was seen by Beijing as a full, formal vassalization of Canada and as a major hostile act that presaged the Meng arrest – an arrest happily made by a vassalized power at the request of the superior state (which had declared China enemy number one). The two Canadian Michaels were, to our understanding, arrested in direct retaliation for the Meng arrest and attempted extradition. And the very public attempts by Ottawa – operating not from a 4-point mental map, but instead a simplistic one-point mental map – to get Washington to do our bidding to release the two Michaels only served to confirm, in international minds, the conclusion that Canada is indeed a vassal state.

Righting our relations with China requires tactical and strategic moves by Canada. All of this must take place in the context of our 4-point ACRE game. In the short term, the only way to retrieve the two Michaels is that which should have been done two years ago – to wit, a direct exchange of Meng for the two Michaels. This is perfectly legal and constitutional in Canada, and all the players understand this perfectly well.

However, in order not to “freeze” the relationship at only a prisoner exchange, and not reduce the relationship – optically and substantively – between two big countries to a single transaction, the Meng-Michaels exchange must be couched in a very big, long-term bilateral policy agenda between Ottawa and Beijing. This policy agenda can launch us out of the present dead-end into a future in which two major countries and neighbours – Canada and China – collaborate on infrastructure, people-to-people exchange, business relations, science, academic relations and everything else under the sun. That’s how big countries and big relationships work.

We will surely argue with Beijing regularly on a host of matters, from human rights to public health. But that is par for the course, as it will be with our other neighbours, more familiar to us or not. 

Besides the US and China, what is Canada’s most important relationship this century?

Russia, obviously. Like China, Russia is now an immediate neighbour to Canada – right across the fast-melting Arctic. If Canada and Russia are the two Arctic giants of this century, we have every interest in having largely productive, peaceful relations with Russia across a broad sweep of policy areas.

Is Canada doing enough to protect its security and sovereignty in the Arctic? In which areas is it most crucial for Canada to invest when it comes to Arctic affairs (diplomatic, military, etc.)?

I don’t like to call it Arctic “sovereignty”. That’s a defensive term used by southern Canadians for southern consumption, working from an erroneous mental map of our country, and resulting in no action of consequence.

The bottom line is that Canada does not have adequate knowledge, assets and capabilities to secure its interests in the coming decades in the context of an Arctic that is opening up through the melting of the sea-ice and permafrost and that is juxtaposed with huge neighbours with very serious capabilities and interests.

I prefer a far more “offensive” Arctic posture for our country – one that sees the Arctic and our vast North (40% of our country’s territory, and as big as the entire European Union, in territorial terms) – as both the key “exit strategy”, economically and psychologically, from our pandemic catastrophe and as the “centre of the world” in our future economic, transportation, environmental and strategic relations. This would require millions more Canadians in the North and Arctic in the coming decades, whereas our population across our huge three territories is today equivalent to that of Ajax, Ontario. 

On this vision of things, the Canadian Arctic no longer becomes marginal or something to be “fortified” or “moated” in defence against imminent attack, but instead the central hub of trade and exchange – by air, sea and road – between Canada and a proximate market of over 2 billion people across three continents and several major trading blocs – more than six times larger than the continental U.S. market alone, but including it as well. This vision of things also activates Western Canada to become far more central, demographically, economically and psychologically, in Canadian affairs.

How do domestic and foreign policy intersect as it relates to Canada’s core strategic interests?

Intimately. In fact, this is one of the great weaknesses in most Canadian foreign policy thinking. We imagine the two spheres to be separate, with foreign specialists looking askance at domestic policy and domestic policy specialists being largely illiterate on matters international.

Real national strategy recognizes that Canada’s international punch is a function of our internal capabilities – just as a boxer punches not with the fingers but rather as a function of his/her torso and overall physical constitution. This, by the way, is very different from the naïve slogan that is occasionally fashionable in Ottawa – “good foreign policy is good domestic policy.”

We cannot have a serious foreign policy if we deliver our punch only through rhetoric or Twitter. This is understood by other countries who surely ask themselves: What capabilities does Canada have behind or beyond the Twitter exclamation? If there is nothing, we are to be ignored.

Canada exits the pandemic with as many as seven national crises of system – a public health crisis, an economic crisis, an education crisis, a national unity crisis, an institutional crisis, and a crisis of historic international weakness. We also have a growing social crisis in the country involving a difficult renegotiation of the norms according to which we agree to live together across our great land.

We need to resolve these crises in parallel and concurrently, recognizing that our international weakness cannot be reversed in the context of great domestic weakness (although domestic strength, absent strategy and thinking, is only a necessary but insufficient condition for international success). The most devastating of these multiple systems crises for our country and its ability to compete internationally in the post-pandemic world is the massive education crisis. A country with very large numbers of uneducated or undereducated citizens will have difficulty mobilizing the talent to become a term-setter among the nations. But that is where we find ourselves at present, barring great political correction.

Does Canada need a “grand strategy” to survive this century’s novel pressures? Or is a more ad hoc approach more likely to safeguard Canada’s security and independence?

For our Canadian purposes, I don’t like the conventional understanding of “grand strategy” as proffered by American military colleges. That understanding suggests that Canada should choose a “goal” or “interest” or “end” to pursue, and that we should prepare or build up national capabilities to defend or support that end.

I don’t think that approach will get us anywhere in Canada, given our vassalized condition – that is, the Americans typically set our ends, whether we realize it or not.

My preference is to privilege the means before determining the ends. Let us invest, conscientiously and at great scale, in demographic assets; diplomatic, military, intelligence and analytical assets; linguistic assets (I have long argued for a proper national languages strategy in Canada); and economic and infrastructural assets over the coming decade and a half, and then we will come to what I believe is a more appropriate determination of what the “ends” or “goals” of a large, major country ought to be.

This is very much the spirit of my 100 million argument a dozen years ago – that is, that a country at 38 million (as today) cannot possibly know how a country at 100 million thinks and behaves. We will know en route and as we get there. But it will be a higher level and ambition of national thinking.  

Are the Canadian political and intellectual elite — and Canadians more generally — capable of grand strategic thinking? If not, what needs to change?

Not at present. Most of our political, intellectual, economic and strategic elites are deeply vassalized. How can it be otherwise? We live in a beautiful country – one of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated federal democracies – that has very seldom had to “fight for its life” over the course of a century and a half. We were born as a colony and the colonial instinct has not been shed definitively.

Whether we can shed it now, post-pandemic, when faced with massive crises and pressures, will be a matter of historical interest. I’m certainly cheering for our team.

I would like, ten years from now, for us to have a properly Canadian “school” of strategy – intellectually speaking, with its own vocabulary, concepts and development systems across a far larger and energetic population. That school, like the Canadian hockey player, should never subordinate itself to the schools of other leading countries – many of them our neighbours. It will, instead, help produce a term-setting strategic class, who will help mould a term-setting Canada that thinks for itself in a world that owes us nothing, but in which Canada can be a major force in the human condition.

Irvin Studin is President of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, Chair of the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic), and Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief Magazine. His forthcoming book is entitled “Canada Must Think for Itself – Ten Theses for our Country’s Survival and Success This Century”.

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