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Breaking the Stalemate in Foreign Policy

By Jonathan Paquin

Now that we are in election mode, many foreign policy experts have begun to criticize federal political parties and their leaders for not devoting enough attention to foreign policy issues affecting Canada’s economy and security. Such criticism is not unfair. Canada is currently facing fast-paced international changes, the likes of which have not been observed in a long time. We are witnessing the emergence of a polycentric world, the return to hard power politics – notably in Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea – as well as multiple attacks by authoritarian regimes to a liberal international order which has brought stability and growth to Canada for over 70 years.

Over the last few years, many of these changes have come at Canada’s expense. It found itself in an intense diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia over human rights issues, while none of its closest allies came to its defence. Canada also had a taste of China’s medicine when Beijing used arbitrary detentions of two Canadian citizens as bargaining chips for the liberation of Huawei’s chief financial officer. But it is perhaps the behaviour of our closest ally, the United States, that gave us the best sense of the difficulties ahead: protectionist economic policies and rampant populism led observers to conclude that Canada is more alone than ever on the world stage. And while Canada could possibly have done more at the UN to address these multiple challenges, UN members rejected its bid for a seat on the Security Council for the second time in ten years.   

With so many challenges facing Canada, tough questions of public interest deserve to be debated during this federal election. For example, should we lecture and criticize authoritarian regimes in the name of fundamental political values but at the expense of our economic and diplomatic relations? Should we bow to Beijing’s bullying tactics to protect our citizens and help our businesses? Can and should we fight populism in the West? What is our strategy if Trumpism is back in the White House in 2025? Why have our UN Security Council bids failed? And, more importantly, why do we want a UN seat? Should we stay the course with liberal internationalism no matter what, or should we give more thought to Realpolitik when necessary? One thing is certain: the time has come for a substantive discussion on these issues, so that we may better navigate the turbulent waters of 21st-century international politics.

The Stalemate

Despite these monumental shifts, the conventional wisdom remains that Canadians are not interested much in foreign policy and, therefore, that it rarely plays a significant role in federal elections. As a result, from campaign to campaign, our leaders keep repeating that Canada “works with others in international institutions” and is a “good international citizen”. They often recall the glorious moments of our foreign policy by emphasizing the right key words: Suez, peacekeeping, landmines, internationalism. But from one election to the next, our leaders seem unable to articulate a coherent vision for the future. The fact that Canada has not issued a foreign policy white paper in a record 16 years – and that this does not appear to bother our leaders – is telling. This reflects the stalemate in which Canada finds itself. Without a clear vision, leaders make few proposals and debate few international issues. Media coverage reflects this reality, thus failing to stimulate further discussion. For their part, Canadians are led to debate other issues, far removed from international realities. But why is this so?

Losing Its Bearings

Canada gradually lost its bearings on the international scene a while ago. First, the war on terrorism waged by the US and its allies in the aftermath of 9/11 diverted the course of our foreign policy overnight. Thereafter, the emergence of a polycentric world, gridlock in international institutions and the erosion of the liberal international order contributed to our disorientation. The Harper government did attempt to provide Canada with a new foreign policy narrative that was more warlike and Manichean. But this Conservative effort was not well received by Canadians because it departed from their self-image as a peacekeeping and multilateral middle power.

As such, while the political class continues to sell Canadians the same narrative about our glorious past, there remains a wide gap between reality and fiction. If we define a middle power as a state working to maintain the stability of the international system through peacekeeping, mediation, conflict resolution, development aid and multilateral diplomacy, then Canada no longer qualifies as one. With respect to peacekeeping, Canada disengaged from UN missions 30 years ago and now ranks 72nd in UN troop contribution. And even if Canada chose anew to become a peacekeeping champion, what kind of peace could it keep that could mitigate great power competition and protect our international institutions?

Canada is no longer a “go-between” state as it used to be back when Lester Pearson chaired a UN special committee on Palestine, General McNaughton mediated the conflict over Kashmir and Paul Martin, Sr. pursued de-escalation in Cyprus. Canada is simply no longer a country to whom conflicting parties turn naturally. Moreover, considering that Canada has prioritized its continental and Atlantic commitments over serious engagement in the Pacific, it does not have the weight or the legitimacy to act as a go-between that could defuse the current US-China tensions and thus reshape world order. Canada’s official development assistance (ODA) is stagnant at 0.26% of GDP, far from the 0.7% UN aid spending target. In this context, Canada could hardly aspire to play a significant role in counterbalancing the influence of China and other undemocratic regimes in Africa, Asia or Latin America, even if it coordinated its ODA programs with like-minded democratic allies.

In this context, is it any wonder that Canada failed twice to win a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council? The good thing about our June 2020 defeat at the UN is that it goes beyond partisanship. Both the Harper Conservatives and Trudeau Liberals failed in their attempts for a seat, which suggests that the problem is actually much deeper: we have lost our bearings.

Breaking the Stalemate?

Admitting that there is a problem is the first step towards fixing it. In the best interests of Canada, political leaders must commit to debating today’s international issues and recognize that Canada would benefit from re-evaluating its priorities and national strategy to render them fit for 21st-century world politics. More than ever, Canada needs a prime minister who acts as a statesman and who is willing to think about foreign policy with a long-term mentality, even if it means short-term political losses.   

Some organizations, such as the Canadian International Council with its Foreign Policy By Canadians initiative, are trying to stimulate a bottom-up debate to generate foreign policy reforms. While such initiatives are to be welcomed and encouraged, we must also be aware of their limitations. Without a serious awareness of the problem on the part of our political leadership, Canada’s global position will remain at an impasse at great expense to Canada’s long-term interests, leaving it constantly in reactive mode to international events. In this election campaign, it is imperative that federal party leaders advance concrete proposals and draw attention to international issues in order to right the ship.

Dr. Jonathan Paquin (@PaquinJonathan) is professor of political science at Université Laval and research leader for the Great Powers project at the Network for Strategic Analysis, an initiative funded by the Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) programme of the Department of National Defence of Canada.

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