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After the Election: Three Options for Canada’s Foreign Policy

By Zachary Paikin

As is usually the case in Canadian federal elections, foreign policy issues have not figured prominently on the hustings. While Afghanistan and the two Michaels were briefly discussed during the campaign’s sole English-language debate, these issues concern the safety and wellbeing of Canadian citizens caught in the line of fire. Virtually no attention has been paid to Canada’s broader interests and role in the world, despite the profound shifts in the international order that have occurred since the Trudeau government first took office in 2015.

Recent years have witnessed the gradual erosion of the international order that has prevailed for the bulk of the post-Cold War era – one rooted in hyper-globalization, American unipolarity, and the unrivaled pre-eminence of liberal values and prescriptions. A shift of such fundamental proportions demands structured and strategic thinking from Canada’s next government, rather than an ad hoc and reactive approach.

In the early 1970s, Pierre Trudeau’s secretary of state for external affairs – as the minister of foreign affairs was then called – Mitchell Sharp posited three options for Canada’s future: maintain an ambiguous status quo, firmly anchor Canada within the American orbit, or foster the foundations of a more independent posture on the world stage. These three choices still largely apply today. However, none of them is cost-free. Overdependence on the US – and efforts to wean oneself off such overdependence – comes with both benefits and risks which must be weighed against one another. 

Under the status quo, Canada has attempted to maintain the appearance of an independent foreign policy, even as the world largely perceives it to be a mere extension of American power. This approach has cost Canada a seat at the UN Security Council in two consecutive bids and has resulted in a sharp deterioration of relations with Beijing, despite the election of a federal government sympathetic to the notion of deeper ties with China.

Canada-Russia relations, for their part, have become virtually non-existent: beyond the desire to preserve cooperation in the Arctic, there is almost no effort as would befit independent countries to identify a wide-ranging bilateral policy agenda. And the future of Canada-US relations has become uncertain due to growing trade and energy disputes, mounting populism and political polarization south of the border, and Washington’s unilateralist disposition in the nascent great power competition which does not always consider the interests of American allies.

In short, Canada’s relations with the world’s three most powerful countries now range from troubled to threatening. This is not a durable state of affairs. The status quo posture in Canadian foreign policy is, quite frankly, not a viable long-term option.

Option #2, in an era of deepening rivalry and regional blocs, is to become a vassal of the United States in the realm of foreign and security policy. While this may not be the preferred option of many Canadians, it nonetheless represents a coherent strategy that can offer Canada certain benefits. Moreover, Canada need not maintain this posture in perpetuity. Such an arrangement would offer Canada the security to focus its limited resources on building up the sources of its national power – including through sustained population growth – which would eventually allow Ottawa the leeway to revise this strategy in the distant future as international conditions change.

In the meantime, under this option, Canada would abandon any pretense of having an independent foreign policy. Yet in exchange for its full acquiescence to American geopolitical goals, Canada would rigorously defend the independence of its trade policy – highlighting the unique structure and requirements of the Canadian economy but always working to find continental synergies that could strengthen the relative global power of the North American geo-economic bloc. As such, although Canada would aggressively pursue deeper economic integration with the US, it would also never agree to a clause such as the one inserted into the USMCA agreement restricting Ottawa’s ability to sign a free trade deal with Beijing.

However, option #2 also means that Canada would kiss goodbye its long-held notion of being a “middle power”, likely for the next several decades. Ottawa could selectively contribute to international development, the fight against climate change, and other aspects of global problem-solving. It could also spend the next several decades building up the quality and size of the Canadian diplomatic service. But it would not waste time and resources mounting bids for a seat on UN Security Council. Canada would not attempt to advance – tangibly or even symbolically – a vision of international order and security that differs from that of the superpower next door.

Option #3 requires a different trade-off. To assuage concerns that a more independent and proactive Canada might be a liability to the US, Ottawa may have to spend significant sums demonstrating its commitment to the collective defence of North America. But this added focus on deterring threats to continental security would be accompanied by much deeper, wide-ranging and robust diplomacy with Russia and China, rooted in mutual respect and the pursuit of common ground where possible. Ottawa would identify its own interests in its relations with Beijing and Moscow and not align fully with any emerging geopolitical or geo-economic bloc, even if some countries will remain Canada’s primary partners or allies.

Canada would not view China as a threat to the international order, but rather as a key interlocutor whose long-term contribution to multilateralism remains indispensable to resolving key global challenges. While sharp values-based criticism of China would persist, Canada’s government would work explicitly to disentangle political disputes from the pursuit of deeper economic ties and would commit to investing in the development of an inclusive security architecture for the Asia-Pacific region.

Ottawa would also acknowledge that its interests in the Eastern Hemisphere do not always align with Washington’s. Canada would make clear that its foreign policy does not aim to uphold existing geopolitical fault lines nor preserve US global primacy for its own sake, but rather foster greater stability across the Eurasian landmass in concert with a diverse range of partners. And while the second option would merely retain an independent Canadian trade policy, the third option would also include a deliberate and forceful push to diversify Canada’s trade partners.

The second option does not necessarily provide a guaranteed solution to the problem of growing economic protectionism in the United States. It will also challenge the Canadian elite psychologically, forcing it to confront its inferiority complex vis-à-vis the US and revisit longstanding assumptions about Canada’s role in the world. The third option, for its part, would not eliminate Ottawa’s need to address continually the challenge posed by Washington’s increasingly unilateralist foreign policy. Even if it remains Canada’s most important international partner, the task of eliminating Ottawa’s relationship with Washington as the intellectual starting point for Canada’s engagement with the wider world would be both psychological and technical. 

Both options are designed to navigate a difficult international terrain – one in which not every problem will have a solution. But if Canada wishes to emerge from this lengthy period of global turbulence as an influential rather than a peripheral player, it needs to have a clear-eyed discussion about what its core national interests are and where resources should be allocated in their pursuit.

Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a Nonresident Research Fellow with IPD 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