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HomeBlogBeyond Meng and the Two Michaels: Arresting Canada’s International Decline

Beyond Meng and the Two Michaels: Arresting Canada’s International Decline

By Zachary Paikin

The recent return of the two Michaels has naturally led to speculation about the future of Canada-China relations. Some view the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as an opportunity to reset Ottawa’s relationship with Beijing, while others argue for a tougher approach toward China.

Yet while Canada undoubtedly requires a more detailed and coherent China strategy, the Meng affair was ultimately a manifestation of the intensifying competition between China and the United States. Canada needs more than a strategy for contending with a rising China: it needs a clearer strategic posture to guide it through a deepening and accelerating great power rivalry.

To admit that Sino-American competition has exerted pressure on Canada is not to argue in favour of a policy of equidistance between Beijing and Washington. As Kim Richard Nossal of Queen’s University rightly noted during a panel discussion that IPD hosted earlier this month, Canada’s primary interest will always be to maintain good relations with the US. But as Canadian Senator Yuen Pau Woo asserted during the same panel, this does not imply that Ottawa should share the assessment, advanced most recently by Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador to Canada, that China represents an “existential threat”.

Prioritizing good relations with Washington and defending US global primacy at all costs are not the same thing – a fact that appears to be understood in Ottawa. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau recently described Canada’s approach towards China as being rooted in a balance between four Cs: “coexist”, “compete”, “cooperate” and “challenge”. While this is far from a fully developed strategy, the placement of coexistence at the front of the list contrasts with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tougher assertion that Washington’s relationship with Beijing will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be”.

The release of the two Michaels comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and its launching of the AUKUS alliance over France’s objections. While many Canadians find themselves lamenting their country’s exclusion from AUKUS, some of Washington’s European partners see both moves as pointing to an increasingly unilateralist US foreign policy, irrespective of who sits in the White House. In short, the success of Canadian foreign policy should not be measured by whether Canada is invited to join US-led initiatives.

Canada’s interests are distinct from those of its southern neighbour. While Ottawa may have an interest in balancing against the security implications of China’s growing power, this does not equate to supporting a strategy of containment. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international order has become global in scope, no longer divided into separate blocs as during the Cold War. If Canada is sincere in its oft-mentioned desire to strengthen a rules-based international order, then such an order cannot be premised on the exclusion of one of the world’s most powerful states.

Competition between the US and China will likely be the dominant trend of the 2020s and possibly beyond. As such, one of the core imperatives of Canadian foreign policy will concern how to navigate this rivalry in a fashion that affords Canada, at the very least, a modicum of maneuverability. This touches on whether Canada can survive the decades to come as an independent international actor – perhaps an even more critical concern than the security implications of an increasingly assertive China.

Yet Canada remains extremely underinvested in the Asia-Pacific region, with its security posture in recent decades having centred heavily on Atlanticism and continentalism. Perhaps this allows Ottawa to persuade Washington that its utility as an ally lies in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, affording it the opportunity to pursue a distinct approach toward Asian affairs from that of the United States, centred on soft power and trade. That said, with so few resources allocated toward Asia, Canada is unlikely to play a meaningful role in shaping the rules governing the Pacific theatre and, in turn, the context informing the Sino-American contest.

The likely result, Prof. Nossal predicts, is a Canadian posture rooted largely in North American “isolationism” for the remainder of this decade. This would continue the longstanding trend of decline in Canada’s international profile and psychological investment in global affairs. Canada’s peacekeeping budget has been declining since the 1990s. It has not conducted a foreign policy review since 2005, despite profound changes in the structure of the international order. It has not served on the UN Security Council since 2000 and, following its second consecutive failed bid, has made no plans to vie for a seat for the foreseeable future.

This paints a bleak picture for the future of Canadian foreign policy: negligible influence in the world’s central geo-strategic theatre, a waning presence in multilateral institutions, and an increasingly one-sided and unpredictable relationship with the US. Nor can Canada count on a collective “West” to serve as a power multiplier: Euro-American divisions over AUKUS and Franco-Turkish tensions in the Mediterranean cast serious doubt on the potential for a sustained, united allied posture toward Russia and China.

Perhaps Canadian decisionmakers have been caught off-guard by the speed of global change: the rise of Asian economies has rapidly – and perhaps unexpectedly – transitioned to a geopolitical contest centred on the Pacific. While many predicted a Pacific century, not everyone anticipated a Pacific decade as soon as the 2020s. Naturally, there is disappointment that China has deviated from the path of greater economic and political openness in recent years. But as it turns out, Asians are just as interested in setting the terms of global order as they are in representing an economic opportunity for Westerners.

However, this should not distract Ottawa from making the rational calculation that its interests are best served by a de-escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing. Donald Trump’s departure from the White House does not change the fact that Canada continues to face strategic pressures from both China and the US. What to do about an increasingly populist neighbouring power is at least as important a question for Canadian security over the long term as how to contend with a rising authoritarian state situated all the way across the world’s largest ocean.

During the Cold War, Canada compensated for its lack of hard power through other commitments aimed at stabilizing a fractured order, such as international peacekeeping. With few resources devoted to Pacific-theatre geopolitics today, Canada’s contribution must once again be advanced in other domains, including technology, trade and multilateral institutions. In some cases, this will require careful and managed decoupling. In others, it calls for collective efforts to prevent the bifurcation or hollowing out of the international order. But in all cases, it will necessitate the development of a theory of international order unique to Canada’s interests.

Dr. Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is a non-resident research fellow at 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