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Canada Among Democracies

Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

By Bojan Ramadanovic and Srdjan Vucetic

Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly is about to take another stab at advancing one of Canada’s top foreign policy priorities, promoting democracy and human rights. The occasion will take place this week at US President Biden’s first Summit for Democracy, where the invited delegations from 110 countries – some more controversial than others – will talk about “defending democracy” and the need for allies to stick together and listen to each other.

It is doubtful that Biden’s summits – the second one will take place next year, in person – will achieve much more than talk. But the gathering does present us with an opportunity to take stock of Canadian foreign policy relative to other democracies. One way to do so is by analyzing United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) roll call voting data to measure “interest similarity.” International Relations specialists and other scholars have done so for decades, in turn developing ever-more sophisticated measures of shared interests and state preferences. In addition to observing broad patterns of agreement on UN resolutions, this scholarship has provided valuable new insights into everything from the emergence and dissolution of voting blocs to the practice of buying votes with foreign aid and other goods.

In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, we analyzed Canada’s voting behaviour in the world’s largest deliberative body “from Trudeau to Trudeau,” that is, from the second Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1980-1984) to the Liberal government of Pierre’s son, Justin, who came to power in 2015. We used two measures. One, in use since the 1960s, is simple dyadic similarity – two countries voting with either yes, no or abstain. The other, principal component analysis (or PCA) is new. As shown below, the latter technique allowed us to produce two-dimensional “voting maps” across successive UNGA sessions under study.

Our main findings are as follows. Canada’s overall voting record tends to align closely with that of Western European democracies. This holds true both for the “major powers” such as Germany, the UK and France – in that order of agreement – as well as for Canada’s European “middle power peers,” such as the Netherlands or Sweden. In the Indo-Pacific, Canada’s voting record tends towards Japan and Australia. As for the Canada-US dyad, we observe both ups and downs, and mostly downs, mainly because since the 1990s the US went out of sync with most of its allies. We find no evidence that Canada’s voting aligns more with the US when the Liberals are in power in Ottawa or when Democrats are in power in Washington (under either a Democratic presidency or a Democratic Congress).

Canada’s voting patterns under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006–2015) was different, however. Harper’s pro-US turn in the UNGA was sharp, lasting and entirely in line with other foreign policy “Harperisms”: the decision to cut aid to Hamas in 2006, the withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 and the refusal to sign the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, to name but three. Alignment with Israel was to a large extent part of the same package. Although a pro-Israel voting turn began already under the Liberal government of Paul Martin (2003-2006), Harper took this to another level by systematically refusing to criticize Israel.

The Harper-era voting outlasted Harper’s premiership. In the 2010s, Al Jazeera data journalists note, “Canada voted ‘no’ three times more than ‘yes’ on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolutions.” We see this as well in Figures 1 and 2, which are our PCA maps for the 69th (2014-2015) and 72nd (2017-2018) sessions of the UNGA, respectively.  Representing the last Harper year, Figure 1 shows Canada in the right lower quadrant, positioned closer to the US, Israel, Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia than to the left lower quadrant, the home of “the West” or “the global North.”

Figure 1:  UN Session 69 under PM Stephen Harper

Click here for Figure 1

Figure 2 visualizes Canada’s voting patterns two years later, meaning during the second regular session of the UNGA after Trudeau became prime minister. What it shows is Trudeau’s Liberals essentially following Harper’s Conservatives, both under Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and under Chrystia Freeland who succeeded Dion in January 2017.

Figure 2: UN Session 72 during Justin Trudeau’s early years

Click here for Figure 2

During Freeland’s tenure as foreign minister, Canadian foreign policy was severely tested, courtesy of the increasingly erratic, radical US presidency of Donald Trump and two major diplomatic confrontations with authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia and China. It was also towards the end of her mandate that Canada’s voting began to shift to what we might call the traditional pattern.

Figures 3 and 4: UN Sessions 74 and 75 after Chrystia Freeland’s tenure as foreign minister

Click here for Figure 3

Click here for Figure 4

In Figures 3 and 4, which are PCAs of the 74th (2019-2020) and 75th (2020-2021) sessions, respectively, we see Canada gradually moving away from the US and its three UNGA amigos, Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. This would suggest that Freeland’s two successors, François-Philippe Champagne and Marc Garneau, followed the trend. Neither man kept the Global Affairs ministerial portfolio for very long, however: Champagne ran the department for 14 months before being replaced with Garneau, who lasted 9 months. Note as well that in mid-2020 Bob Rae succeeded Marc-André Blanchard as Canada’s top diplomat in the UN.

A look at dyadic similarity figures – whether with Canada’s Five Eyes partners, select European NATO and “NATO lite” allies, or with Israel and Japan – confirms the contours of this small pivot. Tongue halfway in cheek, we might therefore say that Canada is finally back – back to voting in line with most democracies, that is.

Will this new old voting pattern persist? The pivot is recent and the data we analyzed take us only to March 3, 2021, so the correct answer is that it too early to tell. Prime Minister Harper did not change Canada’s voting the moment he took power in 2006, but years later, namely during his second minority government and especially after he won a majority government in 2011.

The rhetoric coming from the offices of Prime Minister Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Joly suggests that Ottawa is very interested in working together with like-minded democracies for, as the team behind Biden’s Summit for Democracy put it, “global democratic renewal.” Committing to strengthening democracy at home is the logical first step for all participants. This, as the summit agenda explains, entails promoting human rights and good governance, which in turn means reducing socioeconomic inequalities and corruption. Also logical for the Trudeau government would be a proper effort to provide a coherent national security strategy and identify Canada’s foreign policy priorities for the tumultuous next decade. Putting those priorities into practice will necessarily go through debating and passing UN resolutions, in turn giving us an opportunity to study Canada’s voting behaviour some more.

About the authors

Bojan Ramadanovic: Data Science Lead at Deloitte Canada, He received his PhD from Simon Fraser University.

Srdjan Vucetic: Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. He is also Co-Director (Security) in the Canadian Defence and Security Network (CDSN-RCDS). He received his PhD from Ohio State University.

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