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AUKUS and “Rules-Based Order”: Change and Continuity in Great Power Relations in 2021

Image credit: Number 10

By Zachary Paikin

The following piece was originally published by Minsk Dialogue.

As the so-called Indo-Pacific region increasingly takes centre stage, two key developments stand out: the formation of AUKUS and persistent contestation over the “rules-based international order”. While the former points to the advent of a more complex and unpredictable global order even beyond the Pacific theatre, the latter recalls trends which long predate the pandemic.

The worst of both worlds

The AUKUS deal hints at a regional move from mere security cooperation (e.g., the Quad) toward a more alliance-type logic. This marks a clear shift in Washington’s priorities: unlike the Trump administration, whose emphasis on great power competition placed Russia a much closer second behind China, Biden has pivoted his country’s focus more substantially towards Asia. That said, a recent Global Posture Review, while pledging certain improvements to US military infrastructure in the Pacific theatre, contained “no major reshuffling of forces”. This comes on the back of a recent claim by the White House’s Middle East coordinator that Washington was not planning to deprioritize the Middle East.

The evident shift in US political and strategic focus toward Asia, when combined with a persistent military posture of global primacy, represents the worst of both worlds. In particular, it leaves the US with ambiguous options in the current standoff over Ukraine. Washington’s pivot to Asia may convince Moscow that Europe is now a theatre of secondary importance to the US, potentially allowing the Kremlin to conclude that an opportune moment has arrived for military intervention. However, the alternative of a more significant US military commitment to Ukraine could further enflame tensions by crossing Russia’s shifting red line on the level of NATO presence in Ukraine that Moscow is prepared to tolerate.

The US under Biden has also stepped up its rhetorical defence of the “rules-based international order”. Of course, Beijing is likely to pay little heed to Washington’s appeals to follow “the rules” given that the latter has also bent or broken them on myriad occasions. This perceived double standard erodes Western influence on the global stage, exacerbating security situations even beyond the Pacific theatre. For instance, the current migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, among other things, serves the purpose of uncovering the hypocrisy behind EU stances advocating for human rights and the rule of law.

Sino-American contestation

Yet this Sino-American normative contestation also reveals a deeper trend which predates the pandemic: sustained litigation over the rules of the international game and over who gets to write the rules.

Recent months have been filled with supposed watershed moments in international history, such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the COVID-19 pandemic itself. The pandemic may bring about lasting change in some respects, from supply chains to economic interventionism. But while COVID has strained international cooperation and accelerated great power competition, it did not create these trends. For its part, the end of the US war effort in Afghanistan may symbolically mark the end of the era of Western-led nation-building and raise questions about how “liberal” the international order remains. However, the withdrawal was also aimed at allowing the US to shift its focus toward a great power competition already underway.

In other words, post-pandemic (geo)political developments are not occurring in a vacuum. Rather, they are building upon existing – and inherent – tensions flowing from competition over status in a world where Washington has sought to retain its position as the sole term-setting power of consequence. The US undertook its “pivot to Asia” before Xi Jinping’s rise to power and implementation of a more assertive Chinese foreign policy. This points to rising Chinese power rather than specific Chinese actions as the fundamental source of today’s Sino-American confrontation.

A revisionist power seeks to overturn the international order substantially, if not in its entirety. This does not accurately characterize China’s intentions, which centre more on the desire to be recognized as an equal great power within the existing order. In wishing to set the terms of engagement for other states – and to retain a prerogative to violate the rules periodically when it deems this to be in its interest – Beijing is merely following the example set by the US over the past three decades.

Attempting to displace the US as the world’s exclusive term-setter is not akin to opposing the international order. Part of the confusion stems from how the prevailing discussion surrounding international order has been conducted over recent years. The most common depiction of the “liberal international order” has been one rooted in institutions established by the US after World War II. As such, when these institutions were globalized after the Cold War, irrespective of the unipolar balance of power that prevailed at the time, it became natural to assume that US pre-eminence and the rules of the international order were inherently intertwined. Moreover, the liberal order is implicitly associated with US leadership due to liberalism’s historical connection to the two-century-long rise of Anglo-Saxon global hegemony.

To the extent that ideas are real and help to shape international reality, one can conceive of the liberal order as a structure that exists within global politics. But it is not synonymous with international order writ large. Nor are many of the liberal order’s alleged components – Western leadership, free trade, liberal values – universally practiced or recognized as legitimate. If one acknowledges that the liberal order remains but one component of today’s web of international institutions and practices, then China’s ambitions inevitably appear less far-reaching.

Three conservative revisionists

It is possible to attribute revisionist aims to all three major powers. Washington wishes to transform the world along liberal democratic lines and entrench a unipolar order where none previously existed. For their part, Russia and China seek to erode liberal values from existing global institutions and discourse and revise the security architectures of their respective regions. At the same time, there is a conservative element to all three powers as well. The US wants to preserve its position as the world’s pre-eminent power. Russia wants to avoid losing its centuries-old status as a great power and influence over its “near abroad”. And China wishes to safeguard the conditions which have facilitated its development while cautiously integrating into an international order whose rules it did not author.

Nonetheless, even if no power is contesting today’s order outright, this does not mean that the order is secure. In a sense, all three powers are revisionist in that they seek to shape the yet-to-be-determined rules of the future. And irrespective of their aims, competing understandings of the norms upon which today’s international order is based leads to contestation of those norms – and therefore to their gradual revision.

The task for Eastern Europe

At the end of 2021, the world therefore finds itself facing a nested challenge. Persistent pre-pandemic great power dynamics are now compounded by the uncertain consequences of Washington’s more developed pivot toward the Pacific. The task for Eastern Europe is to find creative ways to embody an island of stability in an otherwise uncertain world.

That said, political developments within Belarus have damaged prospects for East-West dialogue, while EU-Russia relations suffered a near-total breakdown following HRVP Josep Borrell’s disastrous trip to Moscow earlier this year. With the EU’s ability to use term-setting in its own neighbourhood as a means of enhancing its global influence now curtailed, perhaps it is not coincidental that Brussels has now pivoted its focus toward the “Indo-Pacific” as well.

Zachary Paikin is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, member of the Minsk Dialogue’s Expert Council, and Researcher in EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels.

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