Recent Posts
HomeBlogCanada’s Foreign Policy: End of an Era?

Canada’s Foreign Policy: End of an Era?

Image credit: U.S Department of State

By Zachary Paikin

In some respects, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing international trends rather than creating new ones. However, when looking back on the past two years, the early 2020s appear to mark the end of an era in Canadian foreign policy.

Today, Canada finds itself largely bereft of the three key pillars that have, in one form or another, helped to guide its foreign policy since the Second World War: continentalism, multilateralism and Atlanticism. In their place, the country’s security environment in a post-Western world is increasingly defined by pressures imposed by rival great powers. This is where Canadian foreign policy stands at the outset of 2022.

In the pandemic’s first year, Canada lost a second consecutive bid to earn a rotating seat on the UN Security Council. One might contend that the loss to Norway and Ireland was due to “technical” reasons, such as Ottawa’s “two-ballot strategy”, and therefore assert that there is little in Canada’s foreign policy culture that requires a major overhaul. Yet one cannot help but notice that Canada has been absent from the Security Council for two decades – with no return in sight – even as other G7 countries continue to mount successful campaigns.

Solidarity among European countries, Canada’s lacklustre commitment to Africa and Asia, and the perception that Ottawa is too closely aligned with Washington have all contributed to the decline of the multilateral component of Canada’s foreign policy. And with great power rivalry putting the “rules-based international order” under increasing strain, it is not immediately evident how Canada can resurrect what was once a key pillar of its international engagement.

In the pandemic’s second year, Russia outlined its red lines on NATO expansion, building up its military forces on the Ukrainian border and demanding a series of “security guarantees” from the West. This marks the culmination – and failure – of a three-decade-long process in which Moscow has been excluded from the core of Europe’s political and security architecture. It remains impossible to envisage a stable and durable regional order constructed to the real or perceived detriment of the continent’s most powerful actor.

Political convulsions within the US and shifts in the international order have placed Ottawa’s supposedly special relationship with Washington under strain. When combined with a declining multilateral profile, this has led to Canadian foreign policy becoming increasingly NATO-centric. Yet as the world’s geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity moves toward Asia, the Atlanticist vector of Canadian foreign policy only serves to deepen Canada’s dependence on the US. This contrasts with the Cold War era, during which NATO membership offered Ottawa a means of constraining American unilateralism and asserting its “middle power” status.

It remains unclear what Ottawa has gained in strategic terms by articulating maximalist goals vis-à-vis Moscow. Playing a leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence does not appear to have translated into a larger global profile for Canada on security issues. Nor is Ukraine much more secure than it was eight years ago, as evidenced by Russia’s military buildup. Repeating this pattern of behaviour in the case of a rising China could create more problems for Canada than it solves, especially given the relative underdevelopment of the Pacific vector of Canadian foreign policy.

Ottawa’s failure to adapt to a new and emerging international context has left it with little room for manoeuvre. And although the US remains Canada’s most important economic and security partner, Washington – like Beijing and Moscow – also embodies a source of pressure which Ottawa will have to manage. In fact, Canada’s geographic proximity, economic dependence and intertwined history with its southern neighbour ensure that political developments in the US are of far greater strategic consequence to Canada than an increasingly assertive China.

Canada should therefore resist the temptation to characterize the emerging international order as one based on “democracies vs. autocracies”. Canadian statecraft requires that Ottawa manage pressures emanating from three powers, democratic and authoritarian alike. A worldview centred on ideological considerations would worsen Canada’s dependence on the US following three decades of Ottawa tying itself – to varying degrees – to Washington’s project of building a liberal world order. It would also exacerbate Canada’s security environment by contributing to a discourse which serves to push Russia and China closer together.

Facing up to the complexities of its threefold sources of pressure will be particularly trying for Canada due to its troubled relationship with the US. This goes beyond the threat of American protectionism or the uncertainty caused by Washington’s retreat from its global leadership role. Rather, in an age of political polarization, the United States has become a fundamentally unpredictable power. Unlike during the Cold War, when the US pursued a broadly consistent international strategy across Democratic and Republican administrations, Ottawa will find it difficult to produce a durable, holistic and strategically minded foreign policy if the nominal priorities of its most important partner change every four years.

The first half-century after Confederation saw Canada gradually nurture its own independence, even as it remained anchored within the British Empire. In the century that followed – from America’s entry into the First World War to Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House – Washington outlined and then embodied a vision of liberal internationalism, providing Canada an opportunity to benefit from a globally engaged US but also to offer a distinct “third way” when this suited Ottawa’s interests. The task of Canadian statecraft – and perhaps even statehood – in its fourth half-century is to find its way in the world without a reliable superpower patron.

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