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Canada’s International Decline Runs Deeper Than Foreign Policy Decisions

Image credit: Office of the Prime Minister

By David Polansky

Canada’s International Decline Runs Deeper Than Foreign Policy Decisions

Six years ago, approaching the end of his second term, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the House of Commons in Ottawa, saying “the world needs more Canada.” Even the famously self-effacing Canadians are hardly immune to flattery, and the national media quite naturally lapped this up. And yet the intervening years appear to tell a different story: one of increasing marginalization, with President Biden revoking the Keystone Pipeline permit, China detaining its citizens with impunity, and Canada again being denied a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The story of Canada in the world today is not best understood as one of decline, however, but of stasis. To see this properly, one has to go back 30 years. For more than almost any other country in the world, Canada has had a very, very good end of history

When the militarized budgets of the Cold War gave way to the easy, non-zero sum liberalism of the 1990s, Canada was pleased to benefit from the opening of global markets to trade. With 1995 representing the high watermark of Québécois separatism, Canada afterwards appeared well-positioned to enjoy the age of post-nationalism, deepening its commitment to establishing a multicultural citizenry while (sotto voce) benefiting from highly parsimonious immigration policies. And of course, after 2008, when Canada largely avoided the housing market disaster that cratered global markets, the unofficial management of its economy by an oligopoly of large banks appeared genteelly prudent next to the apocalyptic scrum down south.

In sum, the dividends of the global capitalist peace abroad, in conjunction with Canada’s abundant resources, strong welfare state, and high level of human capital at home, would continue to accrue indefinitely. The tide of history had surely lifted all boats, and if Canada’s was sailing higher than most, it would in its diffident way sail along content in its good fortune, without announcing it too loudly to the rest of the world.

And yet at no point was Canada’s actual position in the world materially significant. Canada initially contented itself with high-profile peacekeeping operations, driven by a then widely-shared belief that past metrics of power were declining in importance (though even these were severely curtailed after the disastrous events in Somalia and Rwanda). It is telling that for much of the post-Cold War era, the most recognizable and most representative individual associated with Canadian foreign policy was not a political leader of any kind, but Romeo Dallaire, in his capacity as commander of a United Nations peacekeeping force. Dallaire is an undeniably heroic figure, but one whose reputation was earned in the service of an essentially disinterested and universalistic mission from the standpoint of Canada’s strategic goals.

Nonetheless, for many years, his was the face that Canada was happy to present to the world: an image of personal virtue disconnected from any larger national purposes. From a PR perspective, this had the double advantage of associating Canada with courage and self-sacrifice, while avoiding any association with particular national goals or interests, which are necessarily more exclusive.

By contrast, almost no one outside (or even inside!) Canada would have had a strong impression of the geopolitical aims of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, or Stephen Harper. Moreover, the most consequential policies of all three—building economic ties with the People’s Republic of China and supporting NATO missions in the Balkans and later Afghanistan—largely amounted to shadowing the stances of Canada’s southern neighbour. 

Now that the geopolitical sands are shifting, Canada’s relative situation has been revealed more clearly. What can look like decline, in other words, might better be described as the emergence of certain underlying realities that were present the entire time. Continuous with the prior decades since the end of the Cold War, Canada hasn’t really formulated a meaningful sense of what it wants from the world – even Paul Martin’s attempt to balance pro-Americanism with a rhetorical commitment to multilateralism never did amount to much, both because there was no clear principle by which to balance the two and because resources for the latter were consistently lacking. The absence of a defined national interest may also become more of a domestic problem in years to come.

And yet is Canada really unique in its strategic drift? Have the European powers, whether individually or collectively, demonstrated a clear willingness to be a force in the world since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty? Have India or Brazil—one half of the famous BRIC countries—established significant regional dominance in their respective domains? Has even the United States managed to generate a concrete and consistent geostrategy over the past 30 years, even as it has enjoyed decades of unrivalled primacy? 

In a very real sense then, Canada looks like a canary in a coal mine. The same forces that impelled it to the forefront of the quality of life afforded by late-modernity also left it stranded and purposeless. Its junior status within the North American hierarchy makes its plight more revealing, but its paucity of vision is general.

At the time of this writing, Russia’s ongoing invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, has apparently triggered a geopolitical shift. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a major power besides the United States has engaged in substantial offensive military action; Europe has finally signalled a willingness to commit costly resources to its armed defences; even Switzerland has abandoned its position of studied neutrality to join in unprecedented economic sanctions.

The urgency of the Ukraine situation has now produced a round of responses demanding a new seriousness of purpose for Canada. This is to make the wish the father of the thought—for it is guided by a desire to be an important country in the absence of sustained reflection about what that seriousness might consist. To put it another way, this amounts to expressing an interest in having interests, rather than apprehending the nature of Canada’s existing involvement in the world from which certain interests might derive.

And even beyond this, there is a deeper problem, concerning Canada’s underlying identity. For the duration of the post-Cold War era, its leaders have been content with its status as a corporate beneficiary of larger historical and systemic forces. 

More broadly, as philosopher George Grant wrote over a half-century ago: “[Canada’s] ruling class is composed of the same groups as that of the United States, with the signal difference that the Canadian ruling class looks across the border for its final authority in both politics and culture.” The absence of a distinctly Canadian leadership has hindered the country’s ability to define its national terms.

The outstanding question for Canada—as it is for any sovereign country—is whether its leaders can still articulate a national understanding that is sufficiently compelling to its citizens to allow it to act as a coherent historical entity. After all, before a nation can have interests to pursue, it must exist in a way that might be recognizable across generations, and not just function as the temporary meeting place of a particular assortment of populations and capital. It is incumbent upon its leaders, then, to articulate a vision of Canada that is distinctive to its own history and geography, rather than one that echoes either the pacific or the militant variations of generic globalism. 

What, then, is Canada to be, and what does it want from the world? These are questions that Canada has been unable to answer—or even properly address—since well before 2016. By the way, Obama didn’t come up with that line about Canada; he was repeating what irritating U2 frontman Bono had said years earlier. Of course, Bono also told us that he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

Dr. David Polansky (@polanskydj) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a political theorist who writes on U.S. foreign policy, geopolitics, and the history of political thought

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