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Debating Canada’s National Interests: A Historical Overview

Image credit: National Archive Catalogue

By Adam Chapnick

This article is published as part of IPD’s project, Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order.

The Institute for Peace & Diplomacy’s newly launched project, dedicated to exploring Canadian interests in a multipolar world, marks the fifth generation of public calls to reconsider Canada’s global posture to better reflect the “national interest.” Yet while debates over the future of Canadian foreign policy are always welcome, the real debate, it seems to me, should focus on how those interests are operationalized in the contemporary context.

The original call to dedicate external affairs to the defence and promotion of the national interest came from the Canada First movement of the 1870s. At the time, the idea of a Canadian foreign policy as we know it today was unthinkable: the newly formed British dominion had no foreign service, no serious instruments of national power that could be extended beyond its borders, and no legal right to autonomy on the world stage.

The Canada Firsters advocated an independent voice for Canada within a united Empire, an approach that framed Canadian national interests in political and economic terms while recognizing that the defence of the Empire would be impossible without British leadership.

In 1935, the historian Frank Underhill recalled the Canada First movement in an article in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science titled, plainly, “The conception of a national interest.” By then, the Statute of Westminster had made it possible for Canada to differentiate itself from Great Britain more obviously in its foreign policy. The powerful mandarin, O.D. Skelton, led a fast-growing Department of External Affairs in Ottawa, while Canadian diplomatic representatives reported to him from their posts in London, Washington, Paris and Tokyo.

Underhill was less concerned with statecraft than with the gradual accumulation of wealth and power in Canada among a small group of capitalist financiers. His call for attention to the national interest emerged as a rejection of liberal capitalism inspired by the scholarship of the American historian, Charles A. Beard, in his books The Idea of National Interest (1934) and The Open Door at Home (1935).

The Second World War all but ended such debates as a widespread consensus emerged about Canada’s role in the world.

Scholars have legitimately disputed the luminosity of what some have called the golden age in Canadian foreign policy, but throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s there can be no denying that Canadians largely agreed on their greatest security threat (communism), on their country’s role in the world (an independent, engaged member of the UN, NATO and the Commonwealth), and on the national approach to the global economy (a proponent of strong international institutions of economic governance).

It was a rejection of what came to be known as Pearsonian internationalism by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the late 1960s that spawned the third generation of calls to rethink Canada’s foreign policy priorities in national interest terms.

In a 1967 memo to then-Minister of Justice Trudeau, senior mandarin Allan Gotlieb decried the internationalism of the previous twenty years as “immature” and even “false.”

Upon forming a government, Trudeau and his personal foreign policy advisor, the former diplomat Ivan Head, recast Canadian engagement abroad as what 1970’s Foreign Policy for Canadians called the “pursuit of national aims and interests in the international environment.” Their effort to change course didn’t stick, however, and a reinvigorated liberal internationalism persisted for a quarter century.

The national interest lexicon next re-emerged most prominently in the early 21st century in a report by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (now the Canadian Global Affairs Institute), a keynote address by Gotlieb himself, and a book by the historian and political staffer Roy Rempel. All three urged Canadians to accept, and indeed embrace, the overwhelming importance of the United States to Canadian national security, prosperity and independence.

For these thinkers, the Chrétien government’s promotion of Canadian values abroad was a distraction from Ottawa’s primary responsibilities in the conduct of statecraft. However briefly, Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan appeared to mollify their concerns.

IPD’s project is inspired by recent calls for yet another re-examination of Canada’s national interests by analysts like the Balsillie School’s Ann Fitz-Gerald (who will serve as the project’s co-chair), the retired brigadier-general Don Macnamara, and the former senator Hugh Segal. While I sympathize with their concerns, I wonder about their emphasis.

Is there not already a general national consensus that Ottawa has a role to play in maintaining Canada’s security at home and abroad; in promoting and defending Canadian autonomy in the conduct of foreign and domestic affairs; and in the facilitation and maintenance of economic prosperity across the country? That these efforts are made easier by a positive Canadian international reputation appears similarly clear.

What matters, then, is how Ottawa prioritizes its interests when they are in conflict with one another, as well as the level of Canada’s and Canadians’ global ambition.

How should Ottawa respond, for example, if its most important partner and ally deliberately undermines elements of the international order that have kept Canadians safe, secure and prosperous for so many years?

How much leadership must Canadians really exert on the world stage to defend and protect the interests of the state? Might followership at times be enough? If so, when?

Producing answers to these questions will not be easy and establishing a national consensus around them even less so. But beginning with a recognition that there is in fact much more agreement on Canada’s basic national interests than critics let on would be a good place to start.

Adam Chapnick (@achapnick) is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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