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Geography and Canada’s National Interests

By Kim Richard Nossal

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

How does Canada’s geographic position—and in particular our geostrategic location—determine the scope of Canadian national interests today?

In Canada, there is a deep divide over the relationship between geopolitics and Canada’s national interests. Yet while Canadians have tended to see their country’s geographic isolation as a source of security, the emerging pressures of changes in American politics and great power competition will make that more difficult in the 2020s.

Canadian governments have tended to deny that geopolitics plays any role — or indeed should play any role — in determining our national interests. Consider, for example, what I have called the “a-geographic” tradition in our formal statements of defence policy. Four defence papers have been published since the end of the Cold War, none of which focused on geography as a determinant of our interests in defence. When geography was mentioned, it was only to paint the challenges of Canada’s size, echoing the old plaint of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1936 that “if some countries have too much history, we Canadians have too much geography.”

Such an “a-geographic” approach is mirrored by what appears to be a wider scepticism among Canadian officials about geopolitics and the Realpolitik frame of mind that tends to go with it. Sometimes the scepticism is unabashed, as when Paul Heinbecker, our ambassador and permanent representative at the United Nations declared in 2000 that “Canadians are moved by humanitarian impulse, not by the cold-blooded or rational calculations of Realpolitik […] Principles are often more important than power to Canadians.” While most Canadian officials do not reject Realpolitik so openly, they nonetheless tend not to frame national interests in unambiguous geopolitical terms, at least in public.

Despite the unwillingness of their governors to talk the language of geopolitics, however, Canadians themselves have always tended to see the world in geostrategic terms. Judging from their voting behaviour over 150 years, Canadians appear to know, even if only inchoately, that geography makes Canada one of the securest political communities on earth, a veritable “fireproof house,” as Senator Raoul Dandurand characterized it to the League of Nations in 1924.

While during times of systemic war Canadians have shown themselves quite willing to commit blood and treasure to war-fighting, in times of systemic peace Canadians generally approve of being what Joel Sokolsky has called “easy riders” — in other words, spending as little as we can possibly get away with when it comes to international affairs. Moreover, as the historian Desmond Morton put it so well in 1987, Canadians come by their cheapness honestly: they have never paid any price for their easy-riding tendencies during times of systemic peace. Thirty-three years later, the University of Ottawa’s Thomas Juneau correctly observed that because of the “good fortune” of our geography, “we neglect foreign policy and national security because we can.”

This historical trend continues today: Canadians appear to remain convinced that Canada is the same kind of fireproof house that it was in the 1920s. And this conviction continues to be encouraged by the refusal of political leaders to speak to Canadians in the language of geopolitics – whether that unwillingness stems from a genuine belief that geopolitics is passé, or from a fear that Canadians will not vote for any politician who speaks the language of Realpolitik.

But this historical trend has considerable implications for Canadian foreign policy in the 2020s, a decade that will be increasingly dominated by contests for dominance among the great powers. In this environment, Canadians will find themselves facing a paradox. On the one hand, our geostrategic location will, superficially at least, seem to afford us the same kind of security in the 2020s that Canadians believed they enjoyed in the interwar years. On the other hand, however, just as the fireproof house turned out to be an illusion by the late 1930s, so, too, it is likely that our present sense of safety will be increasingly evanescent.

That evanescence will be particularly marked if politics in the United States continues on its present trajectory, sliding into the darkness of authoritarianism, white Christian nationalism, and what some have called fascism with American characteristics. If the Republicans gain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms, and if Donald J. Trump — or a Trumpist candidate — is returned to the presidency in 2024, that would likely be, as Thomas Homer-Dixon has argued, a tipping point in American democratic politics.

Such a result would also have profound implications for Canadian national interests, for Canada would be hugely affected by the significant changes in global politics that would likely occur under a Trumpist presidency. A second-term Trump would likely create deep and perhaps irreparable rifts with present friends and allies of the United States across both the Atlantic and Pacific, accelerating the realignment of international relations in Europe and Asia, and even potentially triggering systemic war.

So while Canadians might be tempted to watch the unfolding great power competition from the sidelines, taking international affairs as seriously as we always do in times of systemic peace — which is to say not seriously at all — we need to recognize the illusory quality of that sense of safety. And that means we need to start having a national conversation about why sitting on the sidelines might seem attractive in the short term, but is in fact likely to damage Canadian national interests in the longer term.

Kim Richard Nossal (@kimnossal) is professor emeritus, Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s 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