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Canadian Diplomacy Needs to Find Its Way Back From the Wilderness

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order in collaboration with Policy Options magazine from the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Version française disponible ici.

Among Canadian foreign-policy watchers, it has become a cliché to say that Canada has lost influence on the world stage. So much so that this reality, which should otherwise be shocking and distressing, has been instead quietly accepted as a fact, even inside “Fort Pearson” (a.k.a. Global Affairs Canada headquarters).

How did we get here? What is at stake? And, most important, why and how we should change course?

For the past 20 years, Canada’s diplomacy has mostly been based on exporting our values. The slogan “the world needs more Canada,” as vain as it sounds, has in fact been at the heart of our approach to international affairs.

Canadians’ worldview has been one shaped by self-comparison. A legacy of middle-power status, our successful immigration program, advancement of social norms, access to quality education, and vast natural resources – bolstered by survey after survey ranking Canada as one the best places to live – have contributed to this inebriation. Successive governments have been all too happy to reinforce and tout these positives and reflect them proudly in terms such as Canada’s feminist foreign policy.

However, starting in the 1990s, the world began re-ordering. Emerging powers such as China strategically positioned themselves for a new post-colonial world previously dominated by the West. The Global South was beginning to affirm itself and seek investment and partners just as the United States and its allies became distracted with the aftermath of 9/11 and the global war on terror. Canada, after notably declining to accompany the United States in Iraq, wholeheartedly followed the Americans into Afghanistan.

Thus began a period of western legitimized regime change. Adhering to the notion of self-defence and protection of civilians, and eager to flex military and diplomatic muscle, the Harper government joined the U.S., France, Britain and others in supporting the Arab Spring movements to topple autocratic leaders such as Khaddafi in Libya. The United Nations gradually added over 40 new members, and the G77 (a coalition of developing countries) grew to 134 countries, wielding a two-thirds majority of the U.N. General Assembly. And China had begun its financial contribution to the group.

Canada failed to recognize that in a global game of musical chairs, our superiority complex left us the one standing. So convinced of our virtue as a force for good in the world, we delighted in small wins here and there while completely missing the forest for the trees.

What we failed to assess was how these forays were ill-perceived by many nations that might have otherwise been favourable to Canada. For a superpower like the United States with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it is one thing to conduct foreign policy in a hubristic, self-referential and self-congratulatory fashion. But Canada failed to recognize that in a global game of musical chairs, our superiority complex left us the one standing. So convinced of our virtue as a force for good in the world, we delighted in small wins here and there while completely missing the forest for the trees.

As we pursued a “principled foreign policy,” later internally re-phrased as “values-based diplomacy,” trying to reshape the world in our image, we stopped listening to what other nations actually wanted – and stopped considering what was in our best interest. For years, governments in the developing world, albeit not all democracies, have sought partners, not benefactors with social strings attached.

Appreciative of assistance in education and health, they also wanted help building infrastructure, not a public scolding on human rights. Instead, Canada robotically (perhaps even disdainfully) stayed on its course and even doubled down, attaching a myriad of social conditions in exchange for support. For example, increasingly our contributions to the UN system are earmarked for specific gender-based programs. This practice has been deplored by the UN itself because of the added cost of delivery and reduction in resources directed to core programs – and by recipient countries for failing to address their own priorities.

Mixed with a little diaspora politics, values-based foreign policy played well at home.

But it fell flat abroad.

We forgot that Canada has few levers and certainly not enough resources to bring about the kinds of social reform Canadians were told could be achieved. Worse, we failed to recognize we were annoying foreign governments, including some of our closest historical friends.

Mixed with a little diaspora politics, values-based foreign policy played well at home. But it fell flat abroad. We forgot that Canada has few levers and certainly not enough resources to bring about the kinds of social reform Canadians were told could be achieved.

Failing to adapt to the changing world has also been fostered by a lack of co-ordination between government departments. Global Affairs Canada no longer really leads foreign affairs. On some key issues, such as climate change, another department has the file. The result is the absence of coherence and priority management.

Sometimes, departments even work at cross purposes. One example: a year prior to the vote for a seat on the UN Security Council when Canada was a candidate, the immigration department unrolled cumbersome biometrics requirement for new visas despite Global Affairs Canada’s objection on the advice of dozens of our ambassadors.

The result? Canada took a big hit abroad at a time when it could least afford it.

Another element that has undermined our international stature has been the bureaucratization of Global Affairs Canada. In an effort to gain respect from and greater collaboration with the Treasury Board and Finance, the department has reformed itself into their image. The qualities that had made Canadian diplomacy so effective, such as strong analysis, intelligence gathering, international networks, negotiation skills and time spent abroad have been replaced with a focus on internal management prowess. Over the last 20 years, officers who rose to senior positions did so based on administrative skills, not foreign-policy experience. We lost years of foreign-affairs know-how.

And just as damaging, administrative burdens put on our missions abroad have meant that diplomats spend more time inside embassies on HR and other internal initiatives instead of on the statecraft of diplomacy. This means that the quantity and quality of information going back to Ottawa is lower than it once was.

How Should Canada Navigate Today’s World?

First and foremost, we need a pragmatic foreign policy more closely tied to our interests and less on virtue signaling. No one is advocating that Canada abandon the promotion of human rights. But those activities must be guided by a realistic assessment how our limited resources can effect change. Also, they must be evaluated against potential negative boomerang effects such as what happened with Saudi Arabia in 2018.

Feel-good diplomacy is not effective diplomacy. Canada should resist knee-jerk media statements and focus on advancing international collaboration on issues such health, the environment and security. Calibrating our public rhetoric, especially with autocratic regimes on their domestic issues, does not mean we cannot speak more directly through diplomatic channels. Mutual respect on the world stage can go a long way to advance joint priorities – the kinds that directly affect Canadians.

Feel-good diplomacy is not effective diplomacy. Canada should resist knee-jerk media statements and focus on advancing international collaboration on issues such health, the environment and security. Calibrating our public rhetoric, especially with autocratic regimes on their domestic issues, does not mean we cannot speak more directly through diplomatic channels.

Second, to achieve this, we need to set clear priorities both in policy objectives and in general activities. Canada belongs to many times more international organizations than many countries of similar size. We are spread too thin. A systematic review of our engagements and an objective of streamlining some of our associations is needed.

We should also look to share burdens where possible. European countries such as France and Germany benefit greatly from joint EU diplomatic forces that negotiate many international processes on their behalf at the United Nations and elsewhere. Finding natural allies beyond Australia and New Zealand or the U.K. will be challenging. But if we cannot identify time-saving methods, we should at least recognize that we are overstretched and let go of legacy projects that no longer serve our interests.

Third, Canada must toughen up. Diplomacy is not an alternative to military force. Negotiating agreements often requires threatening force and delivering on that threat when necessary. Conflict prevention is nearly impossible without deterrence. As such, the two-per-cent NATO target should be a national priority. Decades-long neglect of our military has not only hampered our ability to prevent or respond to emerging conflicts abroad – it has also eroded our ability to defend our own borders.

Lastly, the revamping of Canadian diplomacy launched by Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly must not fail in its implementation. We need a complete overhaul of the management of the department with the full support of central agencies such as Treasury Board. Moreover, we need the Privy Council Office to exercise greater co-ordination among competing departmental priorities. Once Global Affairs Canada is led by foreign-policy experts again, it should have a stronger and respected voice in Ottawa.

The best foreign policy for the 21st century is one that is clear-eyed, pragmatic and focused. Canadians need to stop viewing the world as we wish it were, and act based on how it truly is. No more buzz words and press conferences to announce unrealistic, utopian aspirations. What Canada needs is soft-spoken yet spirited diplomacy that truly reflects who we are, matched with the capabilities to back up our words.

Written By:
Louise Blais
Louise Blais was a Canadian ambassador, deputy permanent representative to the United Nations and consul general of Canada in Atlanta. She is diplomat-in residence at Université Laval and at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
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