Recent Posts

Canada Has Lost Its Purpose in Foreign Relations. It’s Time for a Review

Written By:
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.

Canada has lost its way in international relations. Its past two attempts to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council failed. The country that invented peacekeeping currently deploys fewer than 60 blue helmets.

Critics say Canada is not pulling its weight in NATO despite its tough talk on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Few countries seek Canada as a mediator. In the most recent case, the government of Cameroon even denied that it asked for Ottawa’s help.

Canada used to be known as a fixer in the multilateral arena and a champion for causes such as fighting apartheid and creating an International Criminal Court. It promoted initiatives such as the “responsibility to protect” and “human security” as well as the treaty to ban land mines.

But there haven’t been too many big ideas in the past two decades. The country’s last foreign policy review was published in 2005 and bragged of Canada’s “role of pride and influence in the world.”

It is time for a clear-eyed review of Canada’s foreign policy. Instead of scanning the horizon for current and emerging threats, and challenges to Canada’s sovereignty and security, it makes more sense to look from the inside out.

This includes identifying vital national interests, managing vulnerabilities, building on comparative advantages and leveraging them to achieve clear foreign policy objectives.

So much has changed in Canada and the world since 2005. Yet there has been no serious process to assess threats and challenges to Canada or provide a sense of direction on how the country should navigate a fast-changing and challenging international environment.

As a result, Canada’s foreign policy is ad hoc and reactive. Its profile, influence, brand and reputation in the world are suffering. Canada needs a foreign policy compass.

Since the Second World War, Canada’s foreign policy has been defined around general objectives to do with making the world safe for Canada, and with promoting political liberty, upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms, and respect for the rule of law.

It was also rooted in ensuring good relations with a select group of allies, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States. At times, Canada’s role in the world was also promoted as a “co-operator” – working for collective action on common problems and promoting development. A bottom line, which should not be overlooked in a federal structure, has always been that external policies should not jeopardize national unity.

But in the past two decades, Canada’s foreign policy has become seemingly off the cuff, driven by diaspora politics, and idiosyncratic. Witness the Harper government’s policies in the Middle East or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gaffe-filled visit to India.

Furthermore, both the country and the world have changed. While geography still matters, the effects of threats without borders – such as pandemics, transnational organized crime, cyberthreats and the repercussions of far-away crises, for example migration – bring new challenges, which have no military solutions.

At the same time, Canada’s population has increased significantly, as has its demographic diversity. Things that Canada used to take for granted — such as a predictable neighbour to the South or a liberal international order — are looking shaky.

True North

The highest priority should be to defend Canada’s sovereignty. It is vital to prioritize security in the High North and Arctic, security in the North Atlantic and to pursue good relations with the United States and Mexico.

Retooling Canada’s focus and assets within NATO towards defence of the High North would strengthen its role within the Alliance as well as its sovereignty. This would also allow Ottawa to concentrate resources – including defence spending – on clear and limited priorities.

Prioritizing the North does not mean withdrawing from everywhere else. A stable global trade and security environment is in Canada’s interest. The key is to develop and leverage influence in international forums, such as the G7 and the United Nations, and on issues where Canada has credibility.

Topics where Canada could make a difference — and where it has a self-interest — include disaster-risk reduction, mitigating the security effects of climate change and better governance of the global commons, including oceans, the atmosphere and outer space.

Canada is a great power when it comes to energy – a top producer of oil, gas and hydroelectric power. Canada is also a major producer of uranium and the critical minerals needed for the green and digital economy. Therefore, another foreign policy priority should be to ensure predictable energy markets, supply routes and partnerships.

'Nice' Foreign Policy

One word used to describe Canadians is “nice” and that word can also be used to describe its national interests: N = North America; I = international stability; C = climate; E = energy. That said, nice guys will finish last unless they work with others.

That is why, in an interconnected world, co-operation is in Canada’s interest. Effective multilateralism anchored in the rule of law is realpolitik not fuzzy liberal internationalism.

While focusing on a narrower set of national interests, Canada needs to bolster a rules-based international system. In doing so, Ottawa should explain to Canadians why international peace and stability, as well as good-neighbourly relations, are worth the increased investment of political and diplomatic capital.

White Paper for the Great White North

A clearer set of national interests would put Canada in a stronger position with the United States and enable it to define coherent and consistent policies in relation to China, Russia, and the European Union, rather than following events or external pressures, not least from Washington. It would also give Canadians a clear set of unifying objectives and show other countries where Canada stands on key issues.

Canadian foreign policy needs a sense of direction. It needs a compass – pointing north – to navigate the country through difficult times, changing relationships as well as emerging threats, challenges and opportunities. It is time for a white paper on foreign policy for the Great White North.

Written By:
Walter Kemp
Walter Kemp is co-chair of the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy’s Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order project and author of Security through Cooperation: To the Same End.
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