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Canada Should Look North to Refocus Foreign Policy — and Regain Lost Middle-Power Status

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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.

China’s rise and the return of war to Europe have cast doubt on whether the West still has the capacity to shape world affairs to its liking. The failure to rally greater support for Ukraine among the Global South, together with the recent expansion of the BRICS grouping, points to the gradual emergence of a more global – and less Western – international order. The “unipolar moment” of the early post-Cold War years now appears long gone.

Canada in particular stands out among Western countries for its declining influence. While the United States remains the world’s single most powerful country and the European Union retains a considerable degree of economic heft, Canada is more easily pushed around in today’s more competitive world – as China and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated.

This raises the question: With the West’s relative power and Canada’s global influence both diminishing, how should Canadians now conceive of their country’s national interests? Limited power and resources lend themselves to a more targeted approach, centred on a region of core interest to Canada and of growing interest to the world – the High North.

The few interests that Canadian politicians and thought leaders usually – almost reflexively – articulate all fall short of the mark. The need to “be a good ally” defines our interests relationally rather than on first principles and ignores the reality that the transatlantic alliance is (in relative terms) a declining force in world politics. A desire to “earn a seat at the table” says little about what we wish to do with that seat. Carving out a role as a “convening power” also, to a large degree, sidesteps the question of what our actual interests are.

These dated discourses leave Canadian foreign policy in reactive mode. They lend themselves to outrage over our exclusion from U.S.-led groupings such as AUKUS rather than being an incentive to articulate what initiatives, policies and ideas best reflect our own unique interests. They also discourage Ottawa from thinking about how to allocate resources and prioritize policy files more strategically.

Some features that shape the nature and scope of Canada’s national interests are unchanging. Geography, for example. But others, such as the contours of international order – including how power is distributed and which principles prevail in world politics – are regularly in flux.

Limited power and resources lend themselves to a more targeted approach, centred on a region of core interest to Canada and of growing interest to the world – the High North.

When it comes to thinking about the characteristics of today’s emerging international order, Canadians should keep two facts in mind.

First, the two pillars that have underpinned Canadian foreign policy since the end of the Second World War – reliance on multilateralism and a strong relationship with the United States – are no longer mutually reinforcing.

Often, these dynamics are considered separately. Mounting populism threatens our access to the U.S. market and places America’s global leadership in question. The return of great-power competition threatens the future of multilateralism, on which Canada has depended to export goods securely and differentiate its foreign policy from that of its southern neighbour. Canada’s influence within multilateral fora such as the United Nations has manifestly declined, as its consecutive failed attempts to obtain a Security Council seat attest.

These elements also interact with one another, making a difficult situation even more complex. Instead of upholding a rules-based international order, U.S. foreign policy over recent decades has all too often served to undermine it – whether due to its own violations of the rules, instances of blatant hypocrisy, efforts to undermine the workings of multilateral bodies, or policies that exacerbate tensions between the great powers and therefore make international co-operation more difficult.

Second, unlike in previous decades, the path to middle-power status runs less and less through being a powerhouse on values or multilateralism. Rather, in a world where the U.S. and China are competing for influence in Asia, and where the West and Russia are contesting the shape of the European security system, middle-power status is increasingly contingent on being a leading player in a regional security order.

Besides Washington, Moscow and Kyiv, the decisions that will determine Europe’s future security order will be taken in capitals such as Paris, Berlin and Brussels. They will not, to be sure, be taken in Ottawa. Similarly, Canada is much too underinvested and far too late to the game to play a role in shaping the Indo-Pacific on par with Tokyo, Canberra or Jakarta.

The two pillars that have underpinned Canadian foreign policy since the end of the Second World War – reliance on multilateralism and a strong relationship with the United States – are no longer mutually reinforcing.

There are truly only two regions where Canada, by way of its geography, is a local actor: the Arctic and North America. Until it substantially increases the size of its population, which is a century-long endeavour, Canada will remain fully in its southern neighbour’s shadow in North America.

That leaves the Arctic, where a concerted effort in both defence and diplomacy could make up for decades of neglect and yield results. Canada is the third-largest country in the Arctic by population. It can also afford to pivot attention and resources toward the circumpolar region, unlike the U.S. and Russia, whose military commitments and security interests in both Europe and Asia are larger or more acute.

A Canadian foreign policy with a more continental and circumpolar focus would bring numerous benefits.

Securing Canadian national interests, strictly defined, would be easier to sell to Canadians than the need to buttress an amorphous rules-based international order. A focus on defending the Arctic would allow Canada to remain a good ally without defining our interests reactively or spreading ourselves too thin. While tending to the continental trading relationship will remain crucial, the intellectual starting point for our foreign policy would be premised on a made-in-Canada understanding of power and geography rather than on a perceived need to maintain good relations with the U.S. across the board.

The intellectual starting point for our foreign policy would be premised on a made-in-Canada understanding of power and geography rather than on a perceived need to maintain good relations with the U.S. across the board.

By deploying our resources within NATO toward a single pressure point, Canada will maximize the chances of it emerging as a genuine agenda-setter on an issue that embodies a core national interest – one increasingly pertinent to both national and allied security. Over time, this strengthened profile can serve as a power multiplier that enhances Canada’s ability to develop a more balanced relationship with powers such as Russia and China, providing Ottawa with leverage in a circumpolar region of rising global importance and compensating for the fact that Moscow and Beijing need Canada less and less as they become more illiberal or more powerful.

Perhaps most importantly, a more focused approach to foreign policy would allow Canadians finally to be honest with themselves that their country’s international currency has declined and that Canada is in fact no longer a middle power – a necessary first step for charting a course toward eventually regaining middle-power status in the decades ahead.

Rather than continue to flatter Canadians with the remnants of a satisfying but outdated national identity for electoral benefit, leaders in both major parties should articulate a more realistic approach to foreign policy: one that focuses our resources to maximum effect and puts the national interest at the centre of our thinking.

Written By:
Zachary Paikin
Zachary Paikin is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and directs the project Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order. He is senior researcher in international security dialogue at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy as well as a research fellow in grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, D.C.
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