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Canada’s Core National Interests Will Have To Lie in North America

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.

As the post-Cold-War international order has given way to something new, practitioners and pundits alike are asking what it all means for their respective countries. One of the questions they have been particularly interested in is how the shifting international order will affect their national interests.

To some extent the answer will be “the same as it ever was” – security, freedom and prosperity. But how we think about the interests of nations is being undeniably impacted by changes in the balance of power, the advent (or return?) of states aligning with several great power patrons, intensifying great power competition, economic and geopolitical regionalization, and the ongoing crisis of the liberal, rules-based order.

Canada is not immune to this historical dynamic. The old certitudes – a special relationship with the United States, the ability to operate as a middle power punching above its weight in multilateral forums, the rise of a seemingly benevolent China – are certain no more, and the question of how to define Canada’s national interests in the emerging international order is very much alive.

In a free and open society like Canada, it’s inevitable – and healthy – to have debates over what constitutes a national interest. There is broad agreement, however, that certain interests are fundamental. It’s widely agreed that a basic Canadian interest is to minimize threats to Canada’s sovereignty and to maximize the security of North America. There’s also no denying that Canada’s national security is tightly bound to the United States and that it has an interest in co-operating with the U.S.

The old certitudes – a special relationship with the United States, the ability to operate as a middle power punching above its weight in multilateral forums, the rise of a seemingly benevolent China – are certain no more, and the question of how to define Canada’s national interests in the emerging international order is very much alive.

Canada also wants to see stable balances of power maintained in four regions of the world: Europe, the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and the Arctic. Stability creates a space within which a free, open and rules-based regional economic order can flourish. Given Canada’s historic economic ties to Europe and expanding economic ties to the Indo-Pacific, it has an interest in seeing such regional orders perpetuated. Stable regional balances of power preclude emergence of revisionist hegemonic states that might use their power to curtail Canada’s commercial ties to those regions – or potentially mobilize their resources to mount a military threat.

Canada’s interest in the Middle East is not so much because of trade ties but because it is a major source of oil and gas for Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Any hostile power to emerge in the Middle East would be in a position to endanger energy flows to those regions (and others), disrupting their economies in ways that would indirectly hurt Canada.

Finally, Canada has a core national interest in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Arctic, a region of growing economic importance to the country, but one where a hostile power could potentially directly threaten Canada’s (and America’s) sovereignty and security.

Canada only has marginal economic interest in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, even as it has negotiated free-trade and foreign investment promotion agreements with a number of Latin American partners. Unlike the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and the Arctic, there are no actively revisionist powers threatening to become dominant states in either region.

Canada’s core national interests also include preventing the norms, rules and institutions of global governance from being transformed in ways that undermine Canadian security, independence, prosperity and freedom. This is not to suggest that upholding the existing rules-based international order is a core Canadian interest. That order is naturally evolving as the global balance of power shifts and regionalization becomes the order of the day.

But as that transformation takes place, Canada has an interest in preventing changes incompatible with its core economic and security interests. Ottawa has, in other words, an interest in maintaining a stable balance of power within the institutional space of global governance. And that will necessarily involve Canada adopting a very different role than that of “helpful fixer,” which it played in particular during the era of the U.S. as sole superpower. This new role will be more modest and more defensive.

Nor is acting like, or being recognized as, a middle power a core national interest. Middle power diplomacy – and even assuming the co-operative leadership mantle of “middlepowermanship” – has arguably been an instrumental means to an end over the past seven decades, but at times Canadian policymakers have treated this means as if it were an end in itself; that is, as a national interest.

Ottawa has an interest in maintaining a stable balance of power within the institutional space of global governance. And that will necessarily involve Canada adopting a very different role than that of “helpful fixer,” which it played in particular during the era of the U.S. as sole superpower.

This is flawed in that it confuses ends and means. Middle power diplomacy may have been a useful foreign policy tool in the past. It may even have played an important role in the construction of Canadian national identity – surely a Canadian national interest. But it was always a tool, a historically contingent means of advancing national interests, rather than a timeless interest in and of itself. And its time has come and gone.

None of this is to suggest that Canada can do much to advance and defend its interests around the world. While it may have some residual role to play in Europe, it will never have a major impact on the balance of power there. And despite all the posturing, it will similarly never play much of a balancing role in the Indo-Pacific.

What, then, is to be done? How should Canada allocate always-scarce resources to advance and defend its national interests?

First, it should recognize that where it cannot make a material difference to a regional balance of power, it should allow authentically regional actors to take up the burden. This effectively means minimizing its military and even diplomatic efforts in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, and certain multilateral forums. Second, Canada should contribute significantly to North American defence and maintain a stable balance in the Arctic.

It remains to be seen if Canada’s leaders can confront these realities and act accordingly.

Written By:
Andrew Latham
Andrew Latham is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. Professor Latham is also a regular opinion contributor at The Hill newspaper 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