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How Canada Can Speak With Its Own Voice: The Example of Latin America

Written By:
This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, Canada’s Interests in a Shifting Order

Earlier this year, the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy (IPD) organized a virtual roundtable on Latin America to discuss the nature and scope of Canada’s interests in the region, in the context of IPD’s broader program of work on Canada’s evolving interests in the context of a shifting international order.

Among the issues and perspectives explored in the roundtable were: where Latin America should fit in Canada’s strategic map in relation to other regions that have historically been higher-priority, such as Europe and Asia; whether it is possible to envisage deeper partnerships with key regional actors such as Brazil built on select issues, say climate change and environmental governance, even though our perspectives on other issues of priority to Canada may be at odds; and the extent to which it is strategically important for Canada to speak and be present in the region with its own distinct voice, values and perspectives. On this latter point, as will be detailed below, history illustrates how Canada has proven able to pursue an independent foreign policy while simultaneously maintaining good relations with its American neighbour.

The roundtable, expertly moderated by Guillermo Rishchynski, among the most eminent ‘Latin Americanists’ in Canadian diplomacy, attracted participants with widely diverse expertise and engagement in and with the region, and resulted in a free-flowing exchange of views and perspectives.

Many participants noted that despite a long history of engagement and positive relations with the region, Canada has only intermittently and briefly brought anything like a sustained high-level attention to Latin America. This was considered incongruous and inappropriate given that Latin America belongs to the hemisphere of which we are part, and also due to the region’s demonstrable importance to Canada from a range of perspectives, including significant commercial and investment interests, and a range of contemporary issues of global and regional importance, such as migration, various transnational threats and others. Beyond these traditional benchmarks of foreign policy significance, participants noted that Canada enjoys a not-insignificant comparative advantage in our relations with Latin America: we are seen as the ‘other’ prosperous, modern, well-governed and stable hemispheric partner, with none of the heavy controversial historical baggage that weighs down US relations and reputation in the region.

Canada enjoys a not-insignificant comparative advantage in our relations with Latin America: we are seen as the ‘other’ prosperous, modern, well-governed and stable hemispheric partner, with none of the heavy controversial historical baggage that weighs down US relations and reputation in the region.

Under the Harper government, perhaps for the only time, Latin America and the Caribbean were officially and publicly declared to be a foreign policy priority. But it is true, as was also noted critically during the roundtable, that the prioritization of Latin America under Harper expressed itself to a great degree in the negotiation of free trade agreements and the promotion of Canadian investment in the region, to a large extent in the extractive industries, including linking our development programs to support commercial projects.

It would be unfair to say that the Harper government’s “Americas strategy’ produced nothing of lasting value; the increase of high-level political attention certainly enhanced Canada’s political profile in the region. But an overly narrow focus on economic benefit, an at times excessive ideological/political identity rigidity (e.g. the response to the coup in Honduras, positions on Cuba at the Summit of Americas and the Falklands, etc.), and ultimately the distraction of higher priority events elsewhere (Afghanistan, the Middle East, Ukraine) undermined the opportunity for a transformational impact, if that was ever the objective.

In foreign policy, attention and resources must be sustained over time to become transformative; they weren’t in this case and haven’t been historically in Latin America. That lack of consistency and staying-power has been a challenge for Canada not only in Latin America, and as the stimulating series of IPD discussions over the past months on Canada’s place in a shifting global order has made clear, foreign policy prioritization, that is, where Canada should focus its political attention and resources, is as problematic as ever and arguably more consequential now than at almost any other time in our history. Canada is stretched, too thinly, across too many regions, issues and groupings, a function of history, alliances, demographics and diasporas not easily overcome.

Canada is stretched, too thinly, across too many regions, issues and groupings, a function of history, alliances, demographics and diasporas not easily overcome.

And it will always be the case, certainly for a country like Canada, that the deployment of the tools of international engagement — attention, time and resources — will be reactive, drawn to where the headlines are, regardless of whether the issue at play is an official priority or not. A participant in a recent IPD roundtable discussion argued emphatically that, in order to achieve impact where it mattered to Canada, we should reduce our commitments in Europe. Whatever the substantive merits of that argument might be (full disclosure: minimal in my view), can anyone imagine that in response to the events in Ukraine any Canadian government might have said we will not be devoting major attention to that issue because our priorities are elsewhere? Obviously, that would have been unthinkable — politically non-viable and unacceptable to Canadians and to our allies.

There is an illuminating Latin American example of this dynamic. One of the periods when Canada was able to bring sustained and effective high-level political attention and engagement to Latin America was during the conflicts in Central America of the 1980s and early 90s. Over the course of several years there was sustained political engagement, high-level visits to the region by the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister, Parliamentary committees and numerous senior officials, and Canada led the initial deployments of UN peacekeepers to the region. Canada established a clear identity in the region and beyond as a key external supporter of Central American-led peace processes.

Of course, there are multiple factors that influence where Canada or any comparable country chooses to invest foreign policy resources. In this case, the personal commitment of the foreign minister, Joe Clark, with the support of his prime minister Brian Mulroney played an important role. But the major driver was the fact that Central America was ‘in the news’, a major priority of U.S. foreign policy and a subject of significant interest to Canadians. These were, after all, the days of Ronald Reagan’s references to Managua being ‘two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas’ (resulting in a wonderfully memorable series of Doonesbury strips, perhaps the only good thing to come from that misguided U.S. approach to the region and its calamitous implementation.)

Looking back on this episode, what is striking is that Canada’s engagement was in direct contrast with US policy. While the US was imposing economic sanctions on Nicaragua and seeking to overthrow its government, Canada maintained cordial, even friendly relations with the Sandinista government and maintained bilateral development cooperation funding. Similarly in El Salvador and Guatemala, Canada spoke out clearly to condemn human rights abuses (committed by US-trained troops) and ran exceptional ‘in country’ refugee selection processes to allow individuals opposed to US-supported regimes to gain refugee status in Canada. All this under a Conservative government, and relations between a Canadian PM (Mulroney) and U.S. President (Reagan) that remained close and warm.

It is hard to imagine a Canadian government taking a position so openly in contradiction to US policy today (it may also be the case that there would be less tolerance for it in Washington). The recent case of Venezuela, where it is hard to see Canada’s ill-considered involvement being driven by anything other than an interest in winning points in Washington, stands in stark and unedifying contrast to support for negotiations and a ‘region-led’ peace process in Central America. And can anyone imagine that if Canada were today faced with a situation such as Cuba in 1960, that we would choose to resist U.S. pressure and set our own policy?

We should not underestimate the extent to which Canada’s international reputation and influence, and the admiration that has historically existed for Canada in Latin America and much of the world, has derived from our ability and willingness to speak with an independent voice.

We should not underestimate the extent to which Canada’s international reputation and influence, and the admiration that has historically existed for Canada in Latin America and much of the world, has derived from our ability and willingness to speak with an independent voice, to practice a diplomacy of strategic empathy, and to defend values that transcend the conjunctural interests of alliances.

Written By:
Matthew Levin
Matthew Levin is a member of IPD’s advisory board and, among other roles and postings in the Canadian foreign service, served as Canada’s ambassador to Colombia, Cuba and Spain.
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