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Liberal Order in Crisis: Does Canada Still Have Global Interests?

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, European Security in a Shifting World Order: Debating Canada’s Role.

What are Canada’s foreign policy priorities?

That question is harder to answer than ever. Since the end of the Cold War, Canada has cast about for international purpose. Experimentations with human security in the 1990s gave way to the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism after 2001, which anchored Canada’s international purpose for over a decade. After 2016, Donald Trump’s presidency forced Ottawa to consider Canada’s core interests when America came first. Then came Covid-19 and the anguished management of a global pandemic. In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine knocked the pandemic off the front pages.

Stand back and you can see a pattern: Canada’s post-Cold War foreign policy has lurched from issue to issue without a clear grand strategic aim. Complicating the matter is the changing structural context of world politics. Since the end of World War II, Canada’s foreign policy was conducted within the scope of the US-led liberal international order – the system of interlocking institutions and norms that bound the “West” together. After going global in the 1990s, that order began to contract in the 2010s and is facing direct challenges in the 2020s.

Now Canadians must confront harsh realities about the country’s place in the world. Chief among them is that Canada cannot pursue the expansive foreign policy it once sought. More to the point, Canada’s economic and security fate lies in North America and its foreign policy should be prioritized accordingly.

This does not mean jettisoning Europe or the liberal international order, particularly when they are all threatened by Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine. Rather, it means establishing priorities focused first on the US, then Europe, then the international order. Sometimes the three will align; but when they do not, a clear hierarchy of interests must prevail so the country can match its limited means with plausible goals.

Canada’s Declining Profile… and Increasing Lack of Direction

The reality is that Canada is not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. This upsets many of the public myths about Canada’s role as a “good global citizen”. Though it was present at the creation of NATO, the United Nations, the idea of foreign aid, peacekeeping and the International Criminal Court (among other things), the country’s influence has waned considerably over the decades. The cold truth is that Canada is vulnerable in a world of great and emerging great powers, most of whom don’t give Canada much thought at all – and when they do, find a country whose words do not always match its actions.

The cold truth is that Canada is vulnerable in a world of great and emerging great powers, most of whom don’t give Canada much thought at all – and when they do, find a country whose words do not always match its actions.

For years, if not generations, Canada’s leaders swaddled the country’s foreign policy in generalities about the liberal international order and feelgood myths about peacekeeping, middlepowerdom, foreign aid, and “punching above our weight”. Platitudes will no longer cut it. The global security environment is changing quickly, and Canada’s role has been shrinking.

Consider three recent events.

The first occurred in in October 2023 during the first month of the Israel-Hamas war. With little ability to contribute by way of regional diplomacy, Canada’s Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly spent her time hustling around the Middle East arranging flights and busses out of the danger zone for Canadian citizens. This is hardly a heavyweight move in world politics. It is foreign policy as travel agency.

The second is the rupture in the relationship with India. In September 2023, Prime Minister Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to accuse India of assassinating a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil. The incident involved the murder of a Sikh independence activist in Surrey, BC, a man whom India regards as a terrorist. The modest support Canada received from its closest allies prompted foreign policy watchers to observe that “Canada is alone in the world”.

The third is the handwringing over Canada’s exclusion from AUKUS – an Indo-Pacific security agreement struck in September 2021. Its partners – Australia, the UK and the US – formed the group to foster cooperation on emerging defence technologies. Not only was Canada was left out but officials in Ottawa were unaware that negotiations were in progress.

The three foreign-policy issues have one thing in common, namely that Canada was excluded, marginal, or left twisting in the wind.

Perhaps “alone” is a step too far. After all, Canada is a full participant in the United Nations, NATO and other organizations that constitute the liberal international order. And on the principal transatlantic security issue – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Canada is part of a multinational effort to supply Ukraine with the wherewithal to defend itself. What comes after the war, and what Canada will contribute remains to be seen. For now, though, the unevenness of Canada’s relevance and its capacity to act is striking.

Compare this to the war in Afghanistan, where Canada visibly made outsized contributions to the NATO effort. But this was more the outcome of Ottawa’s (eventual) willingness to accept risky missions and higher casualties than efficacious defence spending. It was also done out of an abiding need to be seen performing well alongside key allies. In any event, Kandahar now seems like a lifetime ago.

The end of Canada’s Afghanistan war in 2014 removed what had been Canada’s primary international project for thirteen years. Two years later, Donald Trump filled the gap and forced Canada to refocus on its most important relationship. The change since Trump left the White House has been remarkable. The clarity of purpose raised by his threat to Canada’s economic security and its core international partners has been supplanted an inability to prioritize.

Upholding the “rules-based international order” remains the Trudeau government’s stated foreign policy but it is unclear if that goal is plausible, what exactly it entails or if Canada has the means to achieve it.

Upholding the “rules-based international order” remains the Trudeau government’s stated foreign policy but it is unclear if that goal is plausible, what exactly it entails or if Canada has the means to achieve it. Nor has the government given much clear direction on its hierarchy of goals. Elected leaders need to think clearly about what Canada’s goals are in the world and what can be reasonably accomplished with limited means.

Four Orientations in Canada’s Foreign Policy

In a speech to the Economic Club of Toronto in October 2023, Joly took the audience on rhetorical world tour. She asked the audience to imagine Canada’s place on the world map, then she wheeled through the four cardinal directions, detailing Canada’s interests and activities. Her account of the facts was fine. The problem for Canada is priorities.

In one sense, it is a good problem to have. Core national interests of security, autonomy, and prosperity have been stable throughout the country’s history. Indeed, security and prosperity have always been secured by the advantages of geography and the hegemon of the day. Establishing purpose and priorities beyond that is the hard part. To what Canada’s international engagement is oriented answers the question “what are Canada’s foreign policy priorities?”

There are four basic orientations that guide Canada’s global engagement.

The first is internationalism, an approach to world politics that is committed to global organizations charged with maintaining peace. How internationalism is practiced varies depending on the country, but there are common elements such as commitments to multilateralism and international institutions. In more practical terms, internationalism means working through organizations like the UN, the International Monetary Fund, as well as through mechanisms like the Paris Climate Agreement and the G20.

Though different prime ministers have shown variable enthusiasm, internationalism has been the guiding principle of Canada’s foreign policy for nearly eighty years. Most recently, the country’s commitment to internationalism was reaffirmed by then-Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in 2017 at the outset of Trump’s presidency. His “America First” agenda prompted her to make a clear statement in the House of Commons defending the prevailing order and declare the Liberal government’s intention to stay the course. That speech was the clearest statement of Canada’s strategic goals in over a decade.

Security and prosperity have always been secured by the advantages of geography and the hegemon of the day. Establishing purpose and priorities beyond that is the hard part.

The second orientation is the transatlantic community, manifest most obviously in NATO. Institutionalized cooperation, including participating in security operations, offers Canada and other European states a valuable mechanism for acting collectively in the defence of the West.

Canada’s most prominent military missions have been undertaken under the NATO flag in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, while its ongoing support to Ukraine is undertaken in coordination with NATO partners. Within the transatlantic community, bilateral relationships with Britain and France have outsized influence on Canada’s foreign policy. Indeed, one of the main factors that determine whether Canada goes to war is the participation or non-participation of those two countries. Thus, NATO and the wider transatlantic community is an influential orientation point in Canada’s foreign policy, sometimes even more so than internationalism.

A third, narrower understanding of Canada’s foreign policy is entirely US-centric. Continentalism is an orientation that understands the North American space to be the main site of Canadian political, economic, social, and cultural life. Accordingly, Canadian leaders regard the relationship with Washington as by far the most important in the world, a sentiment that is obviously not reciprocated. This leaves Canada the junior partner in North America.

Canadian leaders regard the relationship with Washington as by far the most important in the world, a sentiment that is obviously not reciprocated. This leaves Canada the junior partner in North America.

Indeed, the Canada-US partnership is a complex bargain. Canada enjoys the security benefits of US hegemony and access to its markets, but must also guard against intrusions on its own autonomy in many domestic policy areas. “Sleeping with an elephant” also leaves Canada’s economy vulnerable to American political trends, like border closures after 9/11 and during Covid-19, or during periodic bouts of US protectionism. Perhaps more telling of America’s enormous importance to Canada was the “Team Canada” approach to the 2018 NAFTA renegotiations. It was remarkable how little partisan bickering there was in Canada over the proceedings. Indeed, the matter was so serious that parties and other interests across the country aligned in support of the government’s negotiations.

Domestic politics adds to the complexity. This fourth orientation denotes a range of factors including, among other things, diasporic activism. Indeed, diasporic activism in a pluralistic immigrant society is an essential part of Canada’s political life. However, this implicates electoral politics in foreign policy.

In multicultural Canada, there are significant diasporic communities many of which are concentrated in electorally significant parts of the country. For example, Sikhs in BC, Ukrainians on the Prairies, and Jews in Montreal and Toronto often advocate on behalf of their respective kin states (or in the case of Sikhs, their potential independence from India). Thus, domestic audiences – and electoral implications – become an orientation point for leaders in the making of foreign policy. Even if a government resists the influence of diasporic interest groups, it cannot escape the appearance of a “vote bank compulsion” in foreign policy.

These four orientations are not mutually exclusive and sometimes, when the points align, it is much easier for governments to pursue certain foreign policy objectives. This was the case with Afghanistan in 2001 and Ukraine in 2022. But it is not always so; for example, in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq or the 2023 Israel-Hamas war. In these latter cases, it is much more difficult for a government to take clear or consequential positions.

Herein lies the problem: these different orientations are all valid guides to foreign policy, but what is the order of importance? With multiple orientation points, Canada’s overarching strategic purpose is not clear. When everything is a priority, nothing is.

Setting Priorities

Despite all the gesturing to internationalism, Minister Joly’s speech might have said more than she let on; her tour around the cardinal points began with south. Whether or not this was intentional is not clear, but it was undoubtedly instructive. In the twenty-first century, Canada’s security and economic fate is tied to the US while Canadians’ self-conception is still internationalist. Fashionable or not, it is time to accept the reality that Washington should be Canada’s principal orientation and maintaining healthy relations with the US ought to be the point of Canada’s foreign policy. Europe must come second and liberal internationalism third.

Fashionable or not, it is time to accept the reality that Washington should be Canada’s principal orientation and maintaining healthy relations with the US ought to be the point of Canada’s foreign policy. Europe must come second and liberal internationalism third.

Being secondary does not mean being unimportant. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens all three external orientations in Canada’s foreign policy. Therefore, Canada ought to provide material support to Ukraine until the war ends, whatever the outcome. Indeed, Canada should remain committed to the peace and stability of Europe. After all, Canada needs access to the European markets and NATO as a deterrent. Since Canada has no plans to meet NATO defence spending targets, it should commit what defence resources it can to the “front lines” of the continental and transatlantic realm – the Arctic and Eastern Europe.

However, what Canada should not do is just as important. This includes peacekeeping missions in areas that are outside of Canada’s priority area – such as Mali where CAF members were deployed in 2018-2019, or Haiti where the government demurred. A reorientation of this sort would represent a considerable shift away from the post-Cold War foreign policy where Canada attempted to project its influence far and wide. Today, Canada’s foreign policy leaders and Canadians more generally need to make a few concessions to reality. Canada may have global interests but not the means to pursue them. The time is now to set priorities in ways that policymakers have not done in the past.

Written By:
Aaron Ettinger
Dr. Aaron Ettinger is Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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