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Washington Must Pivot to Break the Deadlock in Ukraine

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2023 was supposed to be the year of the Great Offensive. The proof that a NATO-armed and trained Ukrainian army could continue to build upon the successes of its heroic, underdog performance of 2022 and drive the Russians back to the 2014 lines of contact. Unlike previous Ukrainian offensives, such as the highly successful Kharkiv operation, the objectives and location of this attack were telegraphed to the world and  floundered in the face of conventional Russian material superiority, especially in artillery.

With the collapse of this operation, the mainstream narrative about the Russia-Ukraine war has once again shifted remarkably. The war opened with gloomy predictions of inevitable Russian victory in the form of conquering the entire Ukrainian country, then rapidly pivoted towards euphoric forecasts of total Ukrainian victory in light of the multiple embarrassing Russian failures at the beginning of the war. One extreme gave way to another. It is undeniable that Russian performance—especially in regards to logistics—was extremely poor in 2022. Yet, this fact did not change the fundamental balance of power between the two countries once it became apparent that Russian military resolve would not immediately crack.

Only a handful of countries supported Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Still, most of the world viewed it as a local European war. To counter this argument, as well as to bolster support for the West’s backing of Ukraine with unprecedented assistance in the form of munitions and sanctions, the Atlanticist establishment sought  to frame the war as a values-based and existential struggle against an imperial Russia—and by implication China and Iran— bent on world domination through an “authoritarian axis”.1Philip Bump. “The newly important American political axis: democracy vs autocracy”, The Washington Post, March 2022: By 2024, this narrative has all but faltered.2Paul Robinson, “Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine: Is the International Order in Crisis?”, 500 Days of Russia’s War: NATO, Europe, and the New Great Power Competition, The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, July 2023:

Importantly, the speed at which the Western rhetoric about the global import of the Ukraine War as the pivotal moral struggle of our time has been abandoned and the North Atlantic is beginning to explore the viability of a diplomatic solution shows that even many Western policymakers view the Ukraine war as an instantiation of great-power competition rather than as a grand civilizational clash of values between democracies and autocracies.3Conor Echols. “Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine and Russia are (quietly) talking,” Responsible Statecraft, October 2023:

The post-Ukraine behavior of third-party states, focused on their national interests, demonstrates how the world has already moved on from adopting Washington’s priorities—implying that those often “globalized’ priorities are out of sync with the geopolitical realities faced by many nations around the world.

Moreover, the post-Ukraine behavior of third-party states, focused on their national interests, demonstrates how the world has already moved on from adopting Washington’s priorities—implying that those often “globalized’ priorities are out of sync with the geopolitical realities faced by many nations around the world.

Long courted as a counter-China pole by Washington, India has done little to undermine its relations with Russia, even expanding its commercial ties with Moscow since 2022.4Tom O’Connor, “Why Biden Can’t Pry India Away from Russia”, Newsweek, June 2023: Many countries in Africa, meanwhile, sensed an opportunity to capitalize on the conflict and rebalance their relations in Russia’s favor, seeking more equitable security arrangements than those they formerly got from “Western” partnerships. To many countries around the world, a more multipolar world translates into greater opportunity for bidding the great powers against each other in order to get the best outcome for themselves.5Mariel Ferragamo, “Russia’s Growing Footprint in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 2023:

The bet many NATO-aligned countries made that Ukraine could become a global crusade around which to galvanize international support has failed. With massive amounts of resources being spent on a conflict that has not directly threatened any member of the NATO alliance, some realism has at last begun to penetrate the discussion after years of the Blob overlooking the fundamental realities of the conflict.

To achieve success, however, supporters of diplomacy must understand that two years of rhetoric about this being the most important struggle of our era will not disappear overnight. The key to persuading mainstream opposition about the necessity of diplomacy at this moment lies in emphasizing that neither Ukraine nor the exact nature of its eventual borders with Russia (recognized by Kyiv or not) is ultimately relevant to the global balance of power.

The Global Balance of Power and Heartland Theory

Ukraine’s fate may well be of critical import to the countries bordering it, but any argument for its relevance to more distant powers with global interests is far more suspect. The United States remains the most significant global power, which is why it is tied to the Postwar status quo and opposes revisionist designs on the world order.

In the end, U.S. interest boils down to preventing global hegemony by a rival power. This can be done via the strategy of offshore balancing, where a naval power uses its distance and seapower to enhance the ability of other states that stand in the way of revisionist rivals.6tephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy, Just World Books, 2018. However, due to policies inherited from the Global War on Terror era, Washington finds itself overextended, with too many tripwire military deployments and vulnerable logistical supply chains across the world.

Many of these strategic entanglements are peripheral to America’s core interests and prevent it from being an effective off-shore balancer.

Many of these strategic entanglements are peripheral to America’s core interests and prevent it from being an effective off-shore balancer. They may even reduce U.S. forces to vulnerable spectators in a conflict zone rather than decisive actors deterring extra-regional overreach by other great powers.

In a polycentric world of hard limits on force projection, the U.S. and its allies must establish regional priorities and reduce haphazard interventions. Ukraine simply does not make the list of geostrategic priorities, especially given the rise of China.7Patrick Porter, “The West Reborn? Not So Fast”, 500 Days of Russia’s War: NATO, Europe, and the New Great Power Competition. The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, July 2023:

Nevertheless, there exists a primacist faction in America that relies on realist-sounding claims and an interest-based language to champion continued U.S. involvement in Ukraine and beyond. Using geopolitical rationales such as “Eurasian Simultaneity”, U.S. strategists like Dov Zakheim8Dov S. Zakheim and Nicolas Gvosdev, “The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan”, Orbis, Vol. 66, Issue 2, 2022, Pages 143-150: and Andrew Michta,9Andrew Michta. “America’s Interest in Ukrainian Victory,” City Journal, April 2022: among others, posit that Ukraine is critical to America’s global strategic posture. We must therefore investigate the merit and origins of such claims on their own terms.

In 1904, the British geographer and scholar Halford Mackinder released an article in The Geographic Journal titled “The Geographic Pivot of History”. This piece, which would eventually become quite influential in both British and American geopolitical circles, postulated that the age of the maritime power’s unquestioned dominance over world affairs was coming to a close. Technological changes, particularly in the form of railroads and telegraphs, were going to produce massive gains for large, land-based Eurasian empires, particularly Russia.

Mackinder hypothesized that Russia (or, alternatively, an ascendant Germany making territorial gains in Eastern Europe at the expense of Russia or even a Russo-German alliance) would control resources inland with enough protective distance that they would be out of reach for the British Royal Navy, thus creating an unassailable Eurasian empire. Since the majority of the world’s population lived in Eurasia, Mackinder argued, any power that could dominate the supercontinent would soon dominate the world. This was “The Heartland”, with the more coastal parts of the world referred to as “The Rimland”. It therefore served the interests of the British, according to Mackinder, to keep the Heartland divided to prevent this hypothetical global domination from occurring.10Halford Mackinder, “The Geographic Pivot of History”, The Geographic Journal, Vol. 23 No. 4, April 1904:

The theory lost some traction early on as the year after the article’s release saw Japan successfully check Russian ambitions in the Pacific, and Moscow and London began an anti-German entente. Meanwhile, The First World War resulted in Russia and Germany being (temporarily) knocked out as decisive powers in world affairs.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, the Soviet Union rose as one of only two superpowers to remain standing. In such an environment, many revisited Mackinder’s views, revising and updating them to fit the Postwar world. The most notable from a contemporary policy perspective was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor of the Carter Administration. After retiring from that office, Brzezinski reiterated Mackinder’s arguments but from an American perspective in his influential 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: The domination of the Eurasian landmass by a single power was now the primary security concern of the United States, and it required active U.S. involvement in many parts of the world to prevent.11Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, Basic Books, 1997.

The old Mackinder-Brzezinski view of a global threat lurking in the Eurasian “heartland” is actually being used to give nominal, realist credence to continued support for a strategically unsound policy.

While the logic behind the first part of this neo-Mackinderian theory is generally sound, the very presumption of Eurasian hegemony by one state is not only historically implausible but also extremely dubious. Namely, the rational fear of a U.S. rival dominating Eurasia is confounded with Russia’s natural desire for a sphere of influence in its near abroad.12Alexander Brotman, “Ukraine and the Shifting Geopolitics of the Heartland”, Geopolitical Monitor, September 2022: It is implied by advocates of U.S. interventionism in Eastern Europe that a robust military response through NATO and aligned bulwarks like Ukraine will repel Moscow’s territorial expansionism and weaken Russia’s position vis-a-vis the United States.13Arta Moeini, David Polansky, and Coleman Hopkins, “Toward a Phenomenology of the U.S. Alliance System: Boon or a Scourge on America’s National Interest”, The Institute of Peace and Diplomacy, September 2022: However, not only does Russia (even together with its allies) lack the ability to unite Eurasia through imperial conquest, but there is also little indication that they have any desire to do so. As such, the old Mackinder-Brzezinski view of a global threat lurking in the Eurasian “heartland” is actually being used to give nominal, realist credence to continued support for a strategically unsound policy.

Subsequent events, including America’s endless wars in the Middle East, have shown that the theory’s second directive, which calls for more active U.S. intervention in and around Eurasia, is even more suspect. Mackinder’s prediction that land infrastructure would rapidly come to surpass the volume of maritime trade using cargo vessels is either incorrect or has not yet materialized. Brzezinski’s corollary that Central Asia would be vital for U.S. interests in keeping the Eurasian powers divided has also failed to convince, as the states there lack regional unity, are overshadowed by the regional powers, and are thus unable to form either a viable balancing bloc or even to serve as the lynchpin for global power projection for either China or Russia. 

The overland distances within Eurasia and the high degree of variance of the states and cultures inhabiting it, combined with their historical rivalries, naturally prevent major U.S. rivals like China or Russia from establishing any kind of meaningful cohesive hegemonic order across Eurasia. Meanwhile, the further U.S. power moves into inner Eurasia and away from its maritime center of strength, the more calamitous the results can be, as shown by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Washington’s pursuit of primacy over areas beyond the Eurasian Rimland has squandered its resources and driven disparate actors to align against it—actors who, absent U.S. involvement there, would be natural rivals.14Christopher Mott, “Iran-Taliban Clashes Prove America’s Rivals are Foes, Not Friends”, The National Interest, August 2022:

Over the short to medium term, the Rimland remains the central zone of contestation between great powers jockeying for advantage to tip the balance of power in the world. The rise of China and the concentration of power in Northeast Asia and North America has made the Pacific even more central, thus further challenging Mackinder’s notions about the strategic import of an inland Eurasian heartland. In this context, it is high time to revisit Ukraine’s irrelevance to the global balance of power game from a U.S.-based perspective.

Ukraine’s Peripheral Position in North Atlantic Strategy

Ukraine is a significant country in Europe, which may partly explain its newfound reputation as a lynchpin for global security. From the perspective of a world power with global interests, however, this reputation is harder to uphold. While home to 43 million people and an impressive agricultural sector before the war,15“Ukraine”, The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency: Kyiv is now almost entirely dependent on foreign military hardware—whether captured Russian equipment or industrial and military imports—and is experiencing severe downward demographic pressures that undermine its long-term military and strategic value.16Maxim Tucker, “Ukraine’s Birthrates are Plumetting. The Next Generation Needs a Plan”, The Times, The supporters of Ukraine, who are so critical to the war effort, are also wavering in their ability to maintain any sense of escalation dominance compared to the primary combatants on the ground.17Niall Ferguson. “The West’s Patience Is Running Shorter Than Ukraine’s War”, Bloomberg, September 2023:

The true determining factors in judging a country’s importance from the perspective of distant global powers, however, are to be found not in absolute rankings but in relative and situational ones. Ukraine may seem a locally consequential regional power when compared to Moldova or Austria, but its largest land border is with the far stronger Russia. It also shares the Black Sea region with yet another assertive middle power, Turkey. A bit further afield lies Germany, followed by France, Italy, and Britain. Given that a middle power is best defined by its regional strength and freedom of action in a specific neighborhood, Ukraine simply does not qualify.18Arta Moeini, Christopher Mott, Zachary Paikin, and David Polansky. “Middle Powers in the Multipolar World,” The Institute of Peace and Diplomacy, March 2022: Kyiv remains what it has been throughout its history: a fault-line state in the borderlands of different regional and cultural security complexes.

This sheds some light on the strange but unavoidable fact that not a single NATO country has a formal alliance with Ukraine. Even today, the future inclusion of Ukraine into the alliance—even after all this material and rhetorical solidarity—is uncertain at best. Since NATO itself is not under attack, and has both nuclear and conventional deterrence, claims that a loss for Ukraine poses a greater risk for NATO countries in general are unfounded at best. From an American perspective, the key to protecting the balance of power vis-a-vis Russia in Europe is not to be found in Ukraine, but in countries like Germany and Turkey that are already formally tied to the U.S. in security arrangements. Last but not least, Europe itself may no longer be central to maintaining the global balance of power as it once was during the Cold War.

Ukraine as a Permanent Thorn in Russia’s Side?

As things stand, the United States and Russia are undeniable geopolitical rivals. So Ukraine’s position as a potential poison pill in Moscow’s near abroad has to be considered on its own terms. Do the benefits of inflicting maximum damage on Russia, or giving it a “bloody nose”19Henry Foy. “What is the end game? Russia’s multipronged assault on Ukraine,” Financial Times, February 2022: by using Ukraine as a proxy, outweigh the extraordinary costs of such a policy?

Despite the “fog of war” that clouds the assessment of any ongoing conflict, certain observations can still be gleaned. From the perspective of the North Atlantic establishment, the argument for supporting Ukraine rests on its deterrence potential for inhibiting Russia from future military adventurism targeting its near abroad. While the fate of the Donbass is irrelevant to any country that lacks immediate borders with Ukraine, the high costs of seizing new real estate for Russia might, in the end, contribute to more restraint by Moscow in the future. Higher than expected Russian casualties might also induce greater reluctance for future adventurism by the Russian people, so the argument goes.

This couples another benefit North Atlantic states seem to have reaped from the war: raising the levels of suspicion and insecurity in countries that border Russia, particularly those with large Russian-minority populations. Perhaps the country most threatened by Russian irredentism after Ukraine, Kazakhstan has charted a more independent foreign policy course since the Ukraine War broke out, although it still maintains friendly relations with Russia.20Lynne O’Donnell, “Kazakhstan’s Leader Makes Neutrality an Art”,  Foreign Policy, November 2023: Negative emotions towards Moscow also inspired Finland and Sweden, two previously (formally) unaligned nations, to apply to join the NATO alliance. Perhaps most strikingly, Russia has likely gained the long-term enmity of the vast majority of Ukrainians, something that will simmer right on their border no matter where exactly the future of that border lies.

The Global Impact of the West’s Ukraine Policy

The ostensible gains of an interventionist U.S. policy in Ukraine thus come with substantial downsides. For every instance of solidarity in Europe unifying around Washington’s Atlanticism, there have been many more acts of divergence from Western policy elsewhere in the world.21Elliot Smith. “Ukraine War: How Russia’s Support is Growing in the Developing World”, CNBC, March 2023:

As mentioned before, India is a testament to how a suitably large middle power can and will get around North Atlantic sanctions regimes. Turkey, an official NATO ally but one with far more autonomy than most, deftly uses its strategic location controlling the Straits of Marmara to engage both with Russia and Ukraine, hoping to serve as a diplomatic vector between the countries even as it happily supplies Kiyv with weapons and Moscow with loopholes around sanctions.22Michael Kimmage and Hanna Notte, “Turkey’s Double Dealing in the Ukraine War”, The Wall Street Journal, July 2023: Iran and North Korea have both managed to increase their global prominence by indirectly assisting the Russian war effort.

Furthermore, Russia’s military reindustrialization around many key defense-related industries, the reinvigoration of its domestic economy, and subsequent redirection of commerce towards China shows that NATO-led economic sanctions have had little of their intended impact. In practice, they might have not only decreased Western diplomatic leverage but also bolstered the targeted regime.23Arta Moeini and Christopher Mott. “Economic Sanctions: A Failed Approach”, The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, September 2021: Currently, the Russian economy is on a wartime footing and its production of munitions and equipment is on the rise. Barring some kind of hypothetically plausible but unlikely collapse in military morale, Moscow is on course to strengthen its position over Ukraine the longer the conflict lasts.24Alexander Fabino, “Russia Dramatically Increased Weapons Production in 2023 Despite Sanctions”, Newsweek, January 2024:

The increase in North Atlantic investment in Ukraine has undermined that power and exacerbated logistical concerns for the United States, which has far too many commitments to non-critical regions of the world.

Backing a proxy war in Ukraine might have been a sound strategy back when Europe was the primary focus of the United States, but given the higher costs of great power competition in a multipolar world, it is especially imprudent. As the pivotal member of the North Atlantic alliance, the U.S. has seen its diplomatic leverage and military surplus stocks depleted in a quixotic quest for advantage in Eastern Europe—a region that has been the backbone of Russia’s power for centuries and that it considers its natural sphere of influence. But even during the Cold War, Moscow’s natural advantages in the East European Plain from the Urals to the Carpathians did nothing to undermine Washington’s global power. If anything, the increase in North Atlantic investment in Ukraine has undermined that power and exacerbated logistical concerns for the United States, which has far too many commitments to non-critical regions of the world.25Joe Buccino, “Global Conflicts Expose Dire U.S. Munitions Shortage”,  Real Clear Defense, January 2024:

All this has been further confirmed by recent events in the Middle East. While permanent U.S. presence in West Asia is every bit as suspect as its active involvement in Eastern Europe, that policymakers in Washington (if not those in Brussels or London) are so quick to pivot their attention away from Ukraine and onto Israel/Palestine reveals that even in the interventionist wings of the Blob, Ukraine is a lesser priority when it has to compete with the other fixations of primacy-advocates.26Abigail Hauslohner, Jeff Stein, Dan Lamothe, and Jacob Bogage, “Amid competing U.S. security priorities, Ukraine could get left behind”,  The Washington Post, November 2023:


With the crumbling of Beltway narratives about the Ukraine War as either a grand civilizational clash or a jihad for democracy, any judgment about whether external powers such as the United States and its allies should still support kinetic operations in Ukraine must be based on how the conflict will impact the global balance of power.

By assuming that Ukraine plays a critical role in that calculation, many analysts inadvertently apply an outdated and misguided neo-Mackinderian frame of reference focused on the supposed import of the Eurasian “heartland” to a global maritime power that is the United States. They thus lose sight of the shifting global balance of power and categorically misunderstand the world regions that truly are of vital importance to the United States.

While the fate of Ukraine may be crucial to several regional players within and around Eastern Europe, it lacks much of a global repercussion beyond those immediate regions. Furthermore, many such countries (i.e. Poland or Germany) are strong enough to counterbalance Russian designs in the region without any additional U.S. military involvement, allowing Washington to pivot to other priorities.

Considering the high costs of the Ukraine war for the United States and its strategic shortsightedness, Washington must pivot to diplomacy and try to find a negotiated solution with Russia. After all, the majority of conventional conflicts around the world are ultimately resolved through diplomacy, not overwhelming victory.27Christopher Mott, “Tell me how this ends: If recent history is a guide, not with a knockout blow”, Responsible Statecraft, March 2023:

Considering the current stalemate on the battlefield and the expected trajectories in manpower and logistics, however, any further delay in talks will only weaken Kyiv’s negotiating hand down the road.

Through its resolve to fight, the Ukrainian state has already extracted a high price from Russia and secured its strategic autonomy from Moscow. Considering the current stalemate on the battlefield and the expected trajectories in manpower and logistics, however, any further delay in talks will only weaken Kyiv’s negotiating hand down the road.

Written By:
Christopher Mott
Dr. Christopher Mott is a Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a former researcher and desk officer at the U.S. Department of State.
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