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‘There’s no easy answer’: Professor Thomas Juneau on the Middle East and managing Canada’s foreign policy priorities

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau who is the co-editor (along with Bessma Momani) of an interesting new book, Middle Power in the Middle East: Canada’s Foreign and Defence Policies in a Changing Region.

They discuss Canada’s lack of clear foreign policy priorities, Canada’s changing role in the Middle East, and the shifting realities of the region as the global War on Terror recedes.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by University of Ottawa Professor Thomas Juneau, who’s just edited a new book entitled, Middle Power in the Middle East: Canada’s Foreign and Defence Policies in a Changing Region. Thomas, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

THOMAS JUNEAU: Thanks, and thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: In your introduction to the essay collection, you and Bessma Momani, your co-editor, argue that while the Middle East is not a “first-order priority for Canada, we also cannot afford to retreat and ignore it.” Let me ask you a two-part question: One, why has it not been a priority in your view? And two, why would it be a mistake to withdraw attention and resources from the region?

THOMAS JUNEAU: You actually framed that question very well. The Middle East is not a first-order priority for Canada in terms of our foreign and defence policy. It’s not today, and it never was, and arguably, it never really will be. Our first-order priority for our foreign and defence policy—this has been bipartisan under both Liberal and Conservative governments and it’s not original to say this at all—it’s managing the relationship with the United States. By far and away, that’s the most important foreign policy priority.

Arguably, after that, you have NATO. You have our relations with other liberal democracies in Europe or in Australia. You have the Five Eyes. Now increasingly, you have a relationship on the more adversarial side with China. Where does the Middle East rank in terms of all that? In terms of the rhetoric, in terms of media attention, the Middle East is always there, so if you only look at the surface, you might think that the Middle East is actually really important for our foreign policy, because we’ve had a lot of foreign policy deployments, military deployments. We’ve had a lot of media attention, successive wars, and crises in the region. If you take a step back and look at the substance of our foreign policy, if you look at our actual national interests, it’s not a first-order priority.

Depending on how you define second and third-order priorities, it’s either of those. I would actually say, a third-order one after the U.S. and then after Europe, other democracies, the Five Eyes, and China, and then you have the Middle East. That being said, to answer the second part of your question, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a priority. There are still important things that happened in the Middle East that affect Canada.

It affects Canada for domestic reasons. We have diasporic communities, in particular, that have a keen interest in what happens in the region. That means that we cannot completely ignore it. Again, what happens in Syria, what happens in Iraq, what happens in Lebanon, in particular, will also affect us. It’s not a first-order priority, but it’s also not a region that we can ignore. It’s somewhere in the middle.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll come more deeply to the book in a minute. If we can just stay on the topic of thinking about Canadian foreign policy priorities, it’s often argued, Thomas, that other middle powers have done a better job of prioritizing their attention and resources than Canada. I think, for instance, of Australia, which seems they have fewer global priorities than we do but is a bigger player in its own region.

What do you think of that characterization? Is it something that Canadian policymakers ought to be thinking about, or are there reasons that such an approach wouldn’t work for us?

THOMAS JUNEAU: I think the answer is both. Yes, absolutely. Again, successive governments have not been very much able to articulate clear ranked foreign policy priorities. That being said, I think that’s largely the case as a result of our geography. We live alone in North America. Everyone agrees, even though we don’t always say it that clearly, everyone agrees or should agree that managing the relationship with the U.S. is, by far and away, the most important priority.

Ultimately, everything else ranks beyond that. Everything else has a more limited impact. If the U.S. decides to play nasty on us, it really hurts us. Other countries, increasingly China, but even then, not even close. When it comes to this never-ending debate on Canada articulating a foreign policy strategy, pundits love to talk about that. A lot of my academic colleagues love to talk about that.

It’s actually hard, because beyond the U.S., it’s not easy to articulate clear foreign policy priorities. Look at Africa or the Middle East or Latin America. What’s our interest in these regions? It’s not clear. It’s a limited interest, but it’s diffuse. It’s vague. In many cases, what we do in these regions is much more a matter of choice than it’s a matter of necessity.

When you’re in the realm of foreign policy choice, articulating interest is much more difficult than when you’re in the realm of necessity when the interest is actually clear. Ultimately, I think the answer to your question is, no, we haven’t done a very good job at articulating priorities, yes, we should try to make a better effort at doing it but keeping in mind that there’s no easy answer.

SEAN SPEER: What would the U.S. think if Canada rationalized its global focus? Would it welcome such an approach, or do the Americans prefer to have us broadly engaged, even if the result is that it’s constrained by limits on our attention and resources?

THOMAS JUNEAU: That’s a difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. A) I think what Canada does is not a major priority for the U.S. If you actually did go to the U.S. and interview foreign policy officials—which is something that I did for a book that we were actually on your show to talk about a year ago with Stephanie Carvin, our book on the intelligence side—we actually did go to the US and ask about this. It really depends who you talk to at the political level, at the bureaucratic level, at the foreign or defence policy side.

There’s no uniform answer to your question. Generally speaking, I think the answer would have to include that on the American side, there would be a willingness to see Canada increase its share of GDP to defence, to increase its foreign policy capacity in general, its national security and intelligence capacity in general. So there would be a willingness for Canada to do more in support of U.S. or NATO or Western foreign policy priorities.

If you scratch the surface a bit, you can hear this. There’s also a bit of a frustration in the U.S., but also here in the country, at the tradition in Canada to sprinkle our foreign and defence policy all over the world. To basically be able to say, “We’re showing the flag in Cameroon and in Uruguay, and in Lebanon, and in Cambodia,” and individually in all of these countries, for which you can make a case that they matter, but ultimately because of a lack of resources we are spread way too thin.

From an American perspective, I think you could say that there would be an interest, not just a willingness, in seeing a close ally like Canada be better focused. Again, it comes back to your previous question that how you do that is easier said than done.

SEAN SPEER: Let me put that to you. If we were to move in such a direction, which parts of the world should we focus our attention and resources and why?

THOMAS JUNEAU: By far and away, the most important interest for Canada is managing the relationship with the U.S. To some extent, everything else is secondary and even tertiary pretty easily because it is, by so much, our most important interest. Especially in the current context, where there is instability in the U.S., there’s uncertainty in the U.S., there’s growing polarization in the U.S.

What happens if Trump or a like-minded Republican comes back to power in just over two years and threatens to withdraw the U.S. from NATO? That is not a theoretical or far-fetched possibility. That’s actually a very concrete scenario. NATO is one of the pillars of our foreign and defense policy. What do we do? The answer to that is not clear to my mind, but we definitely need to think a lot more about that in this country. After the U.S., in terms of regional focus, it definitely has to be the Indo-Pacific.

In terms of building relations with democracies in like-minded states over there, Japan, South Korea, India—easier said than done but a lot of scope for improvement at that level. And better learning to manage and contain the rivalry with China. China is engaged in massive economic espionage operations here, massive cyber attacks, foreign interference, electoral interference, pressure on the Chinese diaspora here in Canada.

These, in a way, are foreign policy issues. Even if they touch on domestic security issues, we need to better equip ourselves to deal with that. Once you’ve done the U.S., once you’ve done the Indo-Pacific, realistically, there’s not a lot of bandwidth left. Should the Middle East occupy a portion of that limited bandwidth? Yes, I think it should, but by then, there’s not that much left

SEAN SPEER: Thanks, Thomas, for indulging me on some of those big picture questions. Let’s get to the book now. How, much is the modern history of Canadian policy, vis-à-vis the Middle East, a story of continuity or a story of change? What are some of the key ways in which Canadian policy has evolved and changed over the course of the period covered by the book?

THOMAS JUNEAU: There’s been a lot of continuity in terms of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. We largely focused the book in the last 10, 12 years, especially since 2011, the Arab uprisings, and so on. We touch a bit on the area before, but not much. We touch on both the Harper and Trudeau governments. There’s been a lot of continuity.

In both cases, the Middle East has not been a priority. There’s been different rhetoric between the two governments, but it has not been a major priority. In both cases, the relationship with Israel has been very close. The tone of the rhetoric with Israel has changed a bit. The Liberals have been less warm, less vocal about their support for Israel, but if you actually look at the substance of Canada’s relations with Israel, it has not changed a lot before and after 2015.

Even our relationship with Iran, there’s been a fair bit of talk about that. Yes, in terms of their rhetoric and in some of their actions, the Harper administration, the Harper government, was much more aggressive in its opposition to Iran. The Liberals did try to reopen embassies, that’s true, that’s a difference, but A) they failed, so ultimately, we’re still pretty much at the same point, no embassies, and B) beyond the issue of embassies—which is only a small part even though it gets a fair bit of media attention, it’s only a small part of relations—the Liberals remain broadly committed to the U.S.-led Western approach of containing and opposing an aggressive Islamic Republic of Iran. Fundamentally, that has not changed, even if some of the rhetoric and some of the style has changed.

The Gulf, this is one area where there’s been a bit of change. By the Gulf I mean the Arab states on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar. The Harper government, especially in its latter years, put a fair bit of energy to bring Canada closer to the UAE, Saudi Arabia. The Liberal government, when it came in 2015 was less interested. In this case, it’s not only the tone that cooled down a bit, but it’s also the investment was limited on the Harper side, but on the Trudeau side, it decreased in terms of its intensity, not just the warmth of the tone.

Then you had the dispute with Saudi Arabia in 2018, which led relations not only with Saudi Arabia but to a lesser extent, some of its neighbours to get into a bit of a freeze. In that case, you do have a bit more of a difference. Even then, it shouldn’t be exaggerated because, yes, relations were warmer under Harper, but they were still marginal.

Our trade with Saudi Arabia was between $3 billion and $4 billion per year before the 2018 dispute. That’s tiny. That’s one day of trade with the U.S. One day. To say that things have actually changed is not inaccurate, but in the bigger picture is not very important.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll come back to the Gulf states in a minute. Before I do, more than 20 years after 9/11, it seems somewhat surprising, in hindsight, that the Islamic terrorist threat was not bigger and that the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror was not more protracted. Why do you think that’s the case? What happened, and what have been the consequences?

THOMAS JUNEAU: That’s an interesting question. If we had written this book 12 years ago in 2010, I think—I’m guessing here, but I can speculate—that there might have been more of a focus on terrorism because in the decade of the 2000s, because of Afghanistan, because of what was going on in Iraq. Al-Qaeda was on everybody’s minds, that would have been more prominent.

Today, in 2022 when we worked on the book—this is an academic book, right? The work happened from basically 2019 to ’21—but today, when we think about the Middle East from a Canadian foreign and defense policy perspective, Al-Qaeda is still a threat. Al-Qaeda has not disappeared. The Islamic State, the same thing. When we collectively think about the Middle East, it’s one issue among many others in a way that is more diluted than it would have been if we had done a book like this throughout the 2010s.

Even in terms of our defence policy in the region, we have one chapter in the book, a really good chapter by Nizar Mohamed and Mike Flick, on capacity-building by the Canadian Forces in the region, in the Palestinian territories, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. A good chunk of the Canadian Forces’ capacity-building efforts in the region aims to support regional militaries in their fight against terrorism, but it’s really not the only reason that we’re there.

Small parenthesis, we could definitely criticize the government, the current one, but also the previous one, for not being transparent enough in explaining to Canadians why we’re there. Why are the Canadian Forces training the Jordanian or Iraqi or Palestinian militaries or security forces? Clearly, it’s not the only reason. Look at Iraq. What is the main threat to the Canadian Forces’ presence in Iraq right now?

It is not the Islamic State anymore, even if that is the original reason why we deployed there. It’s Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq. That example illustrates how our activities in the region at the defence policy level, but at the foreign policy level too, have really diversified from the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State threats, which are still there but are not the only thing on our radar.

SEAN SPEER: How do the recent agreements between Israel and some of its neighbouring Arab states, including current reports of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, change the Middle East’s fundamental geopolitical dynamics? Are we witnessing something of an historic shift, and what does it mean for Canada?

THOMAS JUNEAU: As a good Canadian, I come in the middle on what we call the Abraham Accords. On the one side, you have critics who say, “It’s not very important. It’s not good for the Palestinians.” On the other side, you have supporters who say, “It’s a huge deal. It’s a historic shift.” I’m in the middle. It’s a big deal. This is an important shift in Middle Eastern geopolitics to have Israel now formally have relations with four Arab states: Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain, and the UAE, maybe Saudi Arabia.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to reach a formal point anytime soon, but informally, there is definitely a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. That’s a big deal, and we can’t deny that. It’s a security relationship, but it’s more than that. It’s a diplomatic relationship. It’s a tourism relationship, which is developing quite a bit. This would’ve been unimaginable just a few years ago. It’s a trade relationship.

Yes, it’s a trade relationship on the security side because as we’ve seen, somewhat critically in many cases, there’s a lot of trade of security and defence technologies, but not only that, green technologies, agricultural technologies, and other aspects. A lot of that is a good thing. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it a historical tectonic shift because we’re not quite at that level, but it’s real and a lot of it is positive.

Some of it is also negative. Yes, the Palestinians are being thrown under the bus by these deals because part of the agreement between the Palestinians and Arab states was no recognition until the Palestinians have a state. There is recognition of Israel by four and implicitly more than four Arab states. Does that cost the Palestinians leverage? Does it punt further in the future some resolution of the tragedy of their lives?

Yes, there might be a counterargument that the stabilization of relations between Israel and Arab states actually, by decreasing Israeli threat perceptions, opens the door for a resolution of that issue, and that is plausible. I absolutely reject those who dismiss that argument, but I’m not seeing it for now. Are we going to see that in the future? I hope so, but we’re not seeing it now. Overall, it is a nuanced take, but if I come on and decide that it is positive in many ways.

What does it mean for Canada? A) not that much, to be honest, because again, going back to the initial point in our discussion, the Middle East is not a first-order priority for Canada, so this does not rank in terms of first-order consequences. Overall, if it’s good for stability in the Middle East, if it’s good for trade in the region, it is good for Canada.

Our trade with the region is very low. It has never been high. If this can open up opportunities for Canadian businesses to take advantage of that certain stabilization between some countries, that’s a good thing, but ultimately, it does remain limited.

SEAN SPEER: The book contains essays from a number of young and up-and-coming foreign policy scholars. Thomas, it reminded me of a 2020 Globe and Mail column by John Ibbitson in which he outlined the rise of a new set of foreign policy realists in the world of Canadian academia, who rejected what he described as, “The Pearsonian platitudes that still dominate Canadian foreign policy.” What do you think of that characterization? Is there something of a change occurring among Canadian foreign policy scholars? If so, what explains it?

THOMAS JUNEAU: That’s an interesting question, too. I agree with what Ibbitson wrote in that column. As a realist myself, I obviously appreciated the shout-out. I think it’s true, but it’s not universal. There’s significant elements of the younger generation—by younger, depending on how you define them, is it under 40? That excludes me. Is it under 50? Then I’m good.

Some of them are realist, and that’s true. I think it there’s a case to be made there are more of them than in the past. Linking it to the book, we made an effort, which was an easy effort, to be clear, to have a very diverse set of contributors. We wanted new voices, people who had not been heard on these issues before. We wanted diverse voices in terms of ideology.

We have people who would not consider themselves as realist in this book, to be very clear, but some people who would, myself included, but we wanted that diversity of perspectives. Ultimately, what we wanted with this book, beyond the issue of having a diversity of perspectives, which I think we got, just having a book on Canada, Middle East relations. The last book on this issue came out 15 years ago, co-edited by Bessma Momani, my co-editor for this book, and Paul Heinbecker, a retired diplomat.

That was a good book, but that was 15 years ago, so we were really trying to fill an important gap here.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll ask you about one of your contributors when we wrap up. Before we do, let me just ask you a penultimate question. We’re speaking on May 24th, and as the member of a task force established at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs on National Security, you’ve just released a major report on Canadian national security issues.

It sets out a series of recommendations. I won’t name all of the members of the task force, but it’s an impressive collection of academics and people who’ve been involved in Canada’s national security establishment, including people like Dick Fadden, Daniel Jean, Roland Paris, Nada Semaan, and others.

Why don’t you just paint a bit of a picture for listeners who probably haven’t had a chance to read the report at this point, but will when this podcast eventually is released, on some of the key insights and recommendations in the task force report?

THOMAS JUNEAU: This task force, which I co-led with Vincent Rigby, who very recently retired as national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister—on the public service side, he was a civil servant, not on the political side. We brought together a dozen people, former directors of CSIS, other former national security advisers, deputy ministers of foreign affairs and defence, everybody involved, in one way or another, with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of Ottawa, where you were, where I am.

The basic idea is that—and in a way, it touches on some of the issues we discussed at the beginning of this podcast—Canada has benefited for decades from a secure position. We’re a lucky country. We’re surrounded by oceans. We have the U.S. to the south. Not always an easy relationship, but by and large, we’ve massively benefited in terms of security and prosperity. This is all good. We’re not saying that the end of the world is right around the corner, but there’s a growing number of threats.

The rise of China, Russia, as we can see in Ukraine, Islamic terrorism is still there, the rise of right-wing extremism, climate change, which will impact us in multiple ways, including at the security level, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. That calls for a bit of a wake-up call. We’ve neglected security issues because we could, but we think that will be increasingly difficult. Canada really has a tradition of being reactive on national security issues. We do something either when it’s too late or once we’ve been hit by something.

To some extent that’s unavoidable, but we’re hoping to contribute to what is really a limited debate in this country on national security issues by putting them out there. Our goal, Roland Paris’ and mine, in putting together this task force with Vincent Rigby and others, was that the names involved would bring a bit of attention to the issue.

On that basis, we make 60 recommendations, or about 60 recommendations. Some of them, very granular in terms of tools, on information sharing, on modernizing the CSIS Act, on transparency, on governance. Some of them, at a much higher level, for example, in terms of something as basic as having a national security strategy, which we haven’t had for almost 20 years.

Some folks may agree with a lot, may disagree with some or a lot. That’s perfectly fine. Ultimately, what we want as former bureaucrats, academics, nonpartisan people in every case, is to contribute to the discussion because we need that.

SEAN SPEER: I mentioned, Thomas, that I wanted to wrap up our conversation with the question about the contributors to the essay compilation on Canada’s policy in the Middle East. One of the book’s contributors and a colleague at the University of Ottawa, David Petrasek, passed away before the book’s release. What was he like, and what was his contribution to the advance of human rights?

THOMAS JUNEAU: David Petrasek was a colleague of ours at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Genuinely one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. When I started at the university, many times, he came to my office, you’re a new professor, it’s always a bit overwhelming, he was extremely nice to me. Would talk about the job, how to do it, and so on.

David was very well known internationally on the human rights front. Had worked as a practitioner for a long time with Amnesty International, with the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, with others, before moving back to Canada, he was from Canada, with his kids to be able to live here and teach. Was a great colleague, very well respected, both on the academic side, on the practitioner side, in the human rights world. Had published a lot. Was present in the media.

David had been sick before, had recovered, wrote a very good chapter on the place of human rights in Canada’s policies in the Middle East, an extremely good chapter, consistent with other things he had said or written over the years. Tragically, between the time that he finished this chapter and the publication of the book, he passed away, so we decided to dedicate the book to his memory.

I remember when we sent an email to the chapter contributors in the book suggesting this, of course, the support for the idea was overwhelming, and the publishers, of course, had no problem with this. It’s still difficult to talk about it because I’m still not over it. It just made sense to do this because this was an issue that he was passionate about, that he was interested in.

SEAN SPEER: Well, if listeners want to read Thomas and Bessma’s beautiful dedication to David and more importantly, David’s insightful essay, they ought to read the new book entitled, Middle Power In The Middle East: Canada’s Foreign and Defence Policies in a Changing Region. Thomas Juneau, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

THOMAS JUNEAU: Thanks for having me.