[ANALYSIS] A Multi-Peripheral Middle Power: Strategizing Canada’s Next Security & Defence Policy

Andrew Erskine
Canada participating at a G7 meeting in 2017
Source: CGAI, 2019

After the September 20th election, Canadians voted for Parliament to remain unchanged—electing a liberal minority government with Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. Despite the election being heavily impacted by domestic politics, the run-up to election day was racked by foreign policy blunders. Although the political party leaders of Canada discussed the failed withdrawal of Afghanistan, the two Michaels, and declining Sino-Canadian relations, no major party put forward a national defense and security strategy.

In a transitioning period of foreign relations, the international rules-based order—a system that Canada helped create and sustain—is being tested and rearranged to reflect the growing shifts in power politics, strategic competition, and coalition building. Best captured by China’s ever-growing presence in the Indo-Pacific and struggle for Taiwan; the US and Great Britain undermining France’s, a fellow NATO ally, submarine deal with Australia to establish an Anglosphere security pact known as AUKUS; and Russia’s re-assertive behavior and militaristic stance towards Ukraine and Eastern Europe, it is time for Canada and its government to develop a national defense and security strategy that can protect, advance and attain its national interests. Canada’s only national strategy, Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy, from 2004 can no longer be relied upon as an established and tested framework for security and defense planning in lieu of the current geopolitical environment. 

As the second installment of a three-part analysis on Canadian foreign policy, this article pushes the boundaries of contemporary Canadian foreign policy thinking to demonstrate the need for a new national strategy. It will also bring forward updated aspects of middle power-hood that can contribute to pragmatic and rational planning for how Canada can protect, advance, and attain its national interests in areas of security and defense

What is a Middle Power?

To develop a new national defense and security strategy, Canadian governmental and departmental planning analysts, officers and leaders need to revise their concept of what Canada is and is not within a regional and global context of a multipolar rules-based order. The first area that needs updating is Canada’s status as a middle power. 

As we understand them today, middle powers were created in the aftermath of World War II and against the backdrop of the Cold War’s bipolarity. Since the early 1970’s academic scholars and professional policy experts—ranging from Carsten Holbraad, Robert Cox, Andrew Cooper, and Roland Paris—have arrived at a consensus that there are specific traits that a middle power needs to exhibit. These middle power traits vary, but they tend to follow the same line of theoretical thinking detailing the need for a middle power to have ‘middle-range’ geographical, positional, and behavioral attributes and capabilities. 

With these central elements of middle power characteristics being universally agreed upon and frequently recycled in scholarship and strategic analysis, middle power concepts have welcomed numerous and varying state actors into the middle-tier of power classification. For instance, countries like Canada, Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand are commonly identified as middle powers. More recently, however, countries like Russia, Brazil, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have also been identified as such.

A Multi-Peripheral Middle Power

A quote from former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (Source: Twitter, 2017)

If Canada believes that its national security and defense interests are still best advanced and attained as a middle power, it needs to be steadfast in exhibiting middle power characteristics. With the geopolitical environment becoming more competitive and, at times, confrontational, Canada needs to update its middle power traits to become a more prominent actor with legitimate stacks in a rapidly shifting multipolar rules-based order

To accomplish such a feat, Canada should reinforce its ‘middle-range’ positional traits—medial geopolitical positioning, economic standards, and diplomatic proficiency—to sway away from the traditional one material measurement of middle power-hood. By incorporating its conventional military power and global diplomatic footprint, Canada can better showcase its ‘middle-range’ position to great and small powers.

Second, Canada must exhibit a trait of being content with its geopolitical and hierarchical ranking in the rules-based order. Despite having a limited ability to project hard power or high capacities for political, economic, and diplomatic pressures, middle powers best serve their national interests when they occupy their rank as contentedly as possible. Such a trait will accredit Canada with being a benign power in the geopolitical order’s construct and hierarchy. 

This normative belief will project Canada as a representative power that aims to maintain the order’s integrity and prosperity as it provides a “common advantage” for all members in advancing their national interests. Overall, this trait will showcase any assertiveness and prudent strategic orientation from Canada as a reaction to maintaining and advancing a fixed and legitimate structure of power parity.

Thirdly, Canada needs to employ a foreign policy that builds upon the normative essence of liberal-realism that manifests stewardship over a hierarchical order, thereby legitimizing and bridging the system’s governance to top-tier and lower-tier powers. By establishing stewardship elements in its national strategy, Canada can affix their historical tendencies with the new realities of multipolarity, power politics, and strategic competition.

Lastly, Canada needs to manifest its middle power status with a distinguished geographical trait that harnesses its resources and capabilities to better posture and engage among neighboring state actors and extra-regional powers, thereby rooting its strategic orientation to multiple geopolitical zones.

Although these characteristics may be challenging to update in a national defense and security strategy, Canada can swiftly adapt them when interposing itself as a multi-peripheral middle power with regional prominence in three geopolitical flanks—namely the Arctic, transatlantic, and transpacific regions.

An Arctic Power

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands on an iceberg as he talks with then-Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk in a training exercise during Operation Nanook in Resolute, Nunavut
Source: Atlantic Council, 2011

Canada’s attitude towards its northern region is best captured through its most recent self-proclaimed national identity as an Arctic state. Released in 2000, the Northern Dimension of Foreign Policy, completed the shift of Canada’s foreign policy strategy that linked and enhanced its national security and defense to human security, along with the establishment of a circumpolar region as a legitimate extension of the rules-based order.

Canada also used the Arctic as a vital geopolitical instrument to extend and advance its national interests and values onto regional institutions and diplomatic infrastructure that led to the creation of the Arctic Council. Canada also was influential in developing its Arctic interests by sending a delegation to the UNCLOS III discussions in the early 1980s that resulted in the treaty to include a ‘Canadian Clause.’ Article 234, as it is known, included support for Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a vital waterway that acts as a shipping route for commercial vessels to transport public goods from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

As a geopolitical flank of Canadian national security and defense in recent years, the Arctic has undergone a strategic paradigm shift. Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, from 2006 to 2015, the governmental strategy was directed to emphasize greater state-centric policies over territorial sovereignty and concerns from a larger Russian military footprint in the region. By contrast, the current Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has taken a community-based perspective, assuming that its interests over Arctic security and defense are better served from domestic-oriented policies that promote and protect Indigenous communities and the environment.

The northern territorial claims of the Arctic Powers.
Source: The Economist, 2014

However, as power politics and multipolarity become more pronounced in international relations, Canada needs to update its Arctic strategy to anticipate and prepare for likely and future conventional, unconventional and grey-zone threats. Moreover, as the damages from climate change continue, the Arctic will become a geopolitical landscape of opportunity with the discovery of new natural resources, resulting in new avenues for strategic competition. Lastly, the Arctic will undoubtedly become a geopolitical zone that will test a rules-based structure as state and non-state actors seek to ignore and project their power over crucial institutional and territorial jurisdictions.

For these reasons, Canada must become a prominent Arctic power by using its middle power credentials that integrate its ‘middle-range’ capabilities with liberal-realist principles to enhance its sovereignty and military deterrence through a stewardship attitude to seize the Arctic’s potential on Canadian national security and defense.

A Transatlantic Power

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels
Source: NATO, 2021

Canada has identified itself as a transatlantic power for much of its existence, reflecting its founding culture and traditional immigration patterns arriving from Europe, its involvement in both transatlantic theatres of World War I and II, and the transatlantic region’s central importance to Canadian foreign policy belief, alongside continentalism and multilateralism, in the postwar period. With its strong transatlantic linkages, strategic orientation, and grouping with the triumphant West, Canada was successful in becoming a distinguished member of NATO—where today it has a leading role in Eastern Europe with Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP)—and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the predecessor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Despite the rise of China and the economic importance of the Indo-Pacific region, Canada must maintain a strong, secure, and anchored transatlantic strategy. Although it is easy to take for granted the security and defense certainties of Canada’s eastern flank, the rumblings brought on by Russia’s renewed assertion of military behavior to Eastern Europe, the decline of European liberal democracies, the fragility of North Africa and the Middle East to terrorist organizations and mass migration, along with China’s ever-growing desire to widen its monetary footprint in Europe, highlight the reasons for why Canada cannot completely shift its strategic orientation towards new and more ‘attractive’ geopolitical zones.

Map showcasing NATO ‘s eFP and Canadian military leadership in Latvia
Source: NATO

Canada should reinforce its strategic posture and traditional linkages to the transatlantic region to advance Canada’s reputation and status as a reliable and prominent middle power. Maneuvering a fortified transatlantic strategy will also reassure Canada’s European partners and NATO allies that it is independent of US foreign policy planning, a long-associated problem of Canadian foreign policy. What is more, a fortified strategy would see Canada entrench deeper military interoperability and strategic cohesion with its NATO allies to regional challenges and threats from existing disputes, showcasing its middle power prevalence and stake in upholding established rules-based organizations and conventions.

A Transpacific Power

(Source: MLI, 2020)

With China finalizing its great power rise globally and, more importantly, regionally, the Indo-Pacific has become the geopolitical periphery for economic, security, and defense strategies. Moreover, with the region becoming the economic engine of the emerging multipolar order, the Indo-Pacific will undoubtedly influence how Canada identifies its future national interests. 

Despite Canadian engagement with the region being largely absent in current foreign policy initiatives, best showcased with Canada being a no-show at the signing of the CPTPP, Canada has historic regional engagements that prove the region’s potential in shaping and extending Canada’s diplomatic, economic and military geopolitical footprint.

Under the pressure of US President Joe Biden, the tense diplomatic relationship with China and other liberal-democratic allies and partners developing a regional strategy, Canada is crafting an Indo-Pacific strategy. However, to hammer a strategy that underscores clear and distinct security and defence interests, Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy needs to independently frame its national interests from engagement strategies that accentuate great power and strategic competition with China that aim to balance and hedge its hegemonic motivations.

Although long-standing partners and allies, like the US, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France, may rebuke such a strategy from Canada, the lack of interest shown by these allies for greater Canadian strategic involvement in the QUAD, AUKUS, and other regional organizations showcase their attitude to accompany and promote Canadian security and defense interests in their regional strategies. Thus, for Canada to fully embrace its multi-peripheral middle power status, its Indo-Pacific strategy needs to incorporate three areas of engagement. 

The first area should focus on building Canada’s middle power relationship with other regional middle powers in the Indo-Pacific—Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia being prime actors to pursue. Greater middle power strategic interaction will enforce Canada’s middle power fixation, thereby curbing the attraction to join regional security pacts that aim to restrain China through military blocs and initiatives directly. This area will also highlight Canada’s determination to bring forward alternatives for small, minor, and middle powers that rely on China for economic stability but do not support its aggressive and, at times, belligerent behavior to regional security and defense issues and disputes.

The second area should build off Canada’s middle power cooperation with initiatives that bolster the rules-based order’s institutional and normative structures to advance and leverage Canadian security and defense interests with fellow regional middle powers. However, to attract and maintain diversification in its Indo-Pacific strategy, Canada must avoid upholding unambiguous democratic values and human rights principles as vital grounds for cooperation—concepts that are not traditionally and contemporarily held as vital foreign policy initiatives for Indo-Pacific middle powers.

Instead, Canada should focus on rules-based principles that have imperative consequences for the region’s middle powers to flourish and survive. Thus, Canada is encouraged to develop and enforce its diplomatic and naval capabilities to ensure that the Indo-Pacific’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), freedom of navigation, and the universal adherence to the rule of law is reinforced among growing power politics, Sino-US great power competition and extra-regional engagement from European actors.

Canadians protesting the arbitrary arrest of Michael Spavor & Michael Kovrig(Source: CIPS, 2020)

Lastly, Canada needs to reinterpret its strategic posture to China when it unilaterally and illicitly punishes Canada for upholding the principles of a rules-based order and standing alongside partners and allies on legitimate defence and security grounds. Maintaining the Four Cs—coexist, compete, cooperate and challenge—in its posture to China can be beneficial in projecting a niche avenue for Sino-Canadian relations. Nevertheless, Canada needs to incorporate the Four Cs with more of its hard power capabilities to deter China from undertaking belligerent behavior, like the arbitrary arrest of the two Michaels, in the future.

A Middle Power for a New Era

For Canada to attain, advance, and promote its middle power status in a shifting global order, Canadian political, military, and diplomatic leaders need to understand its future in the Arctic, transatlantic and transpacific regions. By incorporating these three geopolitical zones with an updated middle power status into a new national defense and security strategy, Canada can better evaluate how to attain its national interests while identifying the strategic avenues it can absorb to become a prominent power in resolving international and regional issues, disputes and conflicts.

In the post-Cold War period, Canada was an influential and impactful actor. Instead of lingering on its past roles and achievements, Canada needs to create a new strategic outlook that will bridge its historical tendencies with the new realities of the multipolar order. The world needs more of Canada, but it needs a Canada that is ready to contend with the problems and challenges of the present and future. Developing a new national security and defense strategy is the first step, and it will signal to the rest of the world that Canada is a capable and reliable power.

  • Does Canada have enough hard and soft power capabilities to project its security and defence concerns over three vast geopolitical regions?
  • Should Canada implore a different strategic outlook that ignores its history as a middle power to focus on new avenues to project its power?
  • With Sino-US strategic competition impacting the national strategies of its allies, should Canada continue to bandwagon off US foreign policy to advance and attain its security and defence interests?

Suggested Readings

Gilmour, John. (2021) “Does Canada Need a New National Security Policy?” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, July, 2021.

Shull, Aaron. (2021) “Its Been 20 Years Since 9/11: Canada Needs a New National Security Policy.” Centre for International Governance Innovation, September 10, 2021.

Brewster, Matthew. (2021) “Experts call for an overhaul of Canada’s national security policy to cope with an ‘angry’ world.” CBC, September 22, 2021.


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[ANALYSIS] A Multi-Periph…

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 11 min