Questioning Canada’s Middle Power Status and its Possible Impact on the UNSC Bid

by Sebastian Hierl

As Canada aims to bid on a temporary United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat in 2021-2022, the Liberal government faces several obstacles that may negatively impact its bid.

This move from the Liberals is a return to the traditional Canadian approach to foreign policy rooted in middlepowermenship, multilateralism, and the active promotion of Canadian values – an approach that was outwardly rejected by the Conservative Harper government’s foreign policy agenda (2006-2015).

Commonly referred to as the  “Big Break”. the question arises: what extent has Harper’s break influenced Canada’s reputation and capability to act according to its foreign policy ideals? To answer this question, a critical assessment of Canada’s middle power status will uncover possible obstacles to its UNSC bid. A particularly compelling need arises as Canada’s biggest competitors in the bid, Ireland and Norway, have not had to deal with major inconsistencies in its foreign policy ideals in recent years.

Middle power’s basic definition is “a state which is neither a great power nor a small power.” Middle power theory has attracted an extensive amount of scholarly attention, which has resulted in the emergence of different principles and concepts. Cooper, Higgot, and Nossal developed the behavioural concept emphasizing the role of middle powers in providing leadership on global issues other than security, such as development aid and human rights promotion. Building on that, Ravenhill identified five hard and soft power traits that together constitute middle power status: capacity, concentration, creativity, coalition-building, and credibility.

Ravenhill conceives capacity as diplomatic capacity through which a middle power can successfully convey its ideas. The closing of several Canadian embassies in Africa and the Middle East between 2005 and 2013 indicates a decrease of diplomatic capacity. Conversely, the merger of the Canadian International Development Agency with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2013, into what is now Global Affairs Canada, can be regarded as a capacity increase because it facilitates an all-encompassing approach to diplomacy, trade, and development. However, this did not lead to a more proactive stance in development policy, but rather the opposite occurred, as development was even more closely tied to trade interests. In the same time, Canada’s ODA dropped from 5.6 billion USD in 2012 (0.32% GNI) to 4.2 billion USD in 2015 (0.28% GNI), a decline of 24%. In comparison, Ireland spent 0.36% of GNI for development aid in 2015 and Norway 1.05% of GNI.

This move from the Liberals is a return to the traditional Canadian approach to foreign policy rooted in middlepowermenship, multilateralism, and the active promotion of Canadian values

Because of their limited capacity, middle powers must concentrate their action on a limited number of objectives. As such, the Harper government focused on combat missions in Afghanistan as well as Libya, and protecting Canadian interests in the Arctic. This, conversely, led to a decrease of Canadian participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Canada also devoted much of its energy promoting the global trade system at this time, which eventually led to negotiations on two major trade deals (CETA and TPP).

Within their identified field of interest, middle powers must show a certain amount of creativity in the policies they pursue. For instance, Canada provided leadership on the treaty to ban landmines (1997), bolstering Canada’s reputation and helping it to win a temporary UNSC seat in 1999-2000. However, the Harper era has had the opposite effect. With its maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) initiative, Canada claimed leadership on the topic, offending countries that had already been working on it for years. The campaign against the forced early marriage of children was negatively depicted as well because Canada itself did not contribute a significant amount of money due to budgetary constraints.

Middle powers normally use their intellectual leadership to engage in coalition-building in order to gather enough support to help accomplish their goals. This is usually achieved through multilateral institutions. Harper’s scepticism towards multilateral institutions stands in clear contrast to that. He had a particularly negative image of institutions like the UN, the Commonwealth, and la Francophonie, which did not prove to be as effective as organizations like NATO for instance. Moreover, Canada’s steadfast and unconditional support of both Ukraine and Israel have damaged Canada’s reputation as a quiet and effective honest broker. The latter even caused a partial isolation of Canada at the UN. In doing so, Canada abandoned its tradition of working with diverse, like-minded partners in favour of closer alignment to the US and NATO.

Finally, a middle power must be credible to uphold its claims for issue-specific leadership. Two dimensions are essential in this context. The first one requires the middle power not to be the largest beneficiary of its own international policies. Conversely, this is what happened after the Harper government introduced its concept of “economic diplomacy,” which also has been dominating development policies since its institution. Although economic interests have always been linked to development in some way, they reached an unprecedented level. The second dimension of credibility requires consistency, both domestically and internationally, of the policies pursued. In the UNSC context this relates mainly to questions of human rights and the promotion of Canadian values. Although the Harper government aspired to a firm human rights policy, its rhetoric often did not match the reality, especially relating to China or Israel. Moreover, the Harper government temporarily abandoned (2009-2013) the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights which represent issue areas that Canada had been pioneering since the 1970s. Stopping Canada’s long-standing support of the International Criminal Court occurred in a similarly abrupt manner. Furthermore, Canada still must improve the treatment of its indigenous people to provide for its own people the rights it fights for internationally.

In light of these obstacles, Canada cannot simply act under the premise of still being the middle power it used to be when it last obtained a temporary UNSC seat in 1999-2000. It must adapt to its new role and take on measures necessary for establishing a foreign policy that again represents Canadian values and increases Canada’s chances for the temporary UNSC seat.

With reviews of the defence and development policies currently on the way, it remains to be seen which concrete foreign policy agenda the liberal government will adopt.


Sebastian Hierl is a Master’s student of International Relations and European Integration at the University of Konstanz, Germany. He is holding a Bachelor’s degree in political science and public law from the University of Regensburg, Germany. He is currently on exchange at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. You can reach him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *