posted Jan 19, 2017, 7:28 AM by 21 Army Cadets Cambridge

Despite the appearance of an energetic pursuit of clearly defined foreign policy objectives, the Harper Government has not articulated a broad vision for Canada on the international stage and, as a consequence, Canada’s credibility in the world has suffered. While the Prime Minister has argued for more teeth and less tail in Canada’s national defence, the lack of a clear definition of what the Government wants from its armed forces makes it difficult to define a strategy and underpin it with the right equipment, resources, and training and to plan joint services operations. In the post-Afghanistan amnesia, there is a kind of ad-hoc and often adversarial approach to international issues, particularly towards multilateral diplomacy, which often makes Canada a non-player in times of crisis.


       A pervasive atmosphere of quasi neo-isolationism in the West

       Retrenchment from engagements overseas

       Dearth of leadership and absence of strategies

       China to continue to incrementally test international resolve

       No end in sight for factionalist wars in Syria and Iraq

       Increased pressure to deal with cyber security

       Increasing risk of NATO becoming a two-tiered alliance, threatening Alliance solidarity


   Absent an articulated vision of its role in the world and the provision of the right means to achieve it, Canada risks doing little, mattering less in world affairs, and compromising fundamental interests

     Absent a better financial structure, the Canadian Armed Forces risk becoming limited to continental defence with reduced expeditionary capability

Yet, there is no shortage of crises and the international environment is less secure today than it has ever been because of:
  1.  Uncertainties as to both China’s long term ambitions and the future of a multipolar world;
  2. Failures in managing crises in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan (post foreign troop withdrawal), or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  3. An absence of leadership throughout the Western world, notably in providing the kind of support for the transition in post-Arab Spring countries of the kind made available to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and
  4. A general weakening in the capacity of the multilateral and international system to provide answers to global issues that know no frontier.

Last year’s three predictors - pragmatism trumping principle, containment substituting for involvement, and reflection stalling engagement - remain valid.

The general social malaise which prevailed in the last few years in the West due to economic uncertainties has not abated while at the governmental level, the situation has certainly not been helped by the Snowden revelations regarding US intelligence collection, which continue to erode trust between allies and feed the retrenchment amongst Western countries.

Meanwhile, Asia remains the potential source of economic recovery and the heart of potential crises as China flexes its muscles in its neighborhood and worries competitors in world markets.

The growing realization that unipolarity is coming to an end is accompanied by a profoundly counterintuitive, partial retrenchment on the part of the United States, except, possibly, in its cautious rebalancing towards Asia. It is marked by a clear desire to not intervene in every situation in the world from a political or moral basis as it felt compelled to in the past.

And that seems very much in tune with the wishes of the American population. On the other hand, China, fresh from its Third Plenum, is fully engaged in a domestic transformation, while extending its reach in various parts of the world and trying to rival the United States in influence abroad. Russia, for its part, under Putin, oozing smugness for its role in the Syrian crisis, is bent on re-conquering its past glory by trying to become the heart of a “Eurasia” whose contours remain ill-defined.

Clearly, retrenchment does not translate into a more peaceful world and the risks remain high: North Korea remains dangerously unpredictable or predictably dangerous. China’s initiatives to gain sovereignty over islands in the South and East China Seas could provoke an unwanted clash, particularly with Japan. If a solid, verifiable deal is not concluded with Iran and the latter pursues its nuclear program, there is no telling what Israel might be tempted to do. Syria will see no end to its civil war until both sides realize it is not winnable by either party; but no Geneva conference is likely to speed up the end of this horrifying war. Meanwhile the country is being destroyed and more jihadists are occupying the ground. And of course, cyber-security remains a constant concern while very little is done to establish some kind of code of conduct. One could hope that both in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan some resolution of the crises might emerge but the international community is not in the mood to intervene for long periods of time. The days of humanitarian military interventions are over for now, unless some absolutely vital interests are at stake. While every crisis, in one way or another, could call upon Canada to engage, the likelihood of this is dubious.

Yet Canada has major security interests internationally, starting with its unique relationship with the United States in continental perimeter defence, Ballistic Missile Defence, cyber security, etc. Canada is a partner in the fight against drugs in Latin America. It has a crucial interest in stability in Asia-Pacific as its trade with the region is expanding, and a general interest in peace and development in the Middle East and North Africa. The same applies to Africa as a whole inasmuch as multilateral efforts to limit crises in various regions of Africa are consonant with Canada’s growing investments in that continent.

This brings us back to the role of Canada’s armed forces. It should be clear that in as turbulent a world as it is today, not only do armed forces remain essential for our security and sovereignty but these have to be adequate to meet our requirements. While the Canada First Defence Strategy is due for a reset, it cannot be done in a vacuum if Government needs are to be met effectively by the three services. But these needs have to be based on a vision for the country. This Government has never undertaken a full foreign policy, trade and development, nor a defence review pursued across government in order to present a unified vision of Canada’s role in the world and of its means to exercise it. Given that the enormous efforts dedicated to Afghanistan are now nearly completely scaled back and our mission there is about to end, this review is essential. A simple recalibration of the CFDS is not enough.

Indeed, the contentious F-35 procurement exercise in itself has underscored the need for a competent, coherent, and comprehensive approach to defence planning and to national security. Affordability is as much the right question for a government as it is for a household, provided both have a clear sense of the need for, and the best use of their purchase. The challenges Canada faces are multifaceted:

  1. The Prime Minister has a devotion to the Arctic but our physical presence on the ground is no match to other Arctic powers, particularly the United States which does not recognize that most of the Northwest Passage are Canadian internal waters;
  2. a series of fundamental analyses of our defence structure have been made, notably the Leslie report on Transformation lauded by all for its foresight, yet hardly anything has been done about its recommendations, notably both the denounced excess “tail” vs. “teeth” between Headquarters and the field and the bloated civilian component at DND;
  3. in a world where, Western retrenchment notwithstanding, dangerous situations can emerge anywhere - as evidenced in South Sudan, or in massive catastrophes that can occur as the floods in the Philippines requiring massive international assistance proved, or even, China’s muscle-flexing in the China seas as Vietnamese fishermen recently experienced - the most important feature of any armed forces would be its state of readiness. Canada’s forces have problems on that score in all three services in procurement, training and jointness – e.g. combatant procurement, trucks for the army, F-18 replacement, etc. – and in making better use of its reserve. Critically, given the fiscal environment and an accountant’s approach to cuts to the defence budget, the ability of Canada to field a capable expeditionary force in case of emergency would be under considerable stress.

Equally critical for the government is to have a clear appreciation of the consequences from a military point of view of its expanding trade and foreign policy interests in the Asia-Pacific region, e.g. in terms of forces’ posture, basing agreements and procurement. While there may not be much appetite for foreign ventures, were there to be a solid agreement between Israel and its Palestinian counterparts, given its unique relationship with Israel, Canada could very well be asked to provide the required capabilities for a potential transitional disengagement force. Some answers are required on fundamental issues such as Ballistic Missile Defence within the North American context. Paradoxically, moving towards a joint BMD program with the United States might be a strong expression of our sovereignty in our participation in the defence in our airspace. A full review is in order. Cybersecurity has been defined as the fifth domain of war. As such we have a considerable interest in ensuring that the code of conduct we wish to see established would define what cyber-attacks constitute an act of war and what kind of confidence building measures could be adopted by the international community to avoid accidental wars linked to cyber security breaches.

What this all means, very simply, is that a real whole-of-government approach is required to ensure a seamless analysis of the risks faced by Canada, the extent to which our interests are affected, the response or range of possible responses required, the options and capabilities available to allow our political masters to take the best possible decision in the circumstances. But that means, for starters, having the capabilities required. It does not seem today that the Government of Canada is equipped accordingly. The recommendations at the end of this edition of Canada’s Strategic Outlook provide some possible answers on the basis of different funding scenarios. Competing priorities and fiscal prudence are fully recognized. But ignoring defence requirements based on what the outside world looks like and not doing anything about them is tantamount to delinquency of one’s government duty.