Defending Canada in a Changing Strategic Environment
Photo: Courtesy of Bing and Business Insider
Recently, Canada has been challenged by three countries that were hitherto considered either to be an ally or a country that Canada could partner with economically, even if it did not share its approach to human and political rights.
In 2018, US President Trump, arguing that Canadian steel and aluminium exports to the US posed a strategic threat, imposed tariffs of 25% and 10% respectively.
After Ottawa’s criticism of its human rights abuses, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian Ambassador and froze any new trade deals. In the meantime, the Saudis have cut off purchases of Canadian wheat and barley.
The latest challenge concerns a major tiff with Communist China. In December 2018, the chief financial officer of the star Chinese hi-tech firm HUAWEI was retained in Vancouver in response to a US arrest warrant. In the wake of her detention, two Canadian citizens residing in China have been arrested and a third is facing execution on drug charges. More recently, the PRC has stopped all new shipments of Canadian canola, charging that deliveries of the product have contained “prohibited pests”. This can have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of farming communities in Alberta and Manitoba.
These events are driven by essentially two factors. First, and most obviously, there are a rising number of countries that do not share Canada’s commitment to human rights and international law. Second, Canada is an easy target. In particular when acting alone, it has very little that it can put forward to counter bullying states.
Canada is a medium-sized actor, whose relationship with its historical American ally is at best currently unclear. The country is geographically far-removed from its longstanding European partners, many of which are struggling with their own challenging domestic and foreign policy issues. Like Canada, they find themselves confronted with an array of security challenges – terrorism, potential disruption of critically important infrastructure through cybersecurity attacks and off the-wall environmental events- that pose risks that are as much domestic as foreign. Canada has to deal in addition with such little-disguised campaigns of economic warfare, as mentioned above.
Canada has also to deal with the reality that the international institutions through which it has traditionally exercised its defence and security policies have been seriously weakened under the Trump Presidency.
And finally, the great seas that have traditionally discouraged potentially aggressive powers from challenging Canada’s territorial space have lost their erstwhile prophylactic effect. This is particularly true of the Arctic, which as a result of climatic and technological change, is being increasingly coveted by states such as Russia and China that have military capacities that dwarf those of Canada. For more on this, see my Canada’s Shifting Strategic Circumstances
Against this background, it is well over time to undertake a serious rethink of the Canadian security paradigm and what Canadians need to do to keep their country safe, secure and prospering.
Here is my short-list.
First and foremost, Canada needs to plug the glaring capability gaps in the country’s defence capacity. A Senate report of 2017 identified several critical deficiencies: an insufficient number of fighter jets, battlefield transport helicopters, frigates, submarines capable of dealing with contemporary military challenges, and the need for the Canadian Coast Guard to develop an enforcement capacity.
To finance this, the Senate report called for an increase in Canada’s defence spending to reach the current NATO target of 2% over an eleven-year period. In 2018, the rate was 1.23%, a decrease from the 1.36% registered for the previous year. I have not been able to find the overall defense spending figure rate for 2019 – in itself a politicum- but the latest spending programmes for the Arctic again lack a concerted strategic plan for the Canadian North and its reaches beyond.
Second, the process whereby Canada decides which equipment to purchase for its military is hopelessly complicated, politicized and ineffective. The ongoing effort to modernize the capacity of the Canadian fighter jet fleet says it all. So, Ottawa has decided to buy 18 Australian fighter jets - that the Aussies are in the process of retiring – that will eventually be replaced by a new generation of fighter jets to augment the fighter capacity of the CF-18 jets first deployed 36 years ago. This is nonsense of the first order. Canada desperately needs a procurement process that looks at the needs of the Canadian armed forces from a strategic perspective.
A third priority involves rethinking the way that Canada’s various security actors work together in the radically changed security environment of the 21st century. Canada has made a start in in this direction by bringing together under Public Safety Canada, the Canada Border Security Agency, the Canada Security Intelligence Service, the Correctional Service of Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
But there is much yet to do to create a viable security sector architecture. Missing from the above line-up are the Canadian Armed Forces. While there has been a long and proud tradition of bodies such as the RCMP operating alongside the Canadian military in operations abroad, there is no structural link for the RCMP, and the other actors enumerated above, to work together in the Canadian context. This could prove to be a costly failing, say, in dealing with any determined foreign attempt to render dysfunctional crucial Canadian infrastructure.
A fourth issue in this by no means exhaustive list is to develop a nation-wide debate about the security challenges facing Canada and what can be done in response. This is crucial. A significant part of the Canadian population does not see territorial defence as a critical issue.
The prevailing tendency is to understand Canada’s armed forces as primarily peace-keepers à la Pearsonian vision of 1956, even when the country’s current involvement in peace support missions is at a historical low, or as a body for addressing disaster relief. That Canada might have to defend its strategic interests in the Arctic is not on the radar of the average Canadian. And the tendency not to think broadly about Canada’s defence posture is more pronounced among the younger cohort of the population.
Against this background, it is essential that Canada’s political class develops a serious discussion with its population about how the country should respond to a rapidly and radically changing security environment - and what it must do in consequence.
Even if Canada were to rise to these challenges, it could still find itself vulnerable to aggression of one form or the other on the part of revanchist or renegade states. Precisely in view of that, the key policy plank Canada needs to get right is how to connect with similarly challenged states.
Canada’s fellow NATO members are obvious allies. That said, there are many other existing or potential partners in Latin America, Asia and Africa whose security fate is connected, or can be, to Canada’s.
To borrow a phrase from the historian Christopher Clarke, Canada is sleepwalking in a world that will be significantly less benign and radically more violent than that it has known historically. Canada needs to awake from its slumber - and fast.
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