insidepolicyglobalsecurityCanada confronts a more dangerous international environment and continuing uncertainty on its relationship with the Trump administration, writes Rob Huebert. As such, we need to have a more serious discussion on Canadian national security and defence.

By Rob Huebert, May 4, 2017

The current fixation of our political elites and national media on the actions of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman and the Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan illustrates a deep and dangerous pathology embedded in how Canada approaches national security and defence. The attention given to the Minister of Defense overstating his participation in Operation Medusa and the government’s efforts to determine whether or not Admiral Norman leaked information on the reconstruction of our naval replenishment capability is troubling. Yet Canada confronts an increasingly dangerous international environment – and these are the issues that our political elites want to focus on?!

Canada is now facing an international security environment in which an increasingly authoritative Russian regime is using military force to achieve its political objectives. The United States is being led by an individual who does not seem to understand the basics of international relations, let alone how to utilize properly the military force at his disposal. North Korea is led by an absolute monarch who is willing to employ nuclear weapons to guarantee his hold on power. This is not a safe time for Canada.

The opposition is suddenly interested in defence only when it is possible to embarrass the defence minister.

Although the Trudeau government has nominally said that we are reviewing Canadian defence policy, stating over and over that it will be an open discussion, there has been almost none. Why is it that we, as Canadians, cannot have a political discussion about the broader needs of our security? The opposition is suddenly interested in defence only when it is possible to embarrass the defence minister. The current government, which claims to be predicated on openness, seems hell bent on routing out any individual who might release information that is embarrassing to them.

No one is suggesting Defence Minister Sajjan was not brave in action or that he wasn’t involved in operations in Afghanistan. Perhaps he misspoke and overstated his role in a speech. So what. Likewise, no one has suggested that Admiral Norman was attempting to enrich himself, or that corruption was involved with his handling of sensitive information. Rather, at worst, he may have broken governments rules by sharing information that the government wanted to protect so that it wouldn’t be embarrassed politically. Neither situation warrants the focus that they have achieved. And, in all likelihood, neither has any long-term meaningful significance for Canadian national security.

We need to be having serious discussions on Canadian security with the same intensity that a government can bring to searching for leaks, or opposition leaders can bring when attacking a minister for an ill-considered comment.

So what should be happening? We need to be having serious discussions on Canadian security with the same intensity that a government can bring to searching for leaks, or opposition leaders can bring when attacking a minister for an ill-considered comment. First, it is necessary to note how dangerous the international system has become. Many Canadians assume that nothing has changed since the end of the Cold War and that we continue to enjoy the benefits of the “peace dividend.” Sadly, this is not the reality.

Part of the reason why Canadian leaders have been able to pretend that Canada does not face any direct military threats is simple – the protection afforded by the United States. But Trump has issued some very disturbing comments about NATO and has shown no real understanding or connection to the long-standing defence relationship with Canada. It’s therefore imperative that Canadian political leaders and national media begin the discussion on what to do to protect Canadian security in the face of an increasingly isolationist and irrational United States. This would mean that Canada would need to do more in both spending and in terms of thinking about defence.

What would a more “independent” Canadian defence policy and budget look like? This is something that we must be prepared for. Waiting for some sudden and dangerous action taken by the current American president will only make a bad situation for Canada worst.

Flowing from the requirement for a more independent defence policy will come the need to become much more focused on developing a proper procurement policy, which all sides of the political spectrum acknowledge has become very dysfunctional. We make long-lasting and very expensive decision on aircraft on a whim during elections (i.e., the Sea King and CF-18 replacements); we seem incapable of implementing a rational shipbuilding strategy; and the list goes on and on. Why aren’t these issues being debate in Parliament and on other dominate political platforms on a sustained fashion?

Canadian leaders, regardless of their political orientation, seem incapable of developing and implementing a sane and effective defence procurement policy. As argued above, our long-term over-reliance on the US is a key culprit. No matter what we decide to buy, or when we decide to buy or build, the actual equipment has not mattered. As long as we have “something” to show our commitment to the protection of North America and to participate in some fashion with our NATO allies, this has been good enough for our political leaders.

Canadian leaders, regardless of their political orientation, seem incapable of developing and implementing a sane and effective defence procurement policy.

So we can have a prime minster who seems to have decided during the election that he did not “like” the F-35 and as such put off any decision to fully replace the CF-18s for five years (i.e., after the next election). Likewise the previous government had decided it “liked” the F-35, but never made the decision to actually buy it. But as long as the Americans provided for our ultimate security, such actions did not matter politically.

However, if Trump follows through with his promises to make the United States more isolationist and continues to show little understanding of the traditional Canada-US security relations, Canadian leaders will need to become much more serious in their discussions and debates regarding defence procurement. There will be a much greater need to get it “right.” These are all issues that need to be debated and discussed now.

We are left with the question - can our political leaders bring the same attention and intensity that they can and do bring to relatively unimportant issues, such as who released politically embarrassing questions or who made one misplaced exaggeration, to much more important issues on how Canada should deal with an increasingly dangerous international environment? We need to better understand how we can harness this energy and interest in matters related to defense that make a real impact on Canadian international security, and not simply because the issue can either politically protect or embarrass the government.

Canadian international security is not synonymous with the political security of the Liberal or Conservative parties of Canada. Our leaders can bring energy to politically charged issues but do not often enough bring it to issues of substance. This has to change.

Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. He is also a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.