The government defence review does not fundamentally alter Canadian defence policy, writes Joel Sokolsky. It is also silent on one key part, the asterisk* – the where, when and how of future missions.
By Joel Sokolsky, July 6, 2017
In the government’s Defence Policy Review statement, Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy, Table 1 on “Defence Funding” (page 43) shows a twenty-year projection of Canadian defence spending. Of note, there is an asterisk after the title of table which alerts to the reader to the fact that the figures do not include “future mission costs.” This was a reasonable reservation. After all, as either Mark Twain or Yogi Berra observed “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Unfortunately, as Harvey Sapolsky, Eugene Goltz and Caitlin Talmage in their book on American defence policy wisely observe, defence policy is unavoidably all about the future.
Canada’s new defence policy is a likewise primarily all about the future – from its pledges to do more for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and their families, to transforming the demographics of the military so that it looks more like the Canada of today, to commitments to continue and enhance existing national and international commitments to the provision of stable and growing funds for modernization of the equipment within a new and improved stale and transparent funding process. As much as any defence policy statement can offer a reasonable guidance to what needs to be done to protect and advance the interests of the state in light of global and domestic realities, it is hard to argue with the overall thrust and specific proposals in Strong Secure, Engaged.
Even the seemly lackluster and inadequate promise to increase the percentage of GDP allocated to defence from the present 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent by 2025, must be acknowledged for its candor when it comes to how much of the country’s wealth the government and people of Canada are prepared to devote to the military. Ottawa apparently feels comfortable formally putting Washington and Brussels on notice that Canada will not adopt the two-percent solution.
But if it is hard to criticise the new policy, it is also difficult to be overly enthusiastic about it. This is not because it fails to adequately describe the security challenges Canada’s faces or makes unreasonable promises about how the CAF will be trained and equipped to meet those changes. Rather it is because the new defence policy does not fundamentally alter Canadian defence policy with its long-standing four-fold focus on domestic, North American (including the North American Aerospace Defence Command or NORAD), the North Altantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and broader multilateral roles.
Ottawa apparently feels comfortable formally putting Washington and Brussels on notice that Canada will not adopt the two-percent solution.
To be sure, a formal restatement of these broad core missions is to be welcomed. It is especially gratifying that the Trudeau government has reaffirmed Canada’s standing as a strong ally of the United States and other western allies. Indeed, mention of the importance and value of the “Five-Eyes” connection should disabuse any notion that the government was planning to take the country in any radical new directions.
For the most part, therefore the new policy is a historically well-grounded, laudable and fiscally realistic statement of where the government wants Canadian defence policy to go the next ten to twenty years. Given the length of time it takes recapitalize a modern military in light of other pressing demands on the public purse, a ten to twenty-year time horizon is necessary. It is also standard practice amongst Canada’s allies.
But as Canada and its allies have learned since the end of the Cold War nearly thirty years ago, while defence policy must necessarily be about the future, that future “may not be what it used to be.” Even more troublesome, the unanticipated future comes sooner than expected. Here is where the asterisk, cautioning about “future mission costs,” assumes importance in assessing the new policy.
If the recent past tells us anything, in an uncertain international security environment, specific future missions for the CAF are exceedingly difficult to anticipate even if the broad outlines of defence policy remained unchanged. And it is not just a matter of financial or material demands; unforeseen international “asterisks” have a way of altering the specifics of national defence policies. The where, when and how of future requests for CAF contributions cannot be fully gauged. Afghanistan has been called the unexpected war. Who would have predicted after the end of major combat operations there that Canadian forces would be involved in the bombing of Libya and would today be serving in Iraq and deployed to Latvia?
The where, when and how of future requests for CAF contributions cannot be fully gauged.
To be sure, the new policy pledges to follow a “triple A” approach of greater anticipation, adaptation, and action. Yet with a ten to twenty year roll-out for enhanced capabilities, which will still only bring Canada to 1.4 percent of GDP spent on defence, no amount of anticipation and adaption will measurably augment Canada’s capacity to act in the very likely event of unanticipated missions and requests to dispatch elements of the CAF to exotic places and amid surprising circumstances. This is especially the case since the new policy, while promising only modest incremental growth in CAF capabilities, is infused with Canada’s traditional immodesty when it comes to the declaring the global scope of Canadian overseas interests. And, according to the foreign policy statement, Canada is now prepared to do even more given what Ottawa sees as the Trump administration’s reluctance to support the liberal internatonalist world order.
But, of course, Canada will have to moderate its global pretensions when it comes to the use of the CAF. What can be anticipated however is that because the new policy sustains Canada’s largely expeditionary strategic culture, born of its deep-seated desire to play an active role in global affairs, the government will nonetheless seek to participate in some future multilateral military operations. Fortunately for Canada (if not entirely for its traditional allies and various international organizations), Ottawa will retain and exercise the option of determining the scale of its involvement in future “asterisks.”
Canadians may say that world needs more Canada, but when it comes to specific instances of military need, it is still only going to get as much as Canadians decide they are capable and willing to send. As in the past, this will mitigate the impact of the lengthy re-building process and any difficulties with the improved procurement policies envisioned in the new policy. (Fortunately, although the justifiably highly regarded CAF is always welcomed, the fate of world is not, at least for the next two decades, “hanging breathless” on the complete success of the new Canadian defence policy.)
Nor should Canadians and the world expect otherwise. Although sharing the uncertainties of all defence policy statements, the new policy provides a reasonable and well thought-out set of goals and approaches which, even if not completely fulfilled, will indeed keep the country as strong, secure and engaged as it needs to be in order to achieve its basic national interests in the future. In the always unforeseeable and too quick to arrive different near-term future, the major challenge for the present and future governments will lay in deciding how many asterisks – future missions – to participate in and what level of commitment to make.
This is, though, a challenge which Canadian leaders, unacknowledged but well-skilled practitioners of realism and the ancient political “art of the possible” have met in the past. The new policy, unremarkable as it may be, should allow them to do so in the future.
Joel J. Sokolsky is a Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
* British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is often quoted (whether accurately or not) for his remark about why policies sometimes need to be changed: “Events, dear boy, events.” Robert Harris “As Macmillan never said: that's enough quotations,” The Telegraph 4 June 2002 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3577416/As-Macmillan-never-said-thats-enough-quotations.html
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