The Liberal government announced on April 6 that it is launching public consultations to inform the drafting of its new defence policy. In launching the review, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan emphasized that defence policy must be shaped by the defence needs of the country.
This is as it should be. In practice, however, defence policy is more often than not hijacked by domestic politics, the capture of the process by bureaucratic and other interests, and the world view of whoever holds power at the time. Given that the timeline of weapons procurement is measured in decades, new governments are also boxed in by the actions — and inaction — of their predecessors.
What would be the foundation of the new defence policy if Mr. Sajjan’s wise guidance is followed? Contrary to the assessments of the opening chapters of the past two defence-policy documents under the Stephen Harper and Paul Martin governments, Canada is extraordinarily safe. Few countries in history have benefitted from a position as secure as ours.
This is not to suggest that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) do not serve a purpose. The country has some defence needs, notably in monitoring our borders and contributing to the defence of North America alongside the United States. The CAF are also an important tool to help Canada pursue influence abroad. Sound defence policy, moreover, cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that threats could arise in the future. But the reality that Canada is a fundamentally secure country implies that there is no strategic rationale for increasing today’s already small defence budget.
That today’s international security environment is not peaceful is irrelevant, or at least it should be. What matters is that there is no conventional direct military threat to Canada, neither now or for the foreseeable future, while other, lesser threats are limited.
It is a matter of when, not if, terrorists try to strike Canada again. But the best defences against terrorism are law enforcement and intelligence, not frigates and fighter jets. A resurgent Russia threatens Eastern Europe — but not Canada. We should keep an eye on the evolving balance of power in East Asia and should certainly increase our diplomatic and commercial presence there — but our defence interests are limited. Instability in the Middle East will continue for decades. But none of the region’s many conflicts poses a direct military threat to Canada.
In this context, Canada has the rare luxury of being able to use its military to pursue opportunities, not in response to direct threats. With its security guaranteed, Canada can and should aim to be a reliable ally to the U.S. and to NATO, and to support vulnerable partners in hotspots throughout the world. But this does not justify the investment of large amounts of additional money for defence.
The pursuit of Canada’s international interests would be best served through enhanced investments in diplomacy and development. For a fraction of the investments in major military kit, Canada can get a better bang for a smaller buck.
On the defence side, this implies that the CAF should, in the coming years and decades, do less with less. This may be unfortunate or unpalatable to some, but it is the logical consequence of the fundamental reality of Canada’s secure position. To better equip the CAF to support Canada’s international objectives, enhanced investments in defence diplomacy — notably in capacity-building and training programs — would provide the government with relatively inexpensive but highly valuable tools.
The foundation on which sound defence policy should be built, in sum, is a level-headed assessment of the defence needs of the country. Let us hope that the current policy review recognizes that on this basis, Canada is in a highly enviable position.
This article was first published on Thursday, April 14, 2016, the Globe and Mail.