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What to Look for in Canada’s New White Paper on Defence

What to Look for in Canada’s New White Paper on Defence
Two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet aircraft pilots assigned to the 409th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta, walk from the Thunderdome, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel

Canada’s defence policy review statement is slated to be released in May 2017, a week or two before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to Brussels on May 25 for a meeting with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads of state. All of them are expected to be there: on April 12, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited the White House to ensure that US President Donald Trump attends the summit as well.

Trump is also the main reason why Canadians are still waiting to see this important policy document. Drafted in 2016 following an extensive review, the white paper — its actual title has not been made public — has probably been continuously updated since then in order to account for a new sense of uncertainty that the actions of the new US administration has generated about the future of international order in general and of Canada–US relations in particular.

An ever-more intense demand from Washington that “most of its allies” increase their military spending is symptomatic of these larger transformations. This is a clear complication for Canada, where according to the latest federal budget defence remains a lower priority item. Citing a larger-than-projected deficit, the Trudeau government indeed “re-profiled” billions in new capital funding at the Department of National Defence such that new warplane, warship, and other big-ticket purchases are now delayed until the 2020s.

The new white paper may or may not address these realities directly. Far more likely is a more general statement of how growing instability and new challenges mark the global security environment, thus adding new complexity to the roles and tasks that the Canadian Armed Forces will undertake at home and overseas. But beyond finessing the Trump effect and the lack of the money for defence in one way or another, what else will this new document do?

A Comparative Analysis of Defence Review Papers,” the newest policy brief published by the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), offers one perspective on this question. In it,  eleven Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) students compare-and-contrast the reigning white papers of Canada’s three key allies — Australia (released in 2016), France (2013), and the United Kingdom (2015). In doing this, the authors make two compelling contributions. One is designing a basic codebook for interpreting how white papers — and arguably all similar policy documents — frame problems and solutions, challenges and opportunities. The other is an informed opinion on the ways in which Australian, British, and French white papers could inform discussions of the incoming Canadian white paper.

On the latter, the authors find usable ideas for Canada in all three papers. The hallmark of the Australian one is its rigorous costing and the separation of the white paper itself from the more detailed investment and industrial strategy papers. As for the British and French white papers, they offer more than a few cues and clues on how to plan for defence in austere times. According to the authors, the French white paper may well of greatest interest given how it outlines policies that seek cost-efficiency on the one hand without also causing core capability reduction on the other — a relevant consideration in the light of Canada’s current budgetary situation.

Engaging in comparative defence policy document analysis has already opened up new debates and discussions in the context of Canada’s defence policy review. This policy brief offers a few more sources of intellectual inspiration for those who wish to continue in the same vein.

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