What Defence Policy is Really About

Forum: DND and Academic Policy Advice.
In this forum, CIPS blog contributors respond to a report written by Douglas Bland and Richard Shimooka of Queen’s University, who argue that the Department of National Defense pays little attention to the views of academic experts. To view the other contributions to this forum, please click here.

‘It would be an obvious fallacy’, wrote Clausewitz in On War, ‘to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act on the part of their governments and to conceive of war as gradually ridding itself of passion.’ Recent research confirms this. In his 2010 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow shows that what he refers to as ‘spirit’ plays a far more important role in starting wars than either ‘appetite’ or ‘reason’. People fight primarily for ‘standing’, rather than for security or material profit.

If this is true for war, we should expect it to be true also of planning for war, in other words for defence policy. And indeed it is. At least in Canada, national defence policy seems to be concerned above all with questions of status. This is well displayed in an interview in the latest edition of Diplomat magazine with Richard Cohen, formerly senior defence advisor to Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Speaking about Afghanistan, Cohen says that ‘sometimes it’s not possible to win but being there …  you still come out of it with a lot of credit. You enhance your reputation … It’s not always about winning and losing.  We’re playing the game in big ways.’

This context helps make sense of the recent report by Douglas Bland and Richard Shimooka complaining that the Department of National Defence (DND) pays no attention to research findings. The human tendency to confirmation bias is well known, and we should not be surprised that defence planners ignore reports which say things they do not like. But there is possibly another factor at work. Outside experts probably start from the premise that defence policy is about defence, and, based on reason, make suggestions which they think will lead to the most effective defence of Canada and its interests. But if this is not what defence policy is actually about, their reports are largely irrelevant. There is, for instance, little point in writing a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the decision to purchase F-35s if the real reason we are shopping for jets is that we feel that they will help us ‘play the game in big ways’ and enhance the standing of the air force and of the fighter pilots who dominate its upper ranks.

Given all this, when the planners in DND get learned reports analyzing issues from a rationalist perspective, it is not that surprising if they do throw them straight into the garbage. Throughout its history, Canada has always been a junior partner. As a result, we have never thought strategically. Defence decisions have rarely followed logically from some strategic concept, but all too often have represented an expression of ‘spirit’ and ‘passion’. Simply put, although those engaged in it may not realize this, Canadian defence policy is not primarily about defence. As long as those outside DND who write about it continue to ignore this basic fact, they in return will continue to be ignored.

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