Today’s world is sometimes described as “post-truth, post-West, post-order.” This week Canada received three maps for navigating it: first the House of Commons foreign policy speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, then the Defence Policy Review, and finally the International Development Review. Of the three, the second has gained the most headlines, the main reason being the whopping dollar figures — and the many questions they have raised among observers.
This time, the Canadian government committed itself to allocating additional millions on the military until the end of the decade, thereafter additional billions, for an overall budget increase of over 70 percent. But it’s not just the money. Writing in the preface to the new document, entitled Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), Freeland describes defence policy as a “map and means to advance the Government’s ambitious agenda.” Read the entire document and you will learn that a capable military is what ultimately supports everything — from “Canadian security and prosperity,” Canada’s basic strategic interest, to the assorted international engagement practices driven by the government’s “progressive, feminist foreign policy,” as Freeland puts it. Or, in the words of Chapter 4: “We have often heard the world needs more Canada. This policy puts us in position to make this a reality.”
Conceived even before the 2015 election, SSE is a product of a proper policy review process that consulted both Canadians and Canada’s allies. Last year’s electoral “shock” south of the border and its many large and rapidly developing global ramifications caused the new policy to be released with considerable delay — one reason (but not the only one) for the protracted back-and-forth over content between National Defence on the one hand and the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office on the other.
Was the new policy document worth the long wait? For the most part, the answer is “yes.”
To begin with, SSE is admirably clear in setting out to balance the ends, ways and means — an essential feature of a good strategy. Also admirable is the atypical ordering of the main themes. The document’s very first chapter is an illumination of the unique environment in which the military professionals work and live — a not-so-subtle reminder that a good defence strategy rests on good recruitment and retention policies. Further, in relation to the reigning documents of Canada’s main allies, SSE sets new trends. A case in point is Gender-Based Analysis Plus training, a tool for advancing gender equality (Annex C). This and related initiatives are important because they sensitize the Canadian defence personnel about “identity factors” that in turn matter for building “a military that looks like Canada.” (SSE also follows international trends, of course, as with the overuse of the word “resilience.”)
While SSE insists on describing the pre-2017 world, it also pointedly talks about specific “threats” (also “challenges,” “risks,” “concerns,” and “trends”) that characterize the global security environment today. These include the rise of China (two of the three China mentions are in this context), the return of major power rivalry (five mentions of Russia, not counting a paragraph on hybrid warfare in the abstract sense), climate change (much of it related to the Arctic, which is mentioned 76 times), and the rest on “growing complexity.” (To be sure, in their description of threats and challenges, this entire section would count as measured in comparison to the equivalent sections of the defence policy papers of some of Canada’s main allies.) Technology receives a much-needed emphasis, too; for example, “To keep pace, Canada must develop advanced space and cyber capabilities.”
Canada’s international co-operation practices and opportunities are also explained in considerable detail. In addition to illuminating readers about the role of UN and NATO multilateralism, SSE gives the Five Eyes its due weight as a longstanding strategic partnership for Canada. This is a historical first. Arguably, the Five Eyes is the oldest multilateral alliance in Canada’s portfolio, yet you would not know this if you were to read all previous defence white papers published in Ottawa. (Australia was the first Five Eyes partner to show maturity and break this silence in such documents.) As for bilateral institutions, the main one, NORAD, is projected to grow, a process identified as upper-case Modernizing (NORAD gets no less than 46 mentions).
What undermines SSE is the insufficient detail on funding assumptions. SSE congratulates itself for offering “the most rigorously costed Canadian defence ever developed,” but it offers no hyperlink to the “Defence Investment Plan.” In the absence of this yet-to-be-released document, the chapter on “fixing defence funding” and the accompanying Annexes A and B make for a compelling but ultimately unsatisfying reading. Where in the Finance Department’s plans is the money for all those new regulars, new reservists, new ships, and new fighter jets, to name but four items? The strategy SSE outlines will work as advertised only if the government can somehow commit itself and its successors to fulfilling the spending plan at which it hints.
Some observers will of course say that new defence policy statements are never worth the wait. In a memorable paper written over a year ago, scholars Joel Sokolsky and Joseph Jockel advised the current government to simply admit that every Canadian defence policy comes to two pillars: one, the Canadian Armed Forces always have four essential and complementary roles — NATO, NORAD, UN peacekeeping, and assorted activities at home; two, all Canadian governments have the same spending plan — the “just enough” plan.
But, even if we accept that SSE is yet another “brochure with snappy production values” whose long-term value is only “to professors and their students looking for paper topics,” there is still a case to be made for welcoming this document now. If the Canadian military is “an invaluable instrument of Canada’s foreign policy,” as Freeland says, then all Canadians — that is, not just the policy stakeholders — have good reasons to carefully comb through SSE as this will give them a better idea of what Ottawa could and could not do in its quest to help salvage what’s left of the “rules-based” international order.
This article was first published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on 9 June 2017.