The intelligence alliance, now known as the Five Eyes, was born in the early days of the Cold War and was the product of a perceived existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. There was a desperate need for intelligence, then in short supply, on the West’s main enemy. That need drove a pooling of resources and burden sharing on intelligence targets.
Canada was instrumental in the development of the Five Eyes system. Canadian officials, operating in secret, strived after World War Two to create an independent capacity for intelligence and worked hard to gain a place alongside both the British and US intelligence systems. They successfully manoeuvred to create a Canada-US signals intelligence pact (CANUSA), signed in 1949, which was the crucial first step in broadening an initial Anglo-American alliance (BRUSA, signed in 1946) into what became the Five Eyes when Australia and New Zealand joined in the 1950s.
Canadian intelligence during the Cold War was shaped to meet the needs of the Five Eyes system, initially based on the sharing of signals intelligence targeting and results. Canada’s early role was to develop a capability in the field of Arctic intelligence gathering, focussing on northern Russian military and industrial activities.
Over decades the alliance expanded into many other areas of intelligence and national security, including counter-terrorism, border security, international migration, strategic threat assessments, cyber threats and organized crime. The expansiveness and adaptability of the Five Eyes system allowed it to survive the end of the Cold War and brief euphoria about an ‘end to history.’
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The Five Eyes alliance has always been a unique undertaking in global affairs. Sharing secrets does not come naturally to sovereign states, even close allies. It had no counterpart among the interest blocs and alliances, such as the Warsaw Pact, that formed the security landscape of the Five Eyes’ adversaries. It was based on a common language, shared value systems, common outlooks on the threat environment, and the development of trust relationships among intelligence officials working within the security communities of its member states. Membership of the Five Eyes has remained stable since the 1950s.
But as we move further into a turbulent 21st-century international system marked by renewed great tendencies in American politics, the ongoing threat posed by non-state actors, and the emergence of new, different-order threats posed by pandemics and climate change, the question arises as to future of the Five Eyes. Can it keep delivering major security and intelligence benefits to its members? Does the foundational glue of common values, security outlooks and trust hold?
The answer appears to be—yes, with change.
One major threat to the Five Eyes has been resolved. A hard-hitting trade war by the US targeting the Chinese corporate giant, Huawei, and its potential role in the global development of 5G telecommunications systems, featured frequent threats of reprisals by the US against any Five Eyes member that did not follow its Huawei ban. The problem has essentially been solved by the imposition of a US export ban on semi-conductors (chips). Britain recently announced a reversal of its policy. It will now ban the use of any new Huawei gear in future telecommunications networks, thereby joining Australia, the US and New Zealand. Only Canada has not, at the time of writing, announced a policy on Huawei and 5G, but it has run out of manoeuvre room. It will inevitably throw in with its Five Eyes counterparts, restoring harmony to the intelligence alliance.
Whatever doubts Five Eyes countries might have entertained about the Trump Administration and its approach to international relations appear to have been cast aside in favour of increased utilization of the Five Eyes as a forum to tackle the security issues de jour not just at the level of intelligence officials but increasingly in senior political gatherings. Five Eyes
Ministerial meetings in recent years have focussed on a wide range of issues. A Five Countries ministerial meeting (FCM) hosted by Ottawa in June 2017 covered such matters as countering violent extremism, global migration, border and aviation security, cybersecurity and encryption. An Australian-hosted meeting in 2018 covered many of the same issues and added new challenges such as countering foreign interference, protecting societies from online threats, including child exploitation, and the sharing of criminal information. The 2019 ministerial meeting in London continued to keep the Five Eyes security aperture wide, adding into the mix a discussion of supply chains and emergent technology.
The trend has continued into 2020. A virtual meeting held on June 17 and 18, 2020, turned its attention to the security implications of COVID 19, while a subsequent Five Eyes defence ministers meeting focused on geopolitical challenges, especially in the Indo-Pacific theatre. There have been indications of Five Eyes member countries attempting to coordinate economic policy in the face of the COVID 19 downturn, and discussing common approaches to such issues as the Chinese introduction of a new national security law in Hong Kong. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs signed a joint statement expressing deep concern about the Hong Kong law on May 28, alongside our ‘four eyes’ counterparts—Australia, UK, and the US. Only New Zealand was absent.
In other words, the Five Eyes partnership appears to have morphed from a strictly intelligence alliance into a grand political coalition. Five Eyes has become a G5. For Canada this development brings some potential advantages. It may heighten the relevance of intelligence to Canadian policy-making and may provide a broader forum for working out global policy initiatives with the US. It also brings significant challenges. Operating within a five-country diplomatic alliance without real counterweights to US power will always pose difficulties for Canadian independent policy-making. We need only to think about China policy in that regard. Turning the Five Eyes into a policy alliance also spells challenges for maintaining the independence of intelligence advice and sharing. If the Five Eyes has evolved so remarkably in a short time frame, our strategic thinking about its relative benefits and drawbacks needs to evolve as well.
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