Master of None

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a speech on Canada’s foreign policy vision last Tuesday (Credit: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Last week, Canada articulated its new foreign policy framework. On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland discussed Canada’s role in a world where the United States is no longer reliable as a global leader. First, she emphasized that Canada had a role to play, something that is only necessary in as self-conscious a state as Canada.

The speech itself was a full-throated endorsement of the liberal world order set up in the post-war era and sustained by the United States and its allies. With the United States fading from view, Freeland asserted, the task and burden of protecting liberal institutions now falls increasingly on the allies, Canada among them.

The speech favoured multilateralism, free trade and the fight against global warming. It mentioned a special desire to protect the rights of women and girls in other countries, and noted the importance of economic equality. It emphasized the fight against ISIS and went out of its way to name-drop Latvia, a country threatened by Russia.

Along with all of these traditional Canadian pursuits, Freeland made the case for a beefed-up Canadian military. “Hard” power, she argued, was necessary to complement the more typically Canadian role as mediator and moderator. The next day, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan outlined what that military would look like. In the next twenty years, members of Canada’s armed forces will be getting some shiny new gear, will be compensated better, and there will be thousands more of them.

I’ll save a more complete discussion of Canada’s wider foreign policy aims for another time. What I’ll say now is that I largely agree with Freeland and Trudeau’s vision for Canada. That’s not surprising, though, their vision is not exactly revolutionary. In fact, it’s essentially the same vision for Canada that Lester Pearson articulated in the mid-fifties and sixties. It has the same goals of multilateralism and of promoting human rights. It even has the same desire to diversify Canada’s relationships away from just the US, a foreign policy aim almost as old as Canada itself.

So in the long view, there’s not much new there. The clear rebuke of the United States is notable, but the reaction is to double down on US-led (for now) institutions like NATO, not turn away from them.

What I do want to discuss here is the interplay between the macro goals of the foreign policy outline — particularly the emphasis on multilateralism — and the specific policy choices of the defence review that Minister Sajjan introduced.

The defence review has, in my view, seven key strategic policy choices: the expansion of the armed forces by 5000 troops, additional emphasis on special forces, the procurement of 88 new fighter jets, the funding of 15 new warships, and the goal to meet our international obligations in terms of defence spending (2% of GDP under NATO rules).

Keep in mind, when reading those policies, the vision that Trudeau and Freeland have set for Canada: the multilateralist, liberal, peace-keeping nation of the Pearsonian model.

Do the tenets of the defence policy meet these objectives? I think that, at best, they are an inefficient way forward. At worst, they reflect selfish political decisions, not good strategy.

The crux of the issue is the tension between the professed desire for multilateralism, and the generalist stance of the Canadian forces. By generalist stance, I mean that Canada is trying to do everything with its military. The defence policy expands the army, the navy and the air force. It focuses on special forces and on cyber security. In essence, it risks becoming a jack of all trades.

From a military standpoint, there’s no reason we should have to do this. Canada, of course, is almost totally devoid of immediate threats, despite some attempts by the Harper government to hype the threat of Russians infringing on Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. So any application of force will necessarily occur outside of Canada, in some other part of the world.

The fact of Canada’s renewed commitment to multilateralism compounds this problem. Among the many virtues of multilateralism is that it allows for a degree of specialization in military operations. Allotting certain tasks to certain countries (like the security for provinces in Afghanistan, for example) allows different command structures to focus on one specific task in cooperation with others, rather than worry about the wide range of tasks.

I argue that the same logic should be applied on a strategic scale, when determining what role Canada is going to play within the multilateral system it so adores.

With this in mind, a few of the key points of the defence policy outlined above begin to look ridiculous.

Why is it that we need 15 new warships? The United States has the world’s greatest navy by far, and even ignoring that, it’s clear from the past two decades that warfare has shifted beyond the blue-sea armadas of the past. Land and air-based warfare in the Middle East and Africa is what Canada should expect, why not act like it? The ongoing trouble with procuring supply ships (to help enable those ground troops) is a far more important problem to solve.

The effort to replace the Protecteur-class supply ships has been particularly troublesome (Credit: Adrian Lam/Postmedia News)

The same logic would also question the need to buy 88 new fighter jets, more than the 65 planned by the Harper administration in its own review. It’s unclear at this point whether this number includes the interim purchase of 18 F-18 Super Hornets. This is, make no mistake, an enormously significant purchase: the F-18s will cost about $7 billion, and you can extrapolate from there what the budget for the entire fleet might be. What situations do the Trudeau government imagine will call for this firepower? Do we have the personnel, maintenance and bases to house and equip these fighters?

Even the expansion of the armed forces by 5000 personnel is a bit odd, and belies the emphasis on multilateralism. It is unclear from Sajjan’s speech whether the expansion is meant in preparation for the long-rumoured recommitment to peacekeeping, or whether it will allow for greater flexibility and more reliable rotations in current operations. But if it is expansion for expansion’s sake, it doesn’t make very much sense.

I won’t criticize the emphasis on special forces or cyber warfare because I believe it is in those areas that Canada should seek to specialize its armed forces. In brief, I think that Canada is perfectly suited for the development of a lean, highly specialized and highly technical military force. Despite their controversial nature, this vision can reasonably include armed drones, also part of the defence review plan. But the generalist approach to procurement and force expansion threatens this relatively niche, specialized role, a role I believe Canada can and should take up.

The emphasis on a generalist, all-purpose military is, I believe, outdated and wasteful. Especially in the context of a multilateral military alliance like NATO, member states should be specializing on a strategic level. Even beyond this, it seems difficult to justify some elements of the defence review, particularly the purchase of new warships.

So why are these questionable strategic decisions in the review at all? I believe that some of it is simply a strategic mistake: Canada is fighting the last war (or last century’s war). But there is also, I think, a cynical political dimension to the generalist focus of the review. Expansion of land, sea and air forces ticks all the boxes most people expect when looking at the military: it therefore sends the message that people want to hear. From a political perspective, most of the specifics of the defence review are hardly important. What is important is that the Liberal are seen to be rejuvenating a declining Canadian military structure. Even more cynically, the Liberals may also be seeking to defend their incredible political gains in the Maritimes, where most of the ship construction would likely take place.

I have no way of knowing if these political considerations were factored in to the strategic decision-making during the defence review. Even if the intentions of the authors were completely benign, the review still suffers from an inappropriately generalist approach to Canada’s military position.

Who knows if this will all get done, anyway. Harper’s version of a defence review was entirely derailed by the financial crisis in 2008. Minister Sajjan has already been pounded by the opposition over where exactly we will get almost $20 billion in additional funding over 20 years. In general, the review suffers from a lack of specificity about what operations the military will actually commit itself to. Candidates in the NDP leadership debate on Sunday were quick to criticize the Liberals for sinking billions into bombs, not books.

Maybe it’s best if some of the proposals in the defence policy get whittled down by financial or political concerns: it could actually be good strategy. Rather than try to everything, we could then instead concentrate of just a few things — and do them really, really well.


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