Towards A Grand Strategy for Canada, Part 2

Steve Saideman considers the hard choices before the Canadian military.
By: /
May 10, 2012

Last week, I started to talk about Canadian grand strategy, with a consideration of the threats facing Canada. I guess I should have started by being clearer about what I mean by “grand strategy.” Essentially, a country’s grand strategy is the way in which it tries to maintain – and perhaps enhance – its position in the world, given the threats, opportunities, and constraints it faces. How does one match capabilities with commitments and interests to secure the country and achieve whatever it seeks to achieve? I started with a discussion of geography because for most, geography is destiny. (Consider a hypothetical country, for instance, that is stuck between two or more hostile countries that are far more powerful. What does that mean for the country’s goals and strategies?) Compared with most countries, Canada has more discretion to choose a course through international politics, because its placement on the map means it does not face an existential threat in the same way many other countries do. Knowing that the threats facing Canada are relatively small, then, the next step in figuring out Canada’s grand strategy is to consider the commitments it has made, and is likely to keep, in the future.


When I ranked “the world” as a higher military priority than the Arctic last week, I should have been clearer that I was talking about priorities, rather than suggesting that the Arctic should be disregarded. Roland Paris was right when he said that Canada cannot simply ignore its own defence. It must do enough to secure its airspace and sea lanes that the U.S. is comfortable with the ongoing deal that is most concretely embodied in the North American Aerospace Command Defense (NORAD) and the joint defence of North America. Finessing our relationship with the U.S. will always be the biggest concern for Canadian foreign policy, not because the U.S. is likely to invade, but because Canada’s security and economy depend on us having a good relationship with our only neighbouring country.

Second to Canada’s commitment to NORAD is its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Canada joined NATO not just to defend Europe, but also because of the first part of the acronym – North Atlantic. The NATO alliance has resulted in Canadian expeditions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, more recently, Libya, but it also has more direct security implications, organizing the defence of the North Atlantic, including Canada, and, just as importantly, fostering multilateral solutions to security challenges.

Unlike the U.S., with its far-flung series of alliances, treaties, and agreements, the list of Canadian defence commitments, as far as I can tell, really ends there. There is no Canadian role in the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) agreement, for instance, and it is not clear how the ending of the Korean War in 1954 really obligates Canada now to the defense of South Korea. So, the core consideration of Canada’s grand strategy (i.e. balancing the country’s capabilities and commitments) really does focus on NORAD and NATO.

Sure, Canada is a member of the United Nations, but that does not imply any defence requirements in the same way that the other two commitments do. Canada can choose to participate, or refrain from participating, in any UN effort, with varying degrees of consequences. It cannot as easily opt out of NORAD and NATO efforts (it can opt out, but with significant costs). Moreover, given that the UN has relatively low standards for the contingents it deploys, the possibility of sending troops on UN missions does not really impose any kind of requirements on Canada, other than to maintain some infantry.

The interesting thing here is that what Canada might need for NORAD and North American defence and what it needs for NATO are not necessarily identical. The kinds of threats to Canada that Roland mentioned as reasons to keep an eye on the Arctic – “potentially dangerous ships, planes, and cargo” – do not necessarily require the most advanced weapons, such as submarines and stealth aircraft. On the other hand, the best argument to be made for Canadian acquisition of the F-35 is that it would facilitate Canadian participation in future alliance operations. (Those who argue that Canada should acquire the F-35 because we may one day need to counter a threat from China are unconvincing.) While Canada could participate in future operations by flying other planes alongside the F-35s flown by the U.S. and various allies, Canadian F-35s would be the most logical and efficient choice. For instance, since the planes would have the same communications systems, co-ordination amongst allies would be very straightforward.

Again, the idea of grand strategy is to connect one’s place in the world – particularly as it defines the relevant threats that you face – with commitments. Those threats and commitments determine the capabilities needed today and tomorrow. Because of its geography, and the resulting lack of existential threats that it faces, Canada has some choice about priorities: It can focus more on self-defence, and on what it takes to maintain NORAD, or it can focus more on NATO and future expeditions. To be clear, this is about focus and priorities, not about picking one at the exclusion of the other. Still, choices must be made, and trade-offs must be faced. Buying the F-35 is such a significant decision because it is so expensive – it will crowd out other defence spending. So, we need to be clear that choosing the F-35 is not really about disregarding the Arctic as a threat, but about making multilateral operations elsewhere the priority. The next move, then, is to figure out affordable (rather than optimal) means of addressing the lesser priority of the Arctic while the main effort is elsewhere.

This notion of focusing main efforts in one place and economies of force elsewhere is hardly foreign to the Canadian military or that of any other country. Such choices are hard to make because they mean that some people lose jobs (perhaps those who drive submarines and those who work near some bases), some politicians will get some heat, and, yes, less capabilities in other areas means assuming some risk. But it is better for a military to make a conscious decision and be aware of the risks associated with various trade-offs than to think it can get everything it wants and find out only later that there is no money for things like helicopters or improved armour.

Photo courtesy of Reuters