Maybe Avoiding New Thinking is Good?
Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
I have spent much of my time writing here at CIC explaining that Canada lacks a strategy for its role in world, especially when it comes to defence spending. I have bemoaned that the Harper government avoids taking tradeoffs seriously and sticks to its pledges until going past the point at which they are entirely incredible (such as building a port in high Arctic). But perhaps there is something clever going on here: that the lack of serious thinking is working for Canada.
As I’ve examined previously, Canada is in the process of rebuilding its navy and replacing its combat air force without revisiting the Navy’s and the Air Force’s missions. The Navy being designed presently will look a lot like the Cold War and post-Cold War Navy: with a relatively modest Blue Water navy that works well with the navies of its allies. Perhaps this new navy will be smaller since the ships are going to be more expensive, but they will be performing the same operations as before—participating in alliance operations around the world.
The requirements for the new plane, whether it is the F-35 or something else, are largely designed with alliance operations in mind, not the defence of Canada. Interoperability is one of the most important features of and justifications for the plane.
Why is this important? Because these procurement processes are baking alliance commitments into the key military assets and thus into Canada’s defence options down the road. This would not be so noteworthy if we had not already heard rumblings of dissatisfaction with NATO. Also, the Canada First Defence Strategy, mostly overcome by events, is exactly that—Canada first. It is not about multilateralism. Indeed, the government in Ottawa has been hostile to NATO playing a big role in the Arctic.
These decisions are incredibly important given that military hardware lasts far longer than any government. Indeed, Canada, the United States, and others are sailing/flying/driving equipment that is not just older than the sailors and pilots and soldiers but sometimes twice as old. But as many continue to question the relevance of NATO now and down the road—the organization has been having an existential crisis pretty much since 1989, if not its founding—it apparently remains the organizing principle for Canada’s military procurement strategy. And, yet, we see a government that is fairly skeptical of multilateralism invest deeply into those weapons that make the most sense in multilateral operations, binding Canadian governments for the next thirty plus years.
Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between the military hardware that is best for working with NATO and the technology that is best for working with just the United States. So, it could be that this government is mostly focused on keeping the Canadian Forces interoperable with the Americans rather than its other multilateral partners. This government tends to prefer bilateral efforts over multilateral ones, and generally finds partnership with the US attractive. Either way, the current plan does not appear to be a Canada first strategy as mooted by the government. And this is fine since Canada does not face severe conventional threats. Indeed, as a fan of NATO, a critical one but a fan nonetheless, I am glad to see Canada committed to the alliance now and well into the future.
The irony, of course, is that the absence of new thinking combined with the effort to rebuild the CF based on what it has always been doing means this. Harper is missing the chance to undo a key Liberal approach defence and foreign policies—the centrality of multilateralism in Canadian military operations. Oops?