Where We Go From Here: Canada’s Strategic Opportunity

From Ukraine to Iran to the Middle East Peace Process to China, the lack of leadership and absence of strategy from the West is striking. Ferry de Kerckhove asks, where is Canada in all this and is it even a player?
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June 17, 2014
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Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa

The Canadian Conference of Defence Associations Institute’s Strategic Outlook (SO) 2014 published in February has nearly been dated by developments taking place around the world. In light of recent events, I examine some of the key international policy developments for the Canadian government to consider in the weeks and months ahead while reflecting upon Canada’s relationship with hotspots around the world such as Ukraine, Iran, the Middle East Peace Process and China.

Obviously, there is a growing realization that unipolarity is coming to an end and that it has been accompanied by a profoundly counterintuitive, partial retrenchment on the part of the United States, except, possibly, in its cautious rebalancing towards Asia. This rebalancing, I should add, makes no sense if it only leads to an augmentation of its military presence in the region. Economics and trade, embodied by efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and efforts to offer the benefits of inclusive development throughout the region have to be the drivers of U.S.—and indeed Canadian—foreign policy.

There is a question, however, as to the specific role played by the administration of President Obama in translating the realities of a war-weary public into a foreign policy marked by measured non-engagement and greater reliance on allies and coalitions. As 2016 approaches, we might ask the question of whether a Hillary Clinton administration might act likewise. Specifically, one needs to look at the Obama administration’s response to the crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the management of its tenuous relationship with China. Little seems to be coming out of the White House now that the Middle East peace talks have foundered.

Given the pervasive atmosphere of quasi neo-isolationism in the West, Ukraine is testing the resolve of NATO members but so far they have demonstrated a clear desire to avoid any further engagement overseas. In fact, we cannot but notice a lack of leadership and absence of strategy to confront these political challenges. Ukraine is but one example of the latter even more than the former.

Ironically, this retrenchment breeds more, rather than less, insecurity. This is especially true given the recent failures by NATO governments to manage crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria where the argument can certainly be made that external intervention and diplomacy failed to result in either progress or greater security both internally and for the rest of the world.

In the Middle East, particularly, there is a significant need to reconsider our strategic approach. The fall of Mosul to the armed group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a game changer both for Iraq and the whole region. Over the past decade, we have borne witness to seeing Iraq under PM Maliki return slowly but surely to its authoritarian past. What we are seeing today as rebels take over neighbourhoods in Mosul and Tal Afar is much worse as ISIS attempts to unify a geographically disparate Islamist front. And while ISIS is attempting to draw Turkey into the battle, the Kurds in northern Iraq already view it as a further opportunity to gain further autonomy, if not full independence, from the imperiled center of power in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Obama talks about not eschewing military intervention if U.S. national interests are at stake but has already ruled out placing American troops on the ground once more.

In contrast, post-Karzai Afghanistan might be more amenable to signing a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with the United States to allow it to maintain some troops in the country, but Obama has spoken more of withdrawal than of engagement. As such, the war will have “ended” for the United States while fighting continues in the country between the government in Kabul and the Taliban and as such, the only option for Afghanistan appears to be a negotiation with those that ISAF and the U.S. forces have battled with for more than ten years. I fear that it will be on the Taliban’s terms.

Other political developments in the Middle East also don’t make good reading as the situation in Syria continues to be hellish even as President Assad declared himself the winner of the most recent elections. Egypt, too, has struggled to address the fall-out of the Arab Spring; the Muslim Brotherhood has been brutally replaced by the military and Marshal Sisi won a pre-ordained election facing a figment of opposition. The danger for the region is the vicious circle of authoritarianism breeding terrorism, non-inclusion, repression, and a hardening of the military’s hold on power.

It is a reflection of the sorry state of affairs in the region that the only real hope comes from the Iran-P5+1 nuclear negotiations, which are far from being completed successfully at this stage.

This is a story shared by several countries in Africa which have not been spared the scourge of intractable conflict. For example, the peaceful separation of South Sudan from Sudan by referendum is now forgotten as conflict has flared in South Sudan, a failed state ab initio and in the neighbouring Central African Republic. Terrorist and rebel groups also continue to spread in West Africa as Boko Haram terrorizes the population of northern Nigeria. A brave French intervention was required in Mali to disperse Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) forces but these have only vanished temporarily. Indeed, there are prescient fears that instability will continue to reign in the 7000 km of Sahel land from Mauritania to Djibouti. Everyone speaks of Africa’s progress but the United Nations still spends more than 70 percent of its energies and means on African crises and inequality there is grotesque.

In the United Nations, too, disagreement among members of the Security Council has become even more pronounced following the Ukrainian crisis and the unwillingness of Beijing to censure Moscow. Indeed, it appears likely that China will continue to incrementally test international resolve by offering a number of challenges to both Washington and Ottawa. Presently, Beijing appears to be flexing its muscles against both Vietnam and the Philippines over contested sovereignty on islands in the South and East China Seas. At the same time, however, its relationship with its North American neighbours will remain perhaps its most important relationship for years to come. Indeed, we must answer the question of how to manage China’s attempts to redress its “century of humiliation” with its accompanying anti-Japanese resentment during a period of growing Japanese nationalism without inflaming the region. At the same time, frontier global governance challenges such as those surrounding cybersecurity, drone use, and Internet governance mark clear differences with regard to the policy-making priorities of Beijing and Ottawa.

I could go on indefinitely and list the challenges faced by our multilateral institutions, of the nuclear nonproliferation regime in dealing with North Korea and Iran, and the apparent instability of countries like Venezuela and Thailand that have long been stable if problematic. But I would rather argue simply that what is worrisome is the fact that so little attention is devoted to understanding these macro trends and even less in finding solutions.

With this in mind, I ask the question: where is Canada in all this and is it even a player?

There is very little effort on the part of the Canadian government to understand these macro trends.

Instead, Ottawa has tended to put the security of Israel as its top priority, hammered unendingly the slogan “we don’t go along to get along,” and finally listed as its main achievement the creation of the office of religious freedom which is a misnomer as religions are neither chained nor free. As we reflect on Ottawa’s role in addressing the challenges noted above, it is important to remember that deploring and condemning is no substitute for policy and strategy.

Indeed, despite the appearance of an energetic pursuit of clearly defined foreign policy objectives, the Harper Government has not articulated a broad vision for Canada on the international stage and, as a consequence, Canada’s credibility in the world has suffered. In the post-Afghanistan amnesia, there is an ad hoc and often adversarial approach to international issues, particularly towards multilateral diplomacy, which often makes Canada a non-player in times of crisis. As several, formerly like-minded, diplomatic friends told me privately “fine, if you don’t want to get along, we will not go along with you!” We matter less at a time when the world needs a compassionate, engaged, and open-minded Canada.

On the defence side, although one could give credit to the present government for having pursued energetically Paul Martin decision to rebuild our forces, the Canada First Defence Strategy was never fully-funded and the recent decision by the government to punt most of the major acquisition projects for the CAF to present a balanced budget by 2015 is putting Canada’s capacity to contribute internationally in times of crisis and to assure the protection of our sovereignty and territorial integrity at risk. As my colleague at CDAI Dave Perry recently wrote, “…this has come at the cost of reducing the military options available to the government, both today and tomorrow. The funding for training, routine operations and maintenance has been cut, significantly reducing operational readiness. At the same time, a sizeable proportion of the funding to acquire the military of the future is going unused.” To put these developments in perspective, the defence budget is now smaller than it was in 2007 when adjusted for inflation. The CFDS plan to spend $490 billion over 20 years has now been reduced to $453 billion while Department of National Defense (DND) provided one-quarter of the reduction in government spending in Budget 2014. This is troubling even as the Prime Minister has a devotion to the Arctic, our physical presence on the ground is no match to other Arctic powers.

I am not a warmonger but the needs for a strong defence capability are pretty obvious given the number of political crises and natural disasters that might affect our citizens across the globe. Moreover, the ability of Canada to field a capable expeditionary force in case of emergency would be under considerable stress if further reductions to the defense budget were to continue.

Equally critical for the government is to have a clear appreciation of the consequences from a military point of view of its expanding trade and foreign policy interests in the Asia-Pacific region, e.g. in terms of forces’ posture, basing agreements, and procurement.

Close to home, Canada has major security interest starting with its unique relationship with the United States in continental perimeter defence, ballistic missile defence, cyber security, and intelligence sharing. Canada also has a stake in the fight against drugs in Latin America. It also has a crucial interest in stability in Asia-Pacific as its trade with the region is expanding and a broad interest in peace and development in the Middle East and North Africa beyond the security of Israel. The same applies to Africa as a whole inasmuch as multilateral efforts to limit crises in various regions of Africa are consonant with Canada’s growing investments in that continent.

Yet, Ottawa has never undertaken a full foreign policy, trade and development, or a defence review pursued across government in order to present a unified vision of Canada’s role in the world and of its means to exercise it, if it wishes to face its multifaceted challenges.

What this all means, very simply, is that a whole-of-government approach is required to ensure a seamless analysis of the totality of risks faced by Canada, the extent to which our interests are affected, the response or range of possible responses required, and the options and capabilities available to allow our political masters to take the best possible decision in the circumstances.

When we propose a full review of foreign policy, trade, development and defence for Canada, it is not so much to see a beautiful White Paper on everybody’s coffee table, but to engage in an intellectual process of thinking about the future and coming up with possible answers within available means. Achieving this takes creativity and confidence and is essential to messaging to the world that Canada has a clear strategy in the event of crises.