Canadian Defence Policy Framework

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2004 Volume 25 Issue 1

Over the next months and years Canadian defence policy will be the focus of extensive public debate, facilitated by, but not confined to, the formal defence review now underway. Military procurement decisions, the decision on ballistic missile defence (BMD), the competition for budgetary resources, and the widespread view across the political spectrum that current policy is not workable all promise to keep the issue of security policy prominently on the political agenda. Besides the legendary defence commitment-capability gap, there is also justified concern that, with a Defence White Paper now 10 years old, Canada lacks a coherent approach to the new security environment. The enduring lack of a broad consensus on where Canadian policy should be headed creates strong opportunities to enter the debate with credible approaches and alternatives. The following notes offer some preliminary thoughts, not a formal statement of Ploughshares policy, on a framework for Canadian defence policy as it relates to international peace and security.1

The relevance and effectiveness of contemporary security policies and forces must be measured by the extent to which they address and mitigate the ways in which people and communities experience insecurity. The most immediate threats to the security of people come in the form of unmet basic needs, denial of basic rights, political exclusion, social and political disintegration, and the related escalation of criminal and political violence. In addition, the retention and further spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction pose an ongoing, towering threat to the safety of people – much less immediate than many other threats, but with extraordinary and irremediable consequences if they are used.

There is therefore an urgent need for states that enjoy comparatively high levels of prosperity and security at home to help build the capacity of the international community to provide protection to people in extraordinary peril in states that either cannot or will not provide such protection,2 to help restore order and confidence in public institutions in failed or failing states, and to enforce compliance with binding international norms and commitments, including human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. While such protection, peacemaking/peacebuilding, and law enforcement are first and foremost economic, political, and diplomatic challenges, in exceptional circumstances the international community will resort to force in pursuit of these ends. It is important that civil society contribute to discussions regarding the conditions and limitations of such force, and that Canadian defence policy clarify the conditions under which Canadian forces will be expected to participate and the roles they should be prepared to carry out.

The international community collectively possesses a military capacity almost beyond comprehension, and simply adding to it will not make the world more responsive to the needs of the vulnerable or more inclined or able to assure compliance with international law and standards. The challenge is to ensure that when military forces are employed they are trained and equipped to support regional peace and security in ways that do not escalate violence and distrust and without resorting to attempts at militarily forced global engineering that ignores the transformative social, economic, and political conditions that are essential to durable peace and security.

Canada enjoys uncommon prosperity, peace, and security at home, and so is one of those states with the opportunity and the responsibility to make a significant contribution to international peace and security. Indeed, it is in our strategic interests to do so.

International peace and security is a vital national interest for Canada. As Prime Minister Paul Martin has put it, “we are one of the world’s most open economies, depending very much on global order and stability for our prosperity and security.”3 While Canadian values will always encourage efforts toward international peace and security out of a deeply held sense of a common humanity, Canadians also recognize that our own long-term security depends on a stable, prosperous, rules-based international order. The Department of National Defence Joint Doctrine Manual on Peace Support Operations (2002, p. 1-1) makes the same point about Canadian overseas military engagement: “Canada is well known for its desire to promote international peace and security as the stability of the world directly affects the economy and the quality of life of Canadian citizens.”

Canada’s military contribution to international peace and security must be firmly grounded in a threefold context:
1. Overseas military operations are one of three primary roles for the Canadian Armed Forces:

  • The protection of Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the context of cooperative security within North America;
  • Aid to the civil authority in Canada; and
  • Contributing to international peace and security.

2. Military capacity and commitments are one element of a broad security envelope4 that includes:

  • Measures to create the kinds of economic, social, and political conditions that are conducive to peace and stability (development, democracy, human rights);
  • Engagement in multilateral efforts toward the peaceful resolution of conflict and the development of a rules-based international order (diplomacy); and
  • Measures to prevent excessive and destabilizing accumulations of arms and to prohibit all weapons of mass destruction (disarmament).

3. Canada’s military and non-military contributions to international peace and security are undertaken in cooperation with others through the United Nations and other global and regional institutions and coalitions. Again, Mr. Martin has summarized the point:
As global solutions move from the military to the much broader spectrum of global challenges there is less and less room, let alone capability, for unilateral action. To achieve international goals, to pursue collective interests: no one nation can do it alone.
The centrality of multilateral cooperation in military operations overseas means in turn that Canada must specialize and identify the particular roles and capabilities that it will bring to the multilateral table.

Retooling the Canadian Armed Forces to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century should therefore address four broad categories of needed change:

  • The exploration and development of the alternative military models required;
  • The promotion of a more effective multilateral institutional framework for multilateral military action;
  • The development of a comprehensive Canadian security policy and spending priorities to reflect the military and non-military dimensions of our international peace and security efforts; and
  • The development of a broader international consensus and a more responsive, and accountable, multilateral decision-making mechanism to support the international community’s military responsibilities for the safety and well-being of people wherever they are in peril.


1. Alternative military models

As Mr. Martin has already signaled, “merely rebuilding Canada’s armed forces on old models will not suffice.” The identification of and preparation for alternative military models must be a priority for Canadian defence planning in these early years of the century. For example, the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), in its focus on military intervention to protect civilians in peril, posited a specialized military role between traditional peacekeeping and even more traditional war fighting: “The challenge in this context is to find tactics and strategies of military intervention that fill the current gulf between outdated concepts of peacekeeping and full-scale military operations that may have deleterious impacts on civilians” (p. 5).

Because of Canada’s tradition of multilateral peacekeeping and participation in military alliances, this country is also well positioned to encourage and even lead the international community in the collective exploration of models for multilateral military engagement that serve the common interests of global peace and stability rather than narrow national or regional interests, that respect international norms and standards, and that are dedicated to the protection of vulnerable people and the mitigation of local violence around the globe. The development of such a multilateral capacity awaits extensive exploration of the military doctrines, rules of engagement, training, and equipment appropriate to constructive multilateral military roles in the service of international peace and security.

Canada’s ongoing promotion of attention to the findings of the ICISS report should include the promotion, in Canada and internationally, of further study and dialogue related to the development of effective military models and operational guidelines to replace conventional war-fighting approaches with specialized and innovative operations related to the protection of people and the mitigation of violence.

2. A more effective multilateral military institutional framework

While there is broad understanding that international military action in support of the protection of people, the restoration of order, and improved compliance with international norms and commitments must be cooperative and multilateral, there has not been a commensurate development of multilateral military institutions. To that end, Canada’s own rethinking of its defence roles and capabilities should include attention to institutionalizing international military operations. Issues to explore include:

  • Strengthening or establishing collective mechanisms like the UN Stand-by High-Readiness Brigade (Langille 2002);
  • Strengthening UN headquarters management and planning of collective military operations; and
  • International cooperation in the procurement of compatible or interoperable equipment assigned by individual states to multilateral military operations.


3. Specialized Armed Forces within a comprehensive Canadian security policy

There are many reasons why the Canadian Armed Forces will need to reject the effort to develop a broad, high-intensity combat capability across the three armed services and will instead have to seek specialization.

In the first instance, the primary international requirement is for highly mobile forces capable of operating more like police forces within dangerous low-intensity conflict environments that also require close interaction with local populations and civilian humanitarian agencies.

Second, Canada’s overseas military operations need to draw on the same equipment and training capacities required for military roles at home, which means that we should be seeking out compatible roles and functions internationally. Mr. Martin has also emphasized this requirement for complementarity between Canada’s North American roles and its overseas engagements. Referring to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to multiple theatres of military operations, he said, “the result is a growing interdependence among the defence of Canada, the defence of North America, and our contributions to international peace and security – the three inseparable aims of our defence policy.”

In other words, these domestic and foreign roles are not distinct but are linked politically, strategically, and operationally. They are politically linked in the sense that all three dimensions are in the service of Canadian security and Canadian interests. They are strategically linked in at least three ways:

  • the way we conduct our international military operations has implications for our strategic position or influence in the world (e.g., military operations abroad can support or undermine other diplomatic dimensions of the pursuit of international stability);
  • the way we pursue our own security at home has implications for international peace and security (e.g., BMD affects the non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament environments); and
  • changes in the international strategic environment affect our defence operations at home (e.g., the emergence of terrorism has created a greater need for internal North American air surveillance and control).


Operationally, efficiency and affordability demand that much of the military equipment and many of the military functions at home and abroad be interchangeable (e.g., equipment, such as light armored vehicles, used for land patrol operations overseas, should be compatible with and available for aid to the civil authority operations at home; search and rescue helicopters for Canadian operations should be available for peace support operations in appropriate environments overseas; frigates used to patrol sea lanes and approaches to Canada should be available for overseas interdiction and monitoring/patrol missions; patrol aircraft used for sovereignty and surveillance patrols should be available for similar territorial patrols in theatres of international operation).

Third, the costs of Canadian military operations must be balanced with funding requirements for the development, diplomatic, and disarmament efforts that are essential to ensuring that military contributions to international peace and security are carried out in an environment conducive to positive change. Development, diplomacy, disarmament, and defence collectively make up a comprehensive security envelope and the changing nature of global conflict suggests that the continuing global emphasis on military capacity must be balanced by much greater attention to non-military dimensions of security.

There must also be much greater efforts towards efficiency in Canadian military spending. According to NATO’s own figures, Canada’s spending per soldier is the fourth highest in NATO.5

4. A more responsive multilateral decision-making mechanism

The primary impediment to effective military intervention in extraordinary circumstances that will protect vulnerable people and uphold the rule of law is not a lack of military capacity. Military capacity measured in military spending means that NATO alone possesses more than 60 per cent of global military capacity; measured in modern technology and firepower, its share of global military power is much higher. The problem is not insufficient military capacity.

A key impediment to effective peace support and/or protection operations is the lack of international consensus on when they are warranted and on who should decide when they are warranted. This lack of agreement in turn contributes to a lack of political will among key states to support or undertake such operations when their immediate national interests are not prominently at stake. As a result, intervention is inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary, and broad public support for protecting the vulnerable is undermined and becomes chiefly guided by the interests of the powerful.

The international community must develop a consistent international response based on objective assessment of the vulnerability and needs of people in peril. The lack of international consensus is also reflected in a lack of internal Canadian consensus on when and under what circumstances and under whose mandate Canadian military forces should be deployed overseas. Canada thus needs to encourage and even give leadership, as it has through the ICISS, to a serious international discussion on the development of international norms and consistent practice in peace support and protection operations.



  1. Through a special grant from The Simons Foundation, Project Ploughshares is beginning a two-year program on alternative approaches to Canadian defence policy.
  2. Reflected in the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect.
  3. All quotes of Paul Martin are taken from the undated website speech, “Canada’s role in a complex world” (
  4. Development NGOs are appropriately wary of talk of a security envelope that includes development. There is danger that the “securitization of aid” will divert development funds away from a primary focus on the eradication of poverty to various “war-on-terror” kinds of issues, small arms collection, and so on.
  5. Only the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which operate expensive nuclear weapons programs, and Norway spend more per soldier than does Canada (even France, with its nuclear program, spends less per soldier than does Canada).


Department of National Defence 2002, Joint Doctrine Manual on Peace Support Operations, 2002-11-06: B-GJ-005-307/FP-030.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001, The Responsibility to Protect, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

Langille, H. Peter 2002, Bridging the Commitment – Capacity Gap: A Review of Existing Arrangements and Options for Enhancing UN Rapid Deployment, The Center for United Nations’ Reform Education, New York.

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