Military Muscle: The Conservative defence strategy emphasizes the importance of armed power

John Siebert

John Siebert

Published by the Waterloo Region Record

Election rumblings are increasing as we get nearer the fall session of the current minority parliament. As the electorate warms up to the idea, it is worth reminding us all to read the fine print in political party platforms.

Following the January 2006 federal election, much attention was given to the Conservatives keeping their five major promises – clean up government, cut the GST, patient wait-time guarantees, child care help and cracking down on crime. Less visible were the few short phrases in the platform on Defending Canada. The government has been disciplined and consistent in implementing most of the nine points in this plan over the past three years. This Canada First vision “to defend our national sovereignty and security” is arguably more far reaching and dramatic than the implementation of the five big promises combined because it reorients how Canada officially views the world and the role of Canadian Forces in our foreign policy.

The conduct of Canada’s war in southern Afghanistan since 2006 certainly has provided greater impetus for the transformation of Canadian Forces that had begun under the Paul Martin Liberal minority government. But the release on June 19 of the 21-page Canada First Defence Strategy by the Department of National Defence puts long-term detail to the plan.

In keeping with the 2006 Conservative party election platform, Canada First describes what the government sees as necessary budget increases for Canadian Forces’ personnel and equipment purchases – some already undertaken – and then projects this forward 20 years so the defence budget will expand “from approximately $18 billion in 2008-09, to over $30 billion by 2027-28.”

To begin, Canada First is interesting in what it does not say – that Canada, post-Cold war, does not face any immediate or even foreseeable military threat to its territorial integrity. No country is set to attack Canada, including the Taliban-led insurgency that Canada is currently battling in Afghanistan alongside others. Canadians should be profoundly grateful and reminded of this because Canadian Forces exist within the context of a broader foreign policy – with a lucky assist from geography – that has been remarkably successful in making friends and limiting enemies.

That doesn’t mean that violent conflicts elsewhere don’t affect us. Canada First describes the threats that emanate from others’ wars. We live in a world of “volatility and unpredictability.”

The peace dividend from the end of the Cold War didn’t last long. The new security challenges of failing states, civil wars and global terrorism require that we adjust to new realities, implying the need for substantial increased investments in Canadian Forces.

First of all, how accurate is this view of the world, and, secondly, is the focus on Canadian Forces the proper response?

In terms of the number of wars, the world could actually be characterized as a more peaceful place today than a decade ago. While it is true that there was an initial spike in the number and intensity of violent conflicts after the end of the Cold War in 1989, there was a marked decrease in violent conflicts since 1997 from a high of 44 to 30 in 2007, according to Project Ploughshares Armed Conflicts Report.

The recently published Human Security Brief 2007 from Simon Fraser University in B.C. puts its finger on several reasons for this dramatic decrease, including the rise in humanitarian assistance going to Africa, the most conflict-ridden continent; negotiated and successfully implemented peace settlements supported by post-conflict reconstruction aid; the increase in the number of special representatives of the Secretary-General engaged in coordination of international programs and diplomacy; the deployment of over 100,000 peacekeepers to 17 UN missions, and ad hoc groups of states working together to help stop wars and prevent them from starting again.

What about the threat of global terrorism that animates, at least in part, Canada’s heavy investment in Afghanistan? The Human Security Brief 2007 has relatively good news again. The number of terrorist incidents and victims of those incidents has dramatically decreased since 2004. Indeed, the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are considered by many experts to have added incentives and opportunities for recruiting terrorists and expanding the number of terrorist attacks. It is non-military interventions such as work by police, intelligence agencies and financial regulators that have been the primary reasons for the dismantling of terrorist networks. A recent Rand Study, entitled How Terrorist Groups End, makes this point in persuasive detail by examining 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006.

Canada First also identifies a number of sources of insecurity in other countries leading to violent conflict that have little or no military in the mix of solutions. These include unequal access to resources, uneven economic distribution, global criminal networks, and the emergence of new, nuclear-capable adversarial states. Add to this human and drug trafficking, the pernicious influence of Islamist militants in key regions, foreign encroachments on Canada’s natural resources, outbreaks of infectious disease, Arctic sovereignty protection and cyber attacks.

Canada First properly points to the need for the military to provide what is often called “aid to the civil power.” In emergencies, the military can bring people, equipment and highly skilled capabilities to augment civilian capabilities. Floods, forest fires, hurricanes, ice storms and earthquakes “can overwhelm local capabilities,” especially if they are underfunded and poorly coordinated.

It’s not that Canadian Forces are irrelevant to this increasing outbreak of world peace, but that the evidence points to the importance of non-military investments to create and sustain peace.

On the domestic front, having Canadian Forces prepared to assist is important, but properly funding and coordinating the civil providers of emergency aid would be the logical starting point.

Canada First also comes across a little flat on the motivations for Canada to be militarily active in the world when we are not in fact militarily threatened: “As a trading nation in a highly globalized world, Canada’s prosperity and security rely on stability abroad … Canada must do its part … tackling such threats at their source is an important element in protecting Canada.”

This is about Canadian interests, not higher motivating principles to guide foreign policy. The 2006 Conservative party election platform actually was more expansive on this score, stating Canada has core values – “freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, free markets, and free trade – and compassion for the less fortunate – on the international stage.”

What is potentially revolutionary about Canada First is the embedded assertion of the primacy of military power in the successful conduct of Canadian international relations. In Canada First, we have the statement: “Projecting leadership abroad can take many forms … One thing is clear, however: Canada cannot lead with words alone. Above all else, leadership requires the ability to deploy military assets, including ‘boots on the ground.’ ”

David Bercuson of the University of Calgary was more direct: “The Harper government is the first Canadian government in more than four decades to understand that credible military power is the most important element of diplomacy and that this truism applies as much to Canada as it does to Russia, Britain or the United States. (David Bercuson, “Comedy of Errors: First, a defence strategy, then a shopping list,” Globe and Mail, May 21).

Many Canadians would be surprised to know that this view of the world and Canadian Forces role in it is being implemented on their behalf by the Harper government. They shouldn’t be. It was all there in the fine print in the last election platform.

© Copyright 2008 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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