After Afghanistan

Return to Normal

By Adam Chapnick

Beyond Afghanistan: An International Security Agenda for Canada. James Fergusson and Francis Furtado. eds. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2016, 652 pp.

Last year, for the first time since I arrived at the Canadian Forces College in 2006, I questioned the value of using Afghanistan as a case study of intra-governmental relations in my course on the Canadian government and strategic decision-making. Ultimately, I kept the case in. My students — senior military professionals from Canada and around the world and executive-level Canadian public servants — still have much to learn from the challenges that Ottawa faced in its efforts to coordinate a so-called whole of government approach to what remains an intractable conflict. The nature of the contemporary threat environment is such that challenges to national security can rarely be dealt with in departmental silos. No element of the Canadian government has a monopoly on international security policy. Nor do the Canadian Armed Forces. As a result, learning how to cooperate remains critical.

But pan-governmental cooperation to manage conflict in failed and failing states isn’t everything. James Fergusson, Canada’s greatest authority on ballistic missile defence, and Francis Furtado, a former Canadian public servant who specializes in defence issues, argue that analysts of Canadian national security have been so focused on Afghanistan since 9/11 that many have failed to recognize the resurgence of what they call “traditional international security issues.” The United States, Russia, and China have intensified their rivalry. The Syrian government has apparently used chemical weapons against its own people. North Korea is testing new long-range ballistic missile delivery systems. It appears to Fergusson and Furtado that Canadians, even security professionals, are not paying enough attention.

Beyond Afghanistan was published in the aftermath of the Liberal Party’s 2015 election victory but before the election of Donald Trump in the United States, so some might worry that its findings are already dated. What had been a disturbing, yet reasonably predictable and understandable global security environment has been replaced by a less stable one in which the leader of the world’s greatest power has pledged to play by his own rules. Fortunately, such concern would be misplaced. Fergusson and Furtado don’t intend to offer recommendations. They want to start a conversation. Contributors to their book were asked to pay as much attention to the history of Canadian policy over the last fifteen years as they were to predict the future. There is much to be gained by reading this collection. It represents the first serious Canadian study of a set of contemporary critical issues in international security that are not going away.

Two interrelated themes are ever-present. As Alexander Moens puts so nicely, “If any country could afford just to stay at home and relax, it would be Canada.” The most pressing direct threats to Canadian international security are continental. Arguably, if Ottawa spent enough on the defence of its airspace and its borders, Washington would be hard-pressed to complain too vocally. Certainly, both Canada and the United States have chosen what Joseph Jockel and Joel Sokolsky call “an expeditionary approach to defence policy in the war on terror,” but their policy is a choice, even if a very good one. Changes to the global security environment have done little to alter Canada’s global outlook. Washington remains Ottawa’s only critical security partner, and Canadians have yet to experience a direct attack on their soil comparable to the events of 9/11 or even 7/7.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that Canadian governments, Liberal and Conservative alike, have, in Fergusson’s words, “chronically failed to lay the groundwork for an intelligent public debate on how to even think about a new strategic world.” In the most provocative, engaging, and scathing chapter in the collection, Kim Richard Nossal declares Canada an “astrategic power.” Ottawa has consistently failed to think about foreign and defence policy in logical, rational terms. A combination of ill-informed personal views, decisions based exclusively on electoral politics, and poorly planned reactionary policies have left Canada all but irrelevant in discussions of pressing global issues like the rise of China. The sixteen contributors to this volume don’t agree on everything, but they do seem to offer a collective view that such thinking has to change.

That call for change, however, is more debatable than the authors let on. As Furtado concedes, the fundamentals of Canadian defence and security policy in traditional terms remain the same. The primary duty of the federal government is to defend Canada and Canadians. Given the integrated nature of North American supply chains and the Canadian economy’s overwhelming reliance on trade with the United States, Ottawa must contribute aggressively to the defence of North America. Canadians also continue to aspire to participate actively in the broader community of global governance in defence of their interests and values.

As Andrea Charron argues convincingly in her chapter about Arctic security, in spite of a lack of serious thinking about the North, the threat to Canadian security interests remains low. The most antagonistic power, Russia, has tremendous economic incentive to manage potential conflicts diplomatically. China has been largely willing to explore its Arctic interests without compromising the rule of law. The United States refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea, but nor does Washington reject it. Successive Canadian governments have largely failed to cultivate what Charron calls the best source of defence – the social and economic stability of the peoples of the North – but the consequences thus far, beyond the wretched conditions in which too many of Canada’s indigenous communities continue to live, have been minimal. Perhaps Canada has just been lucky but, if so, that luck seems to have remarkable staying power.

Moving south, Jockel and Sokolsky describe the approach of Canada and the United States to the North American Aerospace Command over the last fifteen years as a “combination of apparent inertia and clear uncertainty.” NORAD, they claim, “has again receded into something of a strategic backwater.” The United States has US-NORTHCOM, and Ottawa has contributed just enough to American security concerns to prevent Washington from questioning NORAD’s utility in any serious way. From a Canadian point of view, NORAD is crucial: by permitting American military personnel to serve under the command of a Canadian during a direct attack on US soil, NORAD exemplifies Canada’s genuinely special relationship with the United States, one that can be pointed to by other government officials when necessary. But special does not mean important, and Jockel and Sokolsky conclude that even without a serious conversation NORAD might endure indefinitely simply because it would take Washington too much time and effort to dissolve it.

What about the rest of the Americas? The historian Hal Klepak notes that Canada’s defence relationship with its hemispheric colleagues has always been shallow. Ottawa refused to join the Organization of American States until 1990 and since then has only committed itself half-heartedly. Stephen Harper’s government pledged to revitalize Canada’s presence in the Americas, but apart from increased CAF engagement with the Inter-American Defense Board, there is little evidence that much has changed. “For its part,” writes Klepak, “Canada has yet to find a way to contribute to a solution” to hemispheric problems. As for the consequences of this strategic failure, there don’t seem to be any quantifiable ones.

Perhaps the story might be different on global issues with direct security implications for Canada, like nuclear deterrence, arms control, and missile defence. In all three cases, however, recent results suggest otherwise. Douglas Alan Ross is highly regarded within the scholarly community because of his well-researched, tightly argued, yet also iconoclastic approach to nuclear abolition. Inviting him to contribute to this volume was an excellent choice, and his chapter does not disappoint. Ross does not write off nuclear abolition as impossible, even though he concedes that nuclear rivalries are not going away. Nor does he reach the common conclusion that as a non-nuclear state, Canada has little to contribute to the disarmament debate. Unlike the traditional abolitionists, however, Ross firmly rejects arguments in favour of immediate demilitarization. Rather, he argues that for Canada to play a serious role in future strategic-level conversations, it will have to increase its spending on national defence significantly. That investment will have to enhance continental early warning, air defence, and possibly also ballistic missile defence for North America. Weaning the world off of the nuclear option must be a gradual process, and the price of a place at the bargaining table will be what he calls a “responsible level of defence contribution” to the security of the West.

Ross is convincing, but Canada has been a laggard in military spending for years, and his chapter does not cite any direct consequences of Ottawa’s inaction. Similarly, Gordon Vachon, a former arms control negotiator, calls on Canada to engage substantively in what he claims have been fairly successful multilateral efforts to promote arms control and disarmament. But whether Canadians themselves will be measurably less safe if Ottawa does not do its fair part again is unclear.

Even Fergusson himself, who is most frustrated with Canadians’ inability to discuss international security seriously, cannot point to truly significant consequences of a maintenance of the status quo on nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defence, and military space. “As far as Canada is concerned,” he writes, “relatively good relations with Russia and China offset the latent threat posed by their strategic nuclear capabilities. Neither country is an adversary, in the Cold War sense of the term, of either Canada or the West, despite the rhetoric concerning Ukraine.” In 2013, Ottawa made a significant niche contribution to Washington’s space surveillance network by launching Canada’s first military satellite, Sapphire. It can and should continue to support such “passive defence capabilities,” even if doing so allows the Canadian government to keep its hands clean of a serious discussion about space as a potential theatre of war. Canadians aren’t ready for the latter, he laments, nor are they likely to be any time soon.

All of this thinking, both the authors’ and my own, presupposes that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will remain relevant and central to Canadian defence and security. It’s therefore understandable that Fergusson and Furtado commission five separate chapters on what Moens rightly calls “Canada’s indispensable alliance.”

No political scientist who studies Canadian international security writes better history than Denis Stairs, so it’s fitting that he launches the NATO section of the book. Stairs reminds readers that, viewed through a Canadian lens, the organization has always been critical, but flawed. It was critical because the United Nations could not be relied upon to preserve international security as had been originally hoped. NATO guaranteed a US commitment to global security consistent with Western interests. American engagement was the best insurance policy Canadians had against the type of global insecurity that could undermine their national interests. Even better, the establishment of NATO ran counter to a global trend towards regional security institutions. For Canada, organizing the world by geographic region meant inevitable subordination to US interests. A more multilateral security body provided greater opportunities for a Canadian voice. But Ottawa also wanted the Europeans to be equal partners, which they never were. It wanted NATO members to promote economic and social cooperation as well as collective defence, but they never did. And it preferred to limit NATO membership to liberal democracies within the North Atlantic region, but it failed there too. Nonetheless, NATO was the best option available, and successive Canadian governments ultimately embraced it.

Although Stairs worries that NATO’s members are becoming less willing to contribute what it takes to maintain the organization’s credibility, another senior analyst, David Haglund, is more hopeful. Unless the United States abandons the organization which, in spite of his campaign rhetoric, is becoming increasingly less likely as President Trump adjusts to the Oval Office, Haglund sees NATO remaining central to Canadian foreign and defence policy in both the short and medium term.

Moens himself is similarly realistic about the organization’s prospects. “Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is more an expression of solidarity than an absolute guarantee that all member states will act on this pledge,” he admits. “As the threat changes, so does the degree of solidarity on alliance foreign and security policy.” Nonetheless, an imperfect North Atlantic alliance, operating at times on behalf of the United Nations Security Council and at others as a check on American unilateralism, is far better than any alternative. Similarly, Danford Middlemiss concedes that NATO has evolved into a multi-tiered alliance, in which some states contribute significantly more than others. Still, he argues, it is better to have more members contribute something than to have the organization fall apart completely. Moreover, even if Canadians did object to the national caveats increasingly placed on the militaries of their NATO allies, Ottawa is hardly in the position to effect fundamental change. Canada’s commitment to Kandahar did nothing to compel its European allies to change their defence postures. If the mission in Afghanistan was meant to increase Canadian influence in NATO, then it did not succeed.

Douglas Bland, a retired lieutenant colonel, is the only analyst to express serious concern about NATO’s alleged failings. He argues that the organization is shackled by a structure developed in the 1950s. The solution, he suggests unconvincingly, is to turn NATO into exactly what Canadians hoped it would not be in the 1940s: a regional collective defence alliance focused on Europe. Canada and the United States would reinforce the European response militarily when necessary. Bland’s analysis is based on the premise that NATO once had broad, public Canadian support but no longer does. This contention is hard to believe, in that it suggests that Canadians have ever had strong feelings about national defence and security issues.

Bland finishes by asking “Without NATO citizens’ genuine support for collective defence and their willingness to carry the burden it entails, why NATO at all?” The rest of the volume answers that question convincingly. No country’s international security situation is ideal. Canada’s is better than most. It is so largely by chance, and certainly not because of the defence and security policies of any recent Canadian government. Canada is blessed by its geography, its plentiful natural resources, and the consistent patience and tolerance of its critical ally to the south. Canadians have survived, and indeed prospered, in the international community in spite of their lackadaisical approach to security and defence. Scholars like Bland and others who have predicted a national Armageddon have cried wolf too often.

Arguably, such purveyors of global peril are deliberately fatalistic: how else might one engage the public, and indeed decision-makers in Ottawa, in a serious discussion of defence and security than to suggest that the future of the country was at stake. But Canadians have become all but immune to such doomsday suggestions, and history indicates that Canada has rarely been punished for its minimalist contributions to international stability efforts.

Canada’s greatest recent run of international prosperity, it might be recalled, took place during what many military analysts call the decade of darkness. Trade with the United States increased after Ottawa refused to endorse the second war in Iraq. Canada has not come close to spending 2% of its GDP on defence, as NATO members have aspired to do, in decades. Yet the Arctic is relatively stable, NORAD persists, NATO has not disbanded, and relations with the United States remain healthy.

Where does that leave Canadian defence and security policy? Fergusson and Furtado suggest that the time is right for a public conversation. They know, however, that in the past such dialogues have resulted in little more than the perpetuation of unhelpful myths. Perhaps they’ve chosen the wrong solution.

For years, Philippe Lagassé has argued convincingly — or at least he has convinced me — that Canadian defence policy could not be non-partisan. If it were, Parliament would relinquish the necessary opportunity to hold government decision-makers and policy practitioners to account on the most critical challenges facing the state. But what if those decision-makers cannot fully control their own fate? Beyond Afghanistan makes clear that the US defence and security guarantee is the sine qua non of Canadian safety, security, and prosperity. If a new president were to walk away from NATO, NORAD, and the rule of (international) law, there is little that Canada could do to maintain its global position. That is why NATO is so valuable, why NORAD is so important, and why compromises must sometimes be made to facilitate American cooperation in the Arctic.

If one concedes that Ottawa is not fully in control, that complete national sovereignty is largely a myth, the value of non-partisanship might begin to outweigh the drawbacks. There are costs to the inflammatory rhetoric and oversimplifications so common in the House of Commons. They discourage the serious conversations that Fergusson and Furtado prescribe.

Certainly, there is a place for open, public debate on issues that the authors have not covered, like the privatization of security, the national response to cyber attacks, and the development of resilience in the face of threats to global health and the environment. These are challenges that Canadians can feel directly, and how Ottawa manages them is less reliant on American policy. On the other hand, issues like the weaponization of space are too complex for any but the most specialized analysts. It is unreasonable to expect even educated Canadians to understand the chapters by Ross, Vachon, and Fergusson completely, let alone to contribute to a serious conversation about them. Perhaps it’s time to admit that this is okay. As Lester Pearson once suggested, there are elements of international policy that are best left to the experts: non-partisan specialists in the public service and the elected politicians whom they serve.

In sum, Beyond Afghanistan is a thought-provoking book that brings together an impressive group of senior scholars and policy practitioners to remind readers that as much as the international security environment has changed since 9/11, many of the traditional challenges to Canada’s national interest persist. Such traditional threats deserve serious thought and analysis. Whether an in-depth conversation with the Canadian public is urgently necessary, however, is less clear.

Adam Chapnick is professor of defence studies at RMC Kingston and deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College. This article was originally published in THE DORCHESTER REVIEW Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring/Summer 2017, pp. 11-16.

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