Moving beyond the boulevard of broken dreams

by David Pratt

March 9, 2016

If a sound defence policy is one of the main avenues to international influence, then the Harper government’s Canada First Defence Strategy could be best described as the boulevard of broken dreams. So much had been promised to Canadians and the men and women in uniform and so little achieved.

Under the previous government, defence procurement was a disaster. Needed capital projects were pushed to the right or cancelled, billions in funding lapsed unspent, the Reserves languished, institutional issues like sexual harassment festered and the needs of Afghan veterans were largely neglected. 

So how should the new government get it right? Just about everyone in the defence and security community applauded the Liberal Party’s election pledge to “immediately begin an open and transparent review process to create a new defence white paper.” There is no doubt that a solid defence policy needs to underpin how the government contributes to making Canada secure and the rest of the world a safer place. 

There are strong indications that the new defence policy will be constructed with an eye toward foreign and aid policies—which is good. But there is an increasing chorus calling for defence and foreign policy white papers since the latter typically drives the former. But how is this best achieved? Canadian governments seem love shortcuts—especially when it comes to foreign and defence policy. 

The Martin government produced an International Policy Statement titled “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World” which encompassed diplomacy, defence and development, the so-called 3Ds. With its emphasis on all-of-government approaches, it recognized that the tools of statecraft need to be used interdependently to support the interests, values and obligations of a country like Canada, which depends heavily on the international system for its prosperity and security.

The IPS, however, had one major failing. As part of the process of policy formulation it neglected to involve Parliament in any substantial way. While there was significant consultation, a good deal of the document was prepared behind closed doors. Transparent it was not. 

Of course, the Martin government never really got an opportunity to execute its diplomatic, defence and development agenda. We will never know whether some of our foreign policy outcomes might have been different—including getting that seat on the Security Council a few years ago. What we do know, however, is that the Harper government took foreign policy in some very different and ideologically driven directions.

The Conservatives never produced a foreign policy document—only the now-discredited 2008 Canada First Defence Policy. As John Ibbitson wrote a couple of years ago, “under the Harper government, Canada has experienced the most radical shift in foreign policy since the Second World War.” This is true. But, as Ibbitson went on to say: “this makes it sound as though the Conservatives had thought out their foreign policy in advance. In reality, they stumbled and bumbled and reacted and backtracked.”

The Conservative government’s foreign policy was what Stephen Harper said it was on any particular day. In general, the government pandered to domestic voting blocs and gave the appearance of putting trade before virtually anything else with seemingly little impact on Canada’s actual trade performance.

If ever there was a time for a new government to differentiate itself from a previous government, the time is now. By way of comparison, 45 years ago, Pierre Trudeau felt the need to offer some new directions in Canadian foreign policy after the Pearson era when there was arguably not a whole lot of difference in their overall approaches.

But now, there is a greater need for differentiation from the previous government than in any period since a distinct and cogent Canadian foreign policy emerged after the Second World War. The reason is simple: our allies must know that we are returning to a more measured and coherent foreign policy than that which existed in the last 10 years. 

How should the new Trudeau government proceed? In my view, the Chretien government’s 1994-95 foreign policy review and defence white papers set the gold standard for process and timing for policy reviews.

The special joint committees of the Senate and House of Commons which studied foreign policy and defence along with a national forum on Canada’s international relations ensured a high degree of public and parliamentary input, coordination, co-operation and harmony. The government would do well to adopt this model. 

Public involvement in a foreign and defence policy review and a process that actively engages parliamentarians is crucial. If policy is being formulated on behalf of Canadians to interact with the rest of the world, to periodically send our men and women to fight wars, to sell our goods abroad, to send our aid dollars to places most Canadians have barely heard of, it is eminently reasonable to have the buy-in of people who will foot the bill.

And if a broad political consensus among political parties, setting aside the hyper partisanship we have seen in recent years around foreign policy, is to be sought, then engaging in a national dialogue on these issues is vitally important.

As was done during the 1994-95 white paper process, it would be wise to go with two special joint committees. The government should give them the resources they need to do the job—the staff seconded from government departments, the budgets to travel in Canada and abroad and the mandate to do what’s necessary to elicit the best testimony available.

We should be actively seeking the views of academics, students, think tanks, retired diplomats, trade representatives and military as well as veterans’ organizations. 

As Mr. Trudeau travels to Washington this week and later this month to New York, the immediate focus will be on our most important bilateral relationship. The prime minister would be well-advised to make hay while the sun shines because what happens after November is anyone’s guess.

It is also to be expected that President Obama will want to discuss how Canada engages with the rest of the world—the Middle East, Ukraine, Russia, Europe, Africa, Iran, China, and North Korea for starters. Our friends and allies deserve a measure of predictability from Canada in policy terms that comes from regular and substantive foreign and defence policy reviews. The sooner we get on with it, the better.

Former defence minister David Pratt is principal of David Pratt & Associates, and a member of the advisory council of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Photo Credit: The Hill Times Photo: Jake Wright

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