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Hugh Segal: If ‘Canada’s back,’ we’ll need a military

by Hugh Segal

National Post
January 5, 2016

Whatever the trajectory, priorities or intensity of our new government’s foreign policy, however the election of Oct. 19 is interpreted as a mandate for foreign policy change, no meaningful Canadian foreign policy can exist without a competent, well-resourced and multi-skilled armed forces. This is not about an obscure dialectic between those who prefer peacekeeping versus those who support combat capacity. Both preferences require a strong and capable armed forces.

Even supporting the important “responsibility to protect” principle embraced by a UN task force with Lloyd Axworthy as a leading member, now a formal UN doctrine, requires the “capacity to deploy.” In fact, supporting that doctrine or more engagement in peacekeeping also requires more deployable capacity. As does a commitment to more “on the ground training” in support of Peshmerga and other land forces arrayed against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

To the new government’s credit, it has a rooted, practical and highly skilled brain trust in place to serve both the Prime Minister and the national interest. There’s the new defence minister, who has outstanding battle theatre command credentials from several tours of duty in Afghanistan and as a commander of a reserve regiment. The Chief of Defence Staff has been in serious and complex operational command roles globally. The Chief Government Whip is a retired general staff officer who served in the field. The senior National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister is a former head of CSIS and deputy defence minister. Likewise, the Foreign Affairs minister has the legitimacy of long parliamentary service and the analytical mindset of a distinguished academic before entering public life. Like any compelling mix of outstanding assets, they prove nothing by their mere existence. How they combine to shape policy and priorities with the Prime Minister and cabinet is what will determine their success and impact. Still, with such qualified individuals in government, there is reason for optimism.

When it comes to establishing and preserving a strong national defence, the lawful protection of national security and the core freedoms of our democracy, there is an enemy in Ottawa. It is not to be found in the media or opposition benches. Every finance department, under any party or minister, has within it those who believe that defence expenditures are unnecessary or excessive. And they have allies on the Treasury Board and in other government departments. They are driven by two policy models which, on occasion, have had support from the highest levels of government: that as the Americans would defend Canada in the event of any serious threat, our own defence expenditures are unnecessary or excessive and are better put toward other spending priorities (say infrastructure); and that, like Japan, we can use foreign aid, trade and investment to obviate any military obligations or ensuing missions worldwide. The massive cuts to our defence budget and capacity in the 1990s were driven not only by the fiscal crunch Canada faced, but by support, from the-then prime minister on down, for these “What me, worry?” theories of defence and sovereignty.

A G8 country with no deployable defence capacity for humanitarian, peacekeeping or, when there is no other choice, combat in support of our allies or national interest, should simply not be taken seriously — and won’t be, by many, including some of our friends. This is not a great premise for a “Canada is Back” foreign policy thematic.

The new government’s commitment to the rebuild, hopefully at a more rapid rate, of the Royal Canadian Navy, and the new Defence Minister’s refusal to rule out any aircraft from the review of RCAF procurement needs, are very constructive beacons of both hope and sanity. Between now and the March budget it is vital that it be clear that “lean” military capacity must be about focus, instrumental reform, new technologies and a re-calibration in favour of front-line intelligence, deployable combat and reserve capacity, not a smaller, less capable force. Reduced back office and bureaucracy and more deployable capabilities is the right balance. Cuts to diminish deficits is not.

Budget 2016 would be a superb opportunity for a budget paper on how we can begin in 2017, Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, to build a total force of 100,000 regular force members and a reserve of 50,000 members. Whether for aid to the civil power in face of natural disasters, humanitarian or peacekeeping deployments and maintaining our air, sea and land force obligations to our allies, not to mention our own defence and air/sea rescue needs across three of the longest coasts in the world and a land base larger than Europe,‎ anything less is putting our national interest at risk. We can do better and, as has been suggested, “better” is always possible in Canada.

Hugh Segal, Master of Massey College, is a senior fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto and the Institute of Global Affairs in Calgary. He is a former chair of the Senate Committees of Foreign Affairs and of Anti-Terrorism.


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