by Hugh Segal
December 15, 2016
The advent of the new Donald Trump administration in the U.S. — with its implications for renewed spending by NATO to contain the Russian revanchist threat in eastern Europe and Russian adventurism in the Middle East — comes at a significant point for Canadian defence policy, as we await the report of the Defence Policy Review Advisory Group.
This is not so much about chickens coming home to roost as it is about new pathways for defence doctrine being created for Canada and her allies. While Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan deserves great credit for establishing the advisory group and for picking advisors of exemplary quality and experience, he cannot be blamed for his colleague, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion, failing to do the same. While a rational approach to a new government’s foreign and defence policy might well have been to launch a foreign policy review, the failure to do so must reflect decisions already made by the Trudeau brain trust and Prime Minister Trudeau himself, well before last year’s votes were counted.
Beyond economic sanctions and symbolic, prophylactic NATO deployments to Eastern Europe, Russia has paid no real price for its illegal invasion and annexation of Ukrainian Crimea or the mini-genocide it is raining down from the air on innocent civilians in Syria as it enables and protects the murderous Assad regime. Barrel-bombing of playgrounds, attacks on schools or hospitals, shelling of civilians by Syrian and Russian aircraft, missile launches from the Mediterranean-based Russian Navy — none of it has seemed to move President Barack Obama out of his self-righteous reverie.
The failure to engage Russia or dilute its clear aggression and cruelty — its violation of international law in Syria and of Ukraine’s territorial integrity — is a clear sign of weakness. As Russia’s economic freefall continues and Russian President Vladimir Putin follows the age-old Russian pathology of seeking outside enemies as diversions, the strategic challenge is very real.
How this will mesh with the American president-elect’s clearly stated embrace of Henry Kissinger’s search for détente with Russia is unclear. Having agreed with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on both the durability and importance of the NATO alliance, and on the need for its members to actually make good on their spending commitments, the incoming American administration will need to calibrate its pursuit of détente.
The answer may well be to separate out Russia’s posture in the Middle East from its pugilistic approach to Eastern Europe. There are risks to both sides here, and Canadian air, sea, land and Special Forces are involved with those of other NATO allies.
The countries of the free world cannot be assured of the long-term survival of the liberal democratic global norm — where measures of democracy, rule of law, tolerance and freedoms from want and fear thrive — if we stand down in the face of Russian aggression, or the authoritarian “Eurasian Culture” now actively promoted by Putin as an alternative to western democracy. Difficult economic times in Europe, the wealth gaps in the U.S. midwest and the U.K., and the falling economic prospects of Russia itself already have exacted their toll through referenda, elections and Russian military adventurism.
In Europe after the Second World War, a mix of military capacity and the Marshall Plan’s investments in improved standards of living and democracy helped contain Soviet totalitarianism. The nations of the liberal democratic world may well be facing this kind of challenge again.
Our failure to see the risks of inaction, and to contain them, feels like an echo of Czechoslovakia 1938 — a sense that critical choices are not being made, that our courage is draining away, and that the potential strategic and human costs could be vast.
This is not the sort of risk our new (and most promising) prime minister, Justin Trudeau, U.S. President-elect Trump or U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May should blithely embrace. Their respective foreign and defence ministries, and their colleagues from all parties, should be forthright in discouraging the kind of passivity that threatens the West’s geostrategic strength and prospects for continued freedom.