An American take on Canada’s defence policy



by Lindsay Rodman

The Hill Times
January 24, 2018

Now that Canada’s defence policy has been introduced, and has moved toward implementation, we have an opportunity to assess what Canada accomplished—and what it didn’t—with this new document.

Especially from the perspective of Canada’s closest ally and partner, the United States, it takes a few months to understand how a country’s new policy interacts with its bureaucracy, and how it is messaged and implemented, internally and externally.

After releasing the new defence policy—Strong, Secure, Engaged—in June 2017, the Department of National Defence has undergone some substantial reshuffl ing of personnel, including a new deputy minister, to ensure that the right people are in place to execute this ambitious new strategy. Some of those new people have since also had the opportunity to provide some clarification about the major provisions of the policy with their public statements. We finally have as full a picture as we are going to get, at least for now, about what the policy means for Canada.

It provides some meaningful reassurances. The document was released last summer one day after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke about United States President Donald Trump’s administration seeking to “shrug off the burden of world leadership,” implying that Canada was poised to look elsewhere for partnership and support. Reassurances are therefore important, and the policy provides a strong foundation for the continuation of the strongest alliance and partnership in the world.

It also provides investment in key areas that signal to external onlookers that Canada is moving in the right direction. Increased investment in intelligence and intelligence platforms, and high-skill or specialized technical capabilities are welcome from a partner like Canada.

Most media analysis focused on expanding troop numbers and fixing procurement, both of which are welcome from the perspective of a partner and ally. However, the more interesting portions of the document are embedded in the back: Canada’s new “concurrent operations” concept.

In the policy, Canada has articulated for the first time what its maximum engagement globally might look like, in terms of numbers of forces and numbers of missions that Canada must now plan for.

However, missing from the document is any sense of broader strategy; in other words: what these missions might be, what those thousands of troops are going to be doing, and why. Without a sense of how Canada might engage in the world—where, and toward what end—it is hard to know whether Canada will succeed at organizing, training, and equipping its force.

The lack of strategic underpinning is disorienting from an American perspective. In the United States, the Department of Defense is statutorily obligated to draft strategy and policy documents routinely. These documents are derived top-down, meaning that defence policy cannot exist without reference to overarching strategy documents that provide important context.

The concurrent mission concept in the second-to-last chapter of the Canadian policy is the only articulation in the document of what Canada intends to be able to do with its people and materiel, and it does not follow from any articulation of goals or priority.

For Canada to be transparently accountable to its people about its defence policy, Canadians need to understand not just what DND is doing in terms of numbers of forces and procurement of weapons systems.

Those numbers are important in context; what does Canada seek to use those people for, and where does Canada believe it might use those weapons systems?

For partner nations, transparency is also important. As a trusted partner and ally, the United States will depend on Canada to help defend both North America (as part of NORAD) and Europe, in the event of an attack on a NATO country. Spending is one important signal of commitment, but Americans will look to a bigger question first. We are still missing a greater sense of who Canada wants to be in the world.

Lindsay Rodman is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former director for defence policy and strategy at the U.S. National Security Council in the former Obama administration, and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: The Hill Times

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