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Defence policy review: what's Canada waiting for?

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OP-ED

by Lindsay Rodman

The Hill Times
May 31, 2017

OTTAWA—The Department of National Defence once again seems set to release its long-overdue defence policy review.

A number of recent moves by the Canadian foreign policy establishment indicate that the defence policy review (DPR) may be somewhat underwhelming. The release of the budget earlier this year without any major allocations or shifts for defence priorities is the biggest clue that the DPR is not likely to be earth-shattering. Also significant is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear that he is waiting to take cues from the United States. Shuffling the cabinet was proactive, but this government has otherwise chosen to wait for U.S. President Donald Trump’s first moves.

The DPR delay seems consistent with this wait-and-see foreign policy posture. From an American perspective, Canada is ceding a lot of territory in the defence and foreign policy space by hesitating in this way. Giving up the first-mover advantage is not likely to yield the best policy outcomes for either country, for two major reasons.

First, President Trump is not likely to articulate a clear policy for Canada to react to, especially in the defence policy arena. As we have seen with his treatment of NATO thus far, the message will be muddled. Trump may make strong statements, but the actions of the rest of his cabinet—those who will execute American foreign policy—indicate that the actual take-away might be subtler. 

To be sure, every American administration wants to see Canada (and the rest of NATO) meet its obligation to put two per cent of GDP toward defence spending. But observers are all still trying to figure out exactly how the Trump administration intends to hold the line on this matter. Clarity does not appear to be forthcoming.

Second, the Trump administration is not staffed to address Canadian defence priorities, and will not be any time soon.

This past week, the U.S. Senate confirmed the second political appointee (after Secretary James Mattis) to the Department of Defense. There are dozens of these positions, and very few of them have been nominated, let alone scheduled for hearings on Capitol Hill. It will take many months for the administration to fully staff up.

Even once the new leadership is in place, it will take another few months for it to get up to speed. Near-crisis priorities such as Russia, North Korea, and Syria are likely to take officials’ immediate attention. Matters of priority for Canada are not going to be top of mind, without some deliberate action on Canada’s part, or without some truly disastrous cross-border crisis. 

In fairness, Trump’s election was disruptive to the global foreign policy establishment. But his election in the U.S. did not fundamentally change what is right for Canada in the defence arena.

The two countries remain inextricably intertwined, and the relationship will transcend individual personalities. Canada’s commitments to NORAD, NATO, and peacekeeping priorities, just to name a few, should not change depending on the leadership to the south.

American observers will be looking to see if the DPR signals any first moves on Canada’s part; in other words, whether there is any fundamental change in how Canada views its relationship with its partners and its bilateral or global obligations.

From the American perspective, especially, a procurement plan is not a defence strategy, nor does a shift in buying priorities establish a defence policy. American policy-makers will be looking instead to see whether Canada has broader principles in mind, including an articulation of how Canada sees its role in the world. Canada should not be shy about making such statements. 

If the status quo is acceptable, or even desirable, then it does not make sense to make the first move. The status quo is likely to endure for now. But if there’s anything in particular that Canada wants to see come out of its relationship with the U.S. or the world, it might be time to take the first step.

Lindsay L. Rodman is a former Obama administration appointee in the U.S. Defense Department and White House National Security Council official. She now resides in Ottawa and is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: Jake Wright

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