Strategic Outlook 2016 (an overview)



by Ferry de Kerckhove

Frontline Defence
Spring 2016

While Strategic Outlook 2016 (my report for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute) takes a deep scan of the world’s crises, and reflects on the implications for Canada and its security and defence priorities, this article gives FrontLine readers a quick summary. Considering how quickly transformative world events have been happening of late, you might want to read it rapidly! (aussi disponible en français ici)

The State of the World
The situation in the world is at best chaotic – with conflicts and crises spanning from Western Sahara all the way to Papua, moving through the Middle East, the Southern Caucasus, Central and South Asia into the Malacca Straits and the Western Pacific. The so-called “international order” is being seriously challenged.

Take the following few examples:

  • While ISIS expansion has slowed, it is neither much degraded nor defeated.
  • Eastern Ukraine remains a war zone and Russia has declared NATO an enemy.
  • Syria is in its fifth year of civil war, and the refugee exodus continues, causing significant challenges in many countries.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moribund.
  • Shias and Sunnis are at war.
  • China creates “facts on the ground” or actually “creates ground” in the South China Sea.
  • Africa is plagued with terrorist groups hampering its development.
  • Latin America continues to face the scourge of drug trafficking.
  • A recession is looming over the global economy as commodity prices continue to fall.

This is the world our new government is facing today, and the longer trends don’t look any better.

The Trends
The following is a synopsis of situations that are impacting global security in ways that will have significant and long-lasting effect.

The continued shift of economic and military power towards Asia signals that China is setting up to challenge U.S. dominance in East Asia. While China may yet be a number of years away from attaining total parity as a full peer-competitor, the conditions for success are being set.

In addition, a growing multi-polarity with “revisionist powers” is contesting an already eroding rules-based international order. China and Russia are the key revisionist players, however, India and others might follow suit unless different opportunities emerge for them to align with the existing order and contribute to its restructuring (such as a change in the composition of the UN Security Council).

Competing trade agreements are also adding to the complexities. The continued withering of the World Trade Organization (WTO) governance will become a problem as major economic powers like the U.S. and the EU increasingly conduct trade diplomacy outside of the WTO framework.

Intractable conflicts and war weariness among Western countries in a post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq, and post-Libya period, combined with a reluctance to put the necessary means to fight pressing security threats like ISIS will, no doubt, be exploited.

The inability among leaders to define which threat is more ominous. Is it Putin’s Russia (a nuclear superpower that is constantly rearming and has been defined by U.S. military as the greatest danger in conventional terms), or is it ISIS (the scourge that needs imperatively to be squashed but against which nations consistently fail to put the required means)? And there is North Korea, in a way the most urgent yet intractable threat which even China cannot fully control. Lahore, Brussels, Istanbul, Paris, Ankara, Beirut have provided the answer.

Non-state actors, terrorist groups and organized crime challenge the West’s prescriptive view of international order and, as such, they steadily alter the balance of power and, in fact, very nature of conflict. The Middle East continues its fall into quasi-total disarray due to the legacy of the Iraq War and the failure of the Arab Spring – a fading memory. Not surprisingly, the situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade and the Taliban are back, with a vengeance.

Extremism, ethnic and religious radicalism are forcing agonizing reappraisals of conventional civilizational beliefs in the quest for a moral compass. As one scholar wrote, “the reform of Islam is shaping up to be the most important issue in political ideology of the twenty-first century.”

Connecting each dot is the ever-present cyber and electro-magnetic threat – the geometrically progressing technologies with obsoleting consequences for military capabilities and strategies.

With great instabilities in practically every continent and an increasing number of threats against humanity, progress and prosperity, are there also greater opportunities for Canadian engagement?

The new Canadian message to the world
In examining Canada’s way forward, the following examples of government direction are very positive and progressive:

  • Restoring “constructive Canadian leadership in the world”.
  • Making detailed mandate letters public.
  • Creating Global Affairs Canada.
  • A clear instruction to reinforce the linkage between defence policy, foreign policy, and national security.
  • Rekindling multilateralism through the United Nations.

But – and here is the key question – what will the government do to effect the restoration? Any effort to play a constructive role internationally comes at a price during a period when the government’s overall financial picture is bleak. It also comes at a time, as we have seen, when numerous crises are afflicting key regions of the world. What can Canadian leadership deliver when international organizations have significant problems dealing with non-state actors and terrorism or when Russia is bullying in Ukraine, in Syria?

More importantly, before going any further, while ministerial mandate letters and key government statements represent a strong foundation for future action, they do not represent an overarching vision for Canada which a) would take into account the strategic imperatives stemming from the world situation and b) hence would clarify how “constructive leadership in the world” will be carried out.

Our nation must be given a sense of our place on the international stage and what is needed to attain it.

Thus, the Strategic Outlook 2016 calls for the need for an integrated international policy review (foreign, trade, development and defence) to be conducted within the next six to nine months, and be based on a clear definition of objectives and threats, including a prioritization of efforts, and integrating diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic means in pursuit of those objectives. Sequentially, the new defence strategy called for by the government should emerge from the overarching vision of Canada’s national security requirements. Linked to foreign policy choices, a defence policy needs to be driven by the fundamental choices of what is needed and what is not. Indeed, the policy framework for Canada’s national security strategy should be carved around our country’s interests, values, and ambitions, its economic health, and essential capabilities.

Defence policy is merely one of the numerous “how to’s.” One needs a clear-eyed perspective on the threats Canada is facing and on the engagements we are prepared to take (and those we would eschew).

A defence policy review has to question force structure fundamentals and eventually either define a new architecture or support the existing one. It is not just about procurement but involves a full assessment of our country’s assets. It should not focus first on how much is available for national defence and related security agencies, but rather on a coherent assessment of envisioned threats and challenges and of what is required to meet responsibilities towards the nation’s citizens. Each threat scenario should entail possible corresponding responses – including the option to refrain from becoming engaged.

Key questions
A broad review should answer a host of questions tied to both foreign policy and defence. While exhausting, the following questions are by no means exhaustive:

  • Multilateralism: What does it mean in this day and age for Canada? Should we promote a “rethinking of the UN”?
  • Should Canada take a lead in redefining R2P, notably in terms of a refugee policy?
  • Beyond combating the so-called IS, should there be there a revised Canadian policy towards the Middle East? Do we wish to reengage in the Middle East peace process?
  • Do we have a clear sense of how we correlate with Latin America? Are we really one of them? We have a Latin American policy. Should it be updated?
  • We are involved in the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. Do they really constitute a foundation of our foreign policy today? Can we make them more effective?
  • Is, or should, Africa continue to be a priority for Canada? Can we afford it to be such?
  • What does it mean to be a Pacific nation? What do we want to be, and do, in the Pacific?
  • What is Canada’s policy towards China – a potentially indispensable partner, but also a possible foe, and clearly not a paragon of virtue on human rights?
  • We talk about engaging with Russia – on what terms? What about Iran?
  • Is there a Canadian contribution to be made to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Could we have an influence on Pakistan?
  • Given the change in “rogue state” capabilities and potential threat from Russia, is it time to join continental ballistic missile defence with the U.S.?
  • With NORAD having a decade of experience in maritime warning, is it time to undertake a reassessment on the maritime domain awareness situation facing both countries – to ascertain whether we need new structures, liaison requirements, and mandate (such as the Arctic) for NORAD?
  • What should we do to defend our sovereignty in the Arctic? Are we prepared to invest militarily on this issue, even at the cost of reducing other elements of our defence?
  • Should we foster a security dialogue on the Arctic, parallel to what is currently being done by the Arctic Council?
  • Given the growing threats from non-state actors, should we put more emphasis on our expeditionary capabilities?
  • If the pillars of Canada’s defence strategy remain a) the defence of Canada, b) the defence of North America in cooperation with the U.S.; and c) contributing to international peace and security, should the latter be the exclusive preserve of our Special Operations Forces?
  • Beyond the three-pronged strategy, what, in the new conditions of warfare, are the changes we need to bring in the requirements in terms of Force Development, Force Generation, Force Employment, Force Management and Force Support?
  • Based on the threats, can we extrapolate a long-term defence policy in addition to answering the ancillary questions of procurement?

 Potential responses to present threats

  • Increase contribution to Operation Reassurance in Europe and review decision to withdraw from NATO's Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program.
  • Establish an external consultative mechanism on military issues with the members of the Arctic Council as a confidence building measure for the Arctic, noting that any pressure requiring a forceful response would entail automatic consultation and response within NATO.
  • Renew discussions with the U.S. on joining continental ballistic missile defence (BMD) and strengthening its role in the Proliferation Security Initiative, in light of the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear threat.
  • Reinforce intelligence sharing on ISIS with our NATO partners, retain security provisions of Bill C-51 (while ensuring oversight and accountability), and continue with the government’s decision to strengthen its training mission in Iraq.
  • Be prepared to reimpose sanctions on Iran if it fails any part of the recently signed nuclear agreement.
  • Join diplomatic efforts at the UN to dampen the third intifada, including by moving forward the only process capable of bringing peace – a Palestinian state.
  • Volunteer military observers along the Jordan valley in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
  • Support U.S. efforts to ensure freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and build Canada’s credentials with the other countries of the region with a strong diplomatic and military presence

Canada enjoys plenty of non-military assets (economy, social fabric, alliances, global networks, and the like). However, although its military assets are not insignificant, they have suffered from unpredictability, procurement delays, under-resourcing, financial cuts, and general process irregularities. These risk undermining whatever progress might have been made on naval procurement with a strong likelihood of fewer ships produced than planned while the replacement of the CF-18 fighter aircrafts is highly vulnerable to a depleted overall funding horizon.

Yet we cannot allow our security and defence policy choices to be dictated by our financial situation. We need to make critical choices about what capabilities we cannot afford to forego and which are more discretionary or optional. These choices are, first and foremost, dictated by our basic security and defence needs.

At the end of the day, governing means making choices. It is more critical when it comes to security strategy as it can signify the difference between survival and demise. Afterwards, it becomes a “balance” between the goals and the means. We hope the new Canadian government recognizes such broad linkages between various international policies and understands the need to have a dialogue that connects tools of statecraft with the objectives and needs that such means can achieve. Only then will Canada be prepared to undertake a truly integrated international policy review and formulate a ational security strategy.

The Strategic Outlook for Canada (2016) is Ferry de Kerckhove’s fourth such report for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. He credits George Petrolekas and Dave McDonough as being particularly instrumental in finessing the final product.

Photo Credit: PMO

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