A ‘Clarion Call’ for change from the Governor General

Dr. David Johnston, Governor General of Canada and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces, published a fascinating vision statement in the form of an opinion article in the Globe and Mail on Friday, 17 February. He asserts that finding ways to coherently and effectively deal with the complex challenges of the 21 century is “the defining question of our time.” The answer, in his view, lies in what he calls “the diplomacy of knowledge, defined as our ability and willingness to work together and share our learning across disciplines and borders.” You can read the full text of his article here.

It seems the ‘GG’ has been reading up on the new security environment and has become fully aware of the magnitude of the challenges that confront modern society. Rather than railing against conventional approaches to organizational politics or ‘rice bowl’ protection of departmental resources, he has laid out a concise, comprehensive and considered vision for a new strategy, complete with guiding principles and values. It is an impressive manifesto, one that could serve as a planning framework for future development. The problem is that it flies in the face of the traditional conservative tendencies of military bureaucracies and the information controlling policies of the current government. While I admire the logic and the elegant prose, you have to wonder if our GG has donned a figurative suite of armour and is ‘tilting at windmills’.

As an educator, Dr. Johnston understands that all communities of the modern world are interconnected and “the challenges are many – affecting our health, food, energy, economy, water, land and climate. That these issues are global in scope and profoundly interconnected only compounds the difficulty – as do the stresses associated with our growing population, now at seven billion.” His assessment is “this is a challenge not just for scientists but for all of us.” So, how best to tackle these issues? Not surprisingly, as an educator, he feels the answer will be found in the ability to develop and advance knowledge; “knowledge – as opposed to military might or GDP – is gaining momentum as the new currency and passport to success.” This is a pretty radical change in philosophical direction coming from a Governor General of Canada.

As the C-in-C of the Canadian Forces, the current debates (if you can call them that) over expensive capital procurement programmes stand in stark contrast to the message in his article. The Governor General undoubtedly knows that his vision statement does not ‘jive’ with the current orientation of the Canadian military toward combat capabilities and their ‘primacy of operations’ mindset. Does he hope to shape government policy or place a new orientation into the institutional thinking of the military leadership? Bravo for him, if he does! A broader view of security is long overdue in the defence department.

There is a military dimension to the quote from Aristotle cited in Johnston’s article, “All men by nature desire to know.” If the ten-year Afghanistan counter-insurgency operation (I won’t call it ‘war’) has taught us anything, it is the danger of undertaking a mission with insufficient knowledge of the strategic goals or the military aim, the environment, the culture and the geography, plus a realistic appraisal of our own limitations. A commitment to building a learning culture within the military would seem, to me at least, a worthy goal to come from the vision statement. If only the Governor General had the authority to actually direct change as the Commander-in-Chief. If only.