Make-Believe Defence for a Make- Believe Country?

By Dr. Dan Middlemiss, 16 December 2021

Over the past decade or so, the international geostrategic environment has undergone a major seismic shift for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Other countries have begun to take notice and have slowly begun to take their defence more seriously, both individually and collectively.1 But not Canada.

Canada has been outsourcing its defence for 70-plus years. Since the late 1950s, Canadians and their governments have expected that the United States would protect them. As a result, Canadians have shown a pragmatic scepticism that spending on defence would make a significant difference to their own physical security.

For their part, our governments have perceived little practical advantage in spending on defence, except perhaps in regional terms where the issue of jobs occasionally matters. Put simply, successive federal governments have enjoyed electoral immunity concerning major defence equipment decisions. Consequently, our elected officials' default position is to promise much, but then to stall on following through on their promises.

Our current government is no exception to this rule: it is long on talk and short on action when it comes to defence. This has led some to liken Canada’s approach to defence as “Speak loudly and carry a bent twig” (Denis Stairs), or “Walmart Style” defence policy (Christian Leuprecht and Joel Sokolsky). Tokenism is the order of the day, and Canadians seem to like it that way, and see little role other than as a purely supportive one for their military.2

We are seeing this perennial cycle being repeated, as it so often has been in the past, on Canada's two major, current defence equipment programs: the CF-188 fighter replacement, and the CSC. Where else but in Canada could one see a lengthy competition to select a new surface combatant, only to be followed by several years of negotiations to determine whether or not Ottawa will be able to afford the winning design? Delays are followed by more delays as decisions are continually evaded and put off. Costs, of course, continue to rise precipitously, making the programs even more unaffordable.

Canada’s ‘voice’ and its international influence have been MIA.3 As the current AUKUS initiative demonstrates, Canada is being bypassed as a serious participant in the major defence and security policy decisions dealing with the mounting threats of a resurgent Russia and an increasingly confrontational People’s Republic of China. Moreover, earlier this year, Professor Denis Stairs and I broached the idea that Canada might no longer be considered as important as it once was to US defence and foreign policy.4 In retrospect, it would appear that we had understated just how far apart our two countries have grown.

As a former Minister of National Defence once observed, “The primary obligation of the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces is to protect the country and its citizens from challenges to their security.... In the final analysis, a nation not worth defending is a nation not worth preserving.”5

So, have we reached the point at long last when Canadians and their governments have agreed that Canada, as a sovereign state, is simply not worth the trouble defending?

Notes

1. United Kingdom, Defence Committee, “We’re going to need a bigger Navy,” 14 December 2021. Accessed at: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/24/defence-committee/news/159793/were-going-to-need-a-bigger-navy/

2. “Views of the Canadian Armed Forces – 2020 Tracking Study Final Report,” POR-083-19, 22 September 2020, Earnscliffe Strategy Group. Released 24 November 2020.

3. Mark Agnew and Nicolas Todd, “Rethinking Canada's Security Policy: How Canada Can Graduate from the Kids’ Table,” CGAI, December 2021. Accessed at: https://www.cgai.ca/rethinking_canadas_security_strategy_how_canada_can_graduate_from_the_kids_table

4. Dan Middlemiss and Denis Stairs, “Canada-US Defence Relations and the CSC: A Ship Too Far?” Canadian Naval Review, 17:1 (2021), 22-27.

5. The Honourable David Collenette, Minister of National Defence, “Introduction,” 1994 Defence White Paper.

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