January 09, 2002



Richard Gwyn in the Star, Paul Knox in the Globe, Cooper and Bercuson in the Post, and Bob MacDonald in the Sun papers lead the charge in trying to understand the new Canadian military reality, with varying degrees of success.

Cooper and Bercuson, who've led the bleaters for months on what they see as the sorry state of the military, correctly identify that this is a significant change of defense policy. But they then lapse into wishful thinking that this is a sign the country has turned the page on American relations:

It is clear that strong leadership, which can come only from Ottawa, is needed to chart the course this country must take in the years ahead. Heretofore the government has been both uncertain and contradictory. Perhaps the troop commitment indicates a new decisiveness and a new realism.

As I was previously convinced that Bercuson was close to a complete meltdown, having been ignored on the military issue for so long, it's good to see the guy can still see a silver lining. He's wrong, of course... the chance that this late in his career, in the space of a week, the Prime Minister has developed a new, far-seeing strategic vision of Canada's future relations with the United States, and is acting forcefully on it, is so slim only a Calgary professor could believe it.

MacDonald, who has always written like Limbaugh without the coherence, predictably misses the historical precedent entirely, and says it's all a big PR maneuver to improve the government's standing in the polls:

With criticism from the public and defence critics rising, Chretien and Eggleton made a desperate plea to the Americans to let Canada supply troops. After all, at this stage, the U.S. forces are very well able to handle the clean-up operations there themselves. But Bush, proving to be a statesman, said "okay, you can come along and help."

This is typical MacDonald nonsense. If anything, the deployment is almost certain to hurt the federal government domestically in the long run: a lot more people are worried about loss of sovereignty than they are about military pride. Surrendering Canadian military autonomy to the Americans for essentially the first time ever is fertile ground for the sovereignists, the Trudeauists in Chretien's own party, etc., etc.

Gwyn's piece is more thoughtful. Like Bercuson and Cooper, he brings up the obvious comparison to the South African War, when Laurier pushed the British hard to get Canadians included in their war. He plays it as an understandable response to a British continental reorientation.

Other than an almost insulting request that Canada dispatch 200 engineers, Britain, which was working with a 4,500-troop ceiling for the mission, had nothing left for its former colony and intimate partner in both world wars. To cope with the sudden widening of the Atlantic, we've had to reorient our gaze from the east to the south, and from the U.N. headquarters in New York to the Pentagon in Washington.

Having apparently been abandoned by the British, the Canadians are naturally swinging to the opposite pole, and their American neighbours. Gwyn's right: if this had been 50 years ago, there would have been talk of a Commonwealth brigade to do the UN's work in Kabul, rather than what has turned into an EU one. If there was ever any doubt the Commonwealth is long dead both as a concept and reality, the way the British have cobbled together this force would have to be it.

This is what makes Gwyn's next observation so ironic, though: "In Afghanistan, the U.S. did make extensive use of British military capabilities. It also found front-line uses for small numbers of special operations soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada... Thus, the real coalition that fought the war in Afghanistan was an "Anglo-Saxon" coalition. It's politically incorrect to call it this, but that's what it was. The U.S., that is to say, really only trusts those countries that share predominantly anyway its own ethnicity."

As did we, 50 years ago. That was the whole idea of the Commonwealth, after all. There's always been an "Anglo-Saxon" common interest in the world. It's just Britain stopped wanting to lead it, leaving the other middle-power English-speaking states to their own devices. Australia focussed on becoming a respectable regional military power (The Aussies fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam, while Canada sent only international peacekeepers there, but they seemed to have survived that with their sovereignty intact). Canada, whose need to exert force within our own region was nil, chose to ally with Western Europe (through NATO) and the UN to differentiate itself from the U.S. Gwyn is right in identifying that the Americans have gradually turned their back on those organizations, consigning them to irrelevancy. That leaves Canada the stark choice of sitting in empty rooms talking to itself, or groping for a new way to exert itself in the world.

What Gwyn doesn't mention is that, because Canada has so underspent on the military for decades (Americans spend three times as much per capita), we have NO capability for rapid power-projection that doesn't ALREADY depend on an American logistical tail. Remember how Chretien wanted to get involved in the Congo some years back, but the Americans vetoed it (they owned the planes). Even if the UN wants our ground troops somewhere other than Europe fast, we are reliant on America or some other large country to get our soldiers there and feed them in place, and have been for years. The last time something like this came up, in 1991, this limited the Canadian response in Iraq to the somewhat more independent air and naval forces we could send. At first we tried the same approach this time, as well, but the government has now decided to move beyond it, catching nearly everybody by surprise in the process.

This is why Knox is wrong when he says it threatens our international reputation:

However it came to be, the deployment is troubling. Its mission is vague. Mr. Eggleton declined to rule out extending it beyond Afghanistan. And it threatens the global perception of Canada as a multilateralist middle power. .. Isn't a century of distinguished, professional service from Canadian soldiers enough?

The simple fact is that, simply due to the logistics of the foreign deployment of a modern army, a middle power has NO power, unless it's in a coalition with others. The Commonwealth, NATO, the UN, are all either moribund or have shut us out. What Canadian soldiers did 50 years ago is irrelevant: if we want some impact on the future world, we need to pay the cost of an independent course (like Australia did), or we need to find a new partner. Right now, the Americans are the only ones offering.

I actually think the comparison to the Boer War is very apt. There was some domestic pressure to deploy troops, as there was then, but this is really much more about international politics, and keeping Canada at the table with the big boys, than any domestic concern. It's a big game of musical chairs. Canada's leaders felt they needed a seat at a table, somewhere, and this seemed to be the only one still on offer.The surprising fact is that a Chretien government took it. Gwyn is right when he says:

A transformational change in Canadian foreign policy has just been enacted without public debate or even any sign there has been any debate about it within the government, itself. It's this, rather than the shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates, that's really what's so painful. We're Americanizing ourselves without even asking whether that's what we want or whether we have any other choices.

The only other choice, though, other than accepting powerlessness, has long been simple to articulate: go our own way. Spend more on the military (like $5 billion a year more) and gain the freedom to set our own policy, like Australia does. For obvious reasons, the deficit-conscious, anti-"arms merchant" Chretien saw this as the less palatable option. And after years of wishful thinking of my own, I've come to the conclusion this autumn that if a military spending increase wasn't going to happen with skyscrapers literally falling around us, it's never going to happen.

I hate to say it, but foreign minister John Manley's is groping for the truth in today's Globe: that if America is now the world's only power capable of military projection outside its own region, then maybe the real measure of our power is at least partly dependent on how much we can influence their actions (an approach Britain has not been ashamed to use at various times, at least since Thatcher). In which case, foisting ourselves on them as a junior partner may make as much sense as when we did the same thing to Britain a century ago. The big questions now are, how do we change our military to maximize the likelihood the Americans want to keep us around, and once we do insinuate ourselves, what are the ideals we are going to use any heightened influence to promote?

But that's for later... the Gieses, Camps and Salutins still have to weigh in on Canada's getting in bed with the U.S. Here's a prediction: at least one will bring up either Somalia or the Airborne disgraces as evidence that our military leadership works against the country's interest, and that's why our soldiers can't be trusted in Afghanistan this time...

Posted by BruceR at 11:07 AM