December 19, 2003


Okay, more on Canadian foreign policy options.

Earlier, we've argued that Canadian military activity has previously leaned towards altruistic motives. Because our own actual security needs are so narrow, when Canadians do serve and fight overseas, it is always in the name of something larger than the Canadian interest alone. Historically, this has meant either war to make the world a better place, or war in order to stand alongside our allies when they are in extreme danger. Every one of Canada's foreign deployments was at the time, justified to the public on one or both of these grounds. Canadians are resistant to arguments that "war will make Canada safer," or "war will make Canada richer." They are susceptible, however, to statements along the lines of "the West's interest is Canada's interest."

When we perceive a threat to Canada, in other words, it is more of an existential one. Those who we would go to war with, we feel, must first pose a danger, not to us alone (because that's pretty much impossible), but to some aspect of the world order we're comfortable with; "civilization itself", almost. In the Boer and Great Wars, "civilization" was seen as synonymous, by English-Canadians, with the British Empire, and its prosperousness with our own. World War Two was about preventing German hegemony in Europe, and a diminished Britain. Since Korea, it's been about the UN international system, offering a bulwark to communism, upholding the NATO alliance, or some combination of the three. These are the calculations only available to those who otherwise feel wholly secure and safe. It is, in the absence of some unimaginable upheaval, unlikely to change.

(The standard rejoinder to this, as seen in a recent Globe and Mail letter, is that if Canada was suddenly moved to Central Asia, we wouldn't be able to behave this way any longer. Well, yeah... so?)

The corollary of only ever going abroad when more than our own interests are at stake is that we will always, always have allies. Even if unilateral military action were logistically possible for Canadians, it is psychically impossible. Mark Steyn and others have portrayed this as a country that wishes to hand over its power of judgment to the UN or NATO councils. It's subtler than that, though. It seems it is only the existence of those allies that can confirm to us that we are, indeed, engaged in a just struggle. Are the nations we respect divided on the scope of the threat? Then perhaps it can't be as great a threat as some suspect. If we define our vital interest as tied to the collective's vital interest, then we are going to inevitably be guided in part by the collective's decisions... be it the Commonwealth, NATO or the UN.

Alliances in this context have historically meant a mixture of fixed alliances like NATO, standing councils like the UN, and bilateral arrangements like NORAD. Canada has used any and all of these. What we have not been a part of, traditionally, are more ad-hoc, “this war only” arrangements. (The first deployment to Afghanistan in 2002 was a notable exception to the rule.) This may well be implicit in any kind of value-driven warmaking: if an alliance is more than just a marriage of convenience, presumably it’s of some value even in the absence of hostilities.

Foreign policy then, at least on the military side, is largely a question of how Canada juggles its alliance commitments. In the upcoming Martinite foreign policy review, this is the key question that Canada’s defence establishment will be looking for an answer on, and will be the key contribution from that process to the parallel defence policy review.

The reason a review is required is because there has been considerable change in the last ten years in the balance and perceived utility of these commitments, both here and elsewhere. The UN and NATO are perceived as flawed, even broken, by many in the alliances’ largest partner, the U.S. Rather than tools to craft an international order around, they are seen by some as obstacles to surmount. The meaning of these developments, and Canada’s reaction to it, thus become the biggest questions for Canada’s foreign policy. The options would seem to total three: withdrawal, reinforcement, or replacement.

Withdrawal, in this sense, would mean downplaying some or all of Canada’s alliance arrangements, because they are seen as no longer effective, our previous willingness to contribute military forces to the world no longer useful, and our real defence needs minimal. This could presumably be accompanied by a decrease in defence spending and capability and a reinvestment in other aspects of Canadian life. It’s fair to say that there is almost no interest in Paul Martin’s Ottawa for this option.

Reinforcement would mean throwing Canada’s diplomatic weight behind the restoration of functioning to those alliances deemed broken by others: specifically the UN and NATO. Some reinventing might be necessary. This would almost certainly be seen as opposition in some American quarters. Some might even consider it quixotic… to reimpose the idea of NATO and/or UN being the appropriate fora in which to plan military action, after a war in Iraq that involved neither body, would even seem unlikely to succeed.

Replacement, however, seems even more dodgy to some. Supplanting existing alliances with new ones would first require some other alliance to join. If there seems little interest in the U.S. in rebuilding the UN and NATO, there seems even less in figuring out what should replace them. The major American defence strategy documents assume an America that eschews new treaties and commitments. History suggests this kind of ad-hockery will show its limits in time, but it’s not clear that will be any time soon.

The Martin foreign policy review may decide to embrace one of these approaches across the board, or differing approaches to different commitments… replacing NORAD with a treaty more reflective of today’s needs, for instance, while reinforcing NATO and the UN. The important point from the defence analysis is that, in order to rebuild old alliances or replace them with new ones, a substantial federal defence spending increase would seem almost certain. In our current state, we have far too little to offer at present.

The recently completed British defence policy review is an interesting indicator of one way the Canadian review could end up. The British policy, post-Iraq is, by the definitions above, a reinforcement/replacement hybrid, dedicated to restoring the military arrangements of NATO and the UN that have gotten such bad publicity lately, and also creating an independent EU military capability. The British government accepts that major operations, in the absence of American support, are no longer possible, even for them, but evidently believes that NATO and the UN need to be restored to their previous place of primacy, rather than be superseded or let lie. It’s a remarkable position given the times we're in, and leaves open the possibility that Canada’s “new foreign policy” could reinforce and tie into the British lead.

Posted by BruceR at 04:52 PM


Britain's final after-action report on the Iraq War is now online here.

Posted by BruceR at 03:47 PM