CDA Institute guest contributor Zachary Wolfraim, a PhD candidate at King’s College London, warns against mythologizing the past in Canada’s defence policy review.

Historical narratives carry a lot of weight, both in domestic and international politics. The Liberal Party managed to utilize this in its 2015 election campaign, appealing to Canadian voters’ sense of what they saw as ‘traditional’ Canadian values. In particular, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to reorient and reinvigorate Canada’s foreign policy and defence policies. The Department of National Defence is now preparing to undertake a long overdue review of its priorities and has opened public consultations into what Canada’s new defence strategy should look like. While a commendable process to promote public engagement and transparency, the same narratives that swept the Liberals to power last year risk stifling new and innovative thinking on defence priorities.

Inherently, there is no problem with recalling Canada’s foreign policy traditions and narratives. Narratives help us to make sense of the world and more importantly, help us define how we see ourselves acting within it. Similarly, Canada’s allies understand and create their own narratives that help to establish a foundation of trust and cooperation grounded in predictable behaviour. These were disrupted by the Harper government, which sought to re-interpret Canada’s foreign policy story in a relatively dramatic way and reorient how Canada interacted with other nations. NATO, the United Nations, as well as a number of other organizations and institutions saw a moralistic, transactional bent to Canada’s international behaviour, eschewing many of the ‘traditional’ elements of Canadian diplomacy.

Until the Harper government, the characteristics of Canada as a middle power, an honest broker, and a multilateralist country have largely dominated the discourse of Canadian foreign and security policy since 1945. Canada’s traditional narratives in foreign policy and defence are arguably so ingrained within their respective departments as to be considered orthodoxy, even though in practice, international policy-making represents a much more complex reality.

The effectiveness of Canada as an international actor was nonetheless predicated on a shared understanding of this narrative between Canada and other nations. Consequently, Canada’s diplomatic tradition was referenced during the campaign – along with its history in international organizations like the United Nations – to condemn the Conservative government’s hawkish stance on foreign policy, which was criticized as having weakened Canada’s influence internationally. The Liberal position was ultimately a backlash against what many both in Canada and among Canada’s international allies saw as an unmooring of the country from its traditional positions in foreign policy.

In terms of future defence policy, the concern is that the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. In reaction to the Harper government’s reorientation of Canada’s international priorities, there is the possibility of potentially harming Canada’s foreign and security policies. Global Affairs Canada needs time to recover from the decade of micromanagement and budgetary restriction under the previous government. As it relates to defence, the military needs to straighten out procurement quickly and act to ensure that it maintains its current capabilities. While meeting NATO’s 2 percent spending target would be ideal, this would only serve to ensure that Canada could maintain its existing capabilities. Sustained investment will be necessary to continue modernizing the Canadian Forces and ensure that it has equipment capable of countering a diverse range of future threats.

In much broader terms, this defence policy review needs to seriously examine the role that Canada seeks to play on the international stage. While the ‘middle power’ peacekeeper narrative continues to inform many popular understandings of Canada’s international engagement, many of its traditional tenets are outdated in the current security environment. In particular, the emphasis on the United Nations and peacekeeping present a significant problem given the dysfunction within the UN itself. This is compounded by the reality that traditional peacekeeping is no longer possible since the type of interstate conflict it was designed for has been supplanted by asymmetric and unconventional conflict. Unless Canada is willing to spearhead the Sisyphean task of UN reform and redesign peacekeeping for the 21st Century (tasks it may yet undertake) the government will need to re-energize its weakened relationship with NATO.

The relationship between Canada and NATO was strained somewhat due to the Harper government’s instrumental view of the organization. While NATO was considered a key forum during the Afghanistan operation, Canada’s relationship was fraught given the withdrawal from several important initiatives such as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) as well as its drone programme (Allied Ground Surveillance). Canada has increasingly re-engaged with NATO as part of its response to Russian intransigence in Eastern Europe. NATO continues to be the world’s foremost body for security and defence and it remains in Canada’s interest to ensure that it retains this position and its relevance. An active and engaged Canada in NATO carries more weight on defence issues than does Canada in the United Nations.

In consulting the public about the future of Canadian defence, the Trudeau government runs the risk of being steered by the power of Canada’s narrative in an unpredictable fashion back towards familiar territory. There is a strong potential that the public will push for organizations and policies that fail to reflect the current state of global instability, which could undermine Canada’s ability to project itself internationally. Alternatively, it could lead to an interminable and introspective debate that could end up stifling or slowing down the necessary changes that need to occur in Canada’s foreign and security policies.

Policy-makers must effectively navigate a way forward, embracing the heritage the Liberals invoked, while leading the development of Canadian security and defence policy in a volatile international security environment.

Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD Candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London examining the role of narrative in foreign policy behaviour. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. (Image courtesy of The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.)

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