Kim Nossal: Canada Needs to Change its Attitude Towards Defence in the 21st Century

The Following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with Kim Nossal.

What role has strategic geography played in shaping defence policy and strategic culture in Canada?

Strategic geography encompasses the geographic elements of a country’s location in global politics, and how geographic location can and should affect how a country orients itself to the international system—to threats, and its well-being. Throughout history, Canada’s strategic geography has very much shaped how Canadians have chosen to respond to global politics. In the 19th century, upon Confederation, one of the things that we constantly had to do was reflect on the major threat to Canadian existence—which was, of course, the US. 

By the end of the 19th century, with the Americans having given up on the notion that their manifest destiny was to see the stars and stripes spread over all of North America, that particular aspect of our geography transformed. Since the early part of our country’s existence, we have always had the incredibly fortunate situation of having huge oceans to separate us from continental politics in both east and west. We have a hugely inhospitable region to the north, the Arctic and the Arctic Ocean. To the south, as of the late 19th century, we have had an ally, a friend, and a country that poses a number of threats to Canada, but that existential military threat is long gone, it is a thing of the past. Strategic geography has very much shaped how we have responded to the international system.

Why do governments abstain from citing geography when articulating and justifying defense policy? How does this impact the average Canadians understanding of our defense requirements? 

Canadian governments generally do not tell Canadians to look at where we are in the world—how safe we are in global politics, where those who could potentially cause a threat to us are, and what kinds of things we may need to do to respond to where we are in the world. The Canadian government has never spoken to Canadians in such a frank fashion, because, from my perspective, it would be simply too embarrassing for the Canadian government to write a white paper on defence that says we are incredibly safe where we are now, but we have not always been. During the Cold War, Canadians were not at all safe. When governments talked to Canadians during that era, about threats to our existence, they were perfectly frank. However, with the end of the Cold War, Canadian governments have gotten out of the habit of reminding Canadians what our safe geographic position does not require. 

So many other countries in the world have to take their physical security far more seriously than Canadians. Canadians do not have to take defence seriously, and unsurprisingly, we do not take defense seriously. We spend as little as we can get away with. We do not have serious conversations with ourselves about what we need to purchase to defend ourselves. We do not have serious conversations about what the threats to Canadian existence might be. Therefore, we get the kind of white paper that every government since Pierre Trudeau’s government has put out, which is to get around the problem of our essential safety in international affairs.

The peacekeeping myth is deeply entrenched in the way in which Canadians see themselves in the world. That has been encouraged by governments even though we do very little in the way of peacekeeping in the contemporary era. What I find interesting is the fact that Canadians seem to understand just how safe we are. We can see that in the way in which Canadian political parties approach defence spending. There is not a single political party in Canada that will go to the electorate and proclaim that they will spend seriously on defence. There is not a single Canadian party that would dare to go to the Canadian electorate with such a message, because they know that Canadian voters know that there is no particularly good reason in this contemporary international climate to spend that kind of money. In a sense, we have got a real paradox here.

Does renewed great power competition, gray zone conflict, and cyber warfare pose a challenge to the way we think about defence and security in Canada? Should it?

Definitely. We need to be concerned about the rise of China. We need to be concerned about how the People’s Republic of China is operating on the world stage. We need to be concerned about the Russian Federation, and the rattling of Russian sabres in its so-called near-abroad. We need to be concerned about nuclear proliferation, and cyber threats. All of these things absolutely constitute threats to Canadian security. The question is, what kind of defence policy does one need to defend against those kinds of threats? 

In my opinion, that question has not been answered by the government’s 2017 defence policy. That statement does not actually talk about the threats that emanate from the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation. It does not talk about cyber in any serious way. What Canadians have to understand is that that the re-emergence of great power competition, and the expansion of cyber threats, absolutely need to be addressed. We need to start having a national conversation about that.

Have the fundamentals of Canadian defence policy changed in any meaningful way in the past few decades?

I think that the key break came at the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the essential task for Canadian defence policy was to assist the United States in defending the American homeland. That essentially underwrote our approach to the NORAD, and later on to assist in securing the maritime approaches to North America. With the end of the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear exchange, and all that would flow from it between the United States and the Soviet Union, ended. Is there still a nuclear threat? Absolutely. The Russian Federation and the United States still have huge numbers of nuclear weapons, as does the People’s Republic of China. However, it seems to me that the fundamentals for Canada remain unchanged only in one key area, and that is that we continue to need to help defend the American Heartland. That is the core task for Canadian defence policy.

Scott Gilmour of Maclean’s magazine said we need to Trump-proof our foreign policy and abandon the sinking American ship by forging new, deeper alliances. While allies seem reassured by Biden’s renewed commitment to multilateralism and alliances, his administration may not be enough to stave off America-First sentiment, or a resurgence in Trumpism/populism. Is Canada capable of navigating a post-American world? What would receding U.S leadership mean for Canada and should we prepare for it?

The arrival of the Biden administration means the return of a sane, predictable, experienced administration in Washington, when it comes to global affairs. Nonetheless, we are still in a situation where we have to recognize that 75 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Trumpism, even if Mr. Trump never returns to the White House, remains one of the most serious threats to global security—in large measure because Trumpism poses a major threat to American democracy. The authoritarian turn that we see on the Trumpist side of politics in the United States, means the broad Western Alliance needs to worry about where the United States is headed. I think that those who call for a Trump-proof Canadian foreign policy are entirely correct. 

We do need to move if we see that the Republicans, who remain very much in thrall to Donald Trump, manage to gain control of one or both houses of Congress in 2022—and who knows, perhaps the return of Mr. Trump himself in 2024. For Canada, the major problem will be that there is not much that we can do to Trump-proof our foreign policy if Americans, in their wisdom, turn back to Mr. Trump, a Trumpist candidate, or an America-First approach. Fundamentally, Canada’s strategic geography means that we are stuck with the United States. The notion that we can find new alliances elsewhere—it is just not going to work. One of the aspects of our strategic geography is being stuck with the U.S in North America.

Can and should Canada look to any period in its history to help navigate the geopolitical environment we find ourselves in during the 2020s? 

We always tend to look backward to help us navigate the future. When you look back in the past, there is only one era that is similar to the way that the world is now. That is the era before the First World War. During that era we were, as we are now, stuck with the United States in North America. Under Donald Trump, the United States was not an engaged global power, it was in retreat. The United States under Trump looked very much like what the United States did in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. The big difference between that era and now is that, in the years before 1914, Canada was very much part of the British global empire. We were never all alone in North America, the way we are now. We were part of a larger, global, militarily powerful empire. Today, we are not part of a formal empire, we are pretty much alone. Do we have allies, partners, and friends in other places? In Europe? Absolutely. In the Asia-Pacific? Absolutely. The reality is when all is said and done, we are very much alone in North America.

We, as Canadians, do need to start having frank conversations about what our defence in the 2020s is going to look like. Relying on old verities that sometimes extend back into the Cold War—verities that that no longer apply, really will not cut it for the decades ahead. What we need to do is to recognize what impact great power competition is going to have on Canada. We need to start having conversations about how we are going to deal with the United States, where Trumpism remains influential among millions of Americans. We need to have conversations about our future with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. I hope that governments and civil society organizations will begin to think about what we need to look for in the remainder of the decade.

Kim Richard Nossal went to school in Melbourne, Beijing, Toronto, and Hong Kong and attended the University of Toronto, receiving his PhD in 1977. In 1976 he joined the Department of Political Science at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he taught international relations and Canadian foreign policy, serving as chair of the Department in 1989–90 and 1992–1996. In 2001, he came to Queen’s University, heading the Department of Political Studies until 2009. He served as director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy from 2011 to 2013. From 2013 to 2015, he was the executive director of the Queen’s School of Policy Studies.

He has served as editor of International Journal, the quarterly journal of the Canadian International Council, Canada’s institute of international affairs (1992-1997), and was president of the Canadian Political Science Association (2005-2006). He served as chair of the academic selection committee of the Security and Defence Forum of the Department of National Defence from 2006 to 2012. In 2017 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Royal Military College of Canada.

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