What it Will Take for Canada to Get Serious About National Security
Iran’s nuclear program has recently been framed as “galloping ahead”, with limited visibility from the international community. President Biden has stated that the U.S is prepared to use force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear arms. What is Iran’s nuclear strategy moving forward?
The U.S has been saying that Iran is galloping ahead with its nuclear program for 30 years. If that was the case, Iran would have had a nuclear bomb a long time ago. Even though there are some uncertainties in terms of exactly where Iran is at and where it wants to go, there is absolutely no doubt that as of today, in 2022, Iran does not have a nuclear bomb. The “galloping ahead” dimension is not the best way to frame it. It is making progress and that is not good news—that is true. Iran has been very careful over the past few decades to calibrate its provocations, ensuring that it never goes far enough to trigger a massive response, militarily or otherwise, from the United States. Progress, yes—galloping ahead, probably not.
The international community has always had limited visibility on Iran’s nuclear program. Every country is secretive about their nuclear program, especially a dictatorship like Iran, which has hostile relations with the U.S and most of the world. In recent years, it’s become worse. What are the consequences of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal? Iran either reduced access, or in some cases kicked out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency—the UN’s nuclear agency charged with monitoring the compliance of the nuclear deal. One of the paradoxical consequences of Trump withdrawing from the deal is less visibility on the program. That’s a problem.
My view is that Iran is engaged in what we call nuclear hedging, i.e., building the ingredients and knowledge necessary to be able to build a nuclear weapon. Iran has yet to make the decision to build a nuclear weapon though. It might in the future. The public position of the United States intelligence community is consistent with this assessment.
In March, the Canadian government renewed Operation Impact for an additional year. In your opinion, do you think we’re likely to see a sequential renewal given competing demands and scarce resources?
This is a mission we’ve been talking about much less in recent years. It was an election issue in the 2015 election. As an election promise, the Liberals committed to withdrawing the squadron of CF-18s we had there. From 2018-2020, the media talked about the mission a lot less, but the government also talks about it far less too. We do have a commitment of several hundreds of troops. It’s an important mission, we’re there to support the Iraqi government against the Islamic State, and to work with the United States.
The renewal was announced hours before the expiration date of the mission, on a Friday, late afternoon in Ottawa—that means “we want to bury this news”. As someone with an interest in transparency and national security, I find that problematic. I think when any government commits military force in any mission, it must be more transparent and provide more information as to be more forthcoming to Canadians, and it hasn’t been in this case.
Do I think that it’s a good idea to renew Operation impact? In the absolute, it is the right decision for the government to renew this mission. We have a small footprint in Iraq, but I think it satisfies a lot of Canadian interests. In public debates we tend to frame the current government’s decisions to deploy Canadian Forces in terms of values. Values are nice and they’re important, but is the mission in our interests? I think this mission ticks a lot of the boxes that justify its renewal now, but also hopefully in the future. The most important consideration when we deploy the military abroad is how it will impact our relationship with the United States. We are in Iraq to support the United States and they think it is important. By being in Iraq, hopefully, we win some brownie points with the United States. If the government had withdrawn or cancelled the mission in Iraq, it would have been costly. That’s the most important thing with this mission. It’s not to say that Iraq doesn’t matter, but the most important variable is the United States.
Canada also has an interest in contributing to the fight against terrorism. The Islamic State has targeted Canada in the past, it might very well do so in the future. It has also targeted our allies. In that sense, we do have a concrete interest in contributing to the fight against terrorism. Beyond the U.S, we have an interest in supporting our European and NATO allies. A secondary consideration is Iraq itself. Canada does not have direct major interests in Iraq. We don’t have a lot of trade with Iraq, and realistically, we won’t for the foreseeable future. However, we do have some secondary interests in a stable, stronger Iraq—one that is hopefully more democratic, with a more functional, less corrupt government. Renewing, in that sense, is the correct decision.
Right now, we are increasing our commitments in Europe because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a commitment that will increase, not decrease for the foreseeable future. Canada has been under committed in the Indo-Pacific from a military, diplomatic, and trade perspective. That’s a big problem. I would support more resources on defence, diplomacy, and trade in Asia. Where does that leave the Middle East? Squeezed in the middle. Especially in a context of scarce resources. It highlights once again that our interests in Iraq are limited. Should Canada renew Operation Impact in Iraq in 2023? I think it should because we do have these interests, but at the same time, given everything going on in Europe, and what should be going on in the Indo-Pacific, I would expect the mission to be downgraded.
Last May, a report by the task force on national security at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs published a national security strategy for the 2020s focused on how Canada can adapt to a deteriorating security environment. In it, you argue that Canada urgently needs to rethink national security and that it’s not ready to face the new world. As one of the directors of this project, could elaborate further on what our peers, particularly Five Eyes partners, have done to better situate themselves and to mitigate the challenges of this evolving security landscape?
The overall message of the report was that Canada has benefited from the luxury of being extremely safe for three decades. Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been under the umbrella of the United States, which has made us more prosperous and secure. However, as of a few years ago, several trends have been accumulating, and we do see some dark clouds gathering. You have the rise of China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of far-right extremism inside Canada and elsewhere, as well as climate change. We must also consider the pandemic, which had several national security implications for our country. There was a massive increase in economic espionage in the biomedical sector, conspiracy theories, disinformation, etc. We should also be concerned about the potential for political instability in the United States. Put all of that together and the picture of national security for our country is deteriorating. Is the apocalypse around the corner? Of course, not—we were careful not to sound too pessimistic with the report.
In the report, we made about 65 recommendations across a range of issues about what Canada could do to improve its national security. Some of these recommendations are extremely broad, others are very pointed. Some would cost money, a lot of them, especially when they concern governance of national security, would cost nothing. We were careful to be modest with some of our recommendations.
Our allies have been taking these issues more seriously and we are falling behind. In saying that there’s a bit of a tendency in Canada, from the media, by academics, and analysts, to idealize what our allies do a bit too much. The extent to which we are falling behind has been exaggerated in my view. We do think we’re falling behind. We do think some of our allies, especially the U.S are getting increasingly frustrated with Canada not taking national security issues seriously. That is on our minds and it’s an issue. However, let’s not exaggerate.
Comparisons between us and our allies are valid, but we must remember that we are different. Canadians sometimes say that Australia is doing so much more than we are, that they have a more mature national security culture than we have, which to some extent is true, but that point is exaggerated. Australia lives in a much more dangerous neighbourhood than we do. They don’t have the U.S next door to shelter them under the great umbrella we’ve benefited so much from. They are much more exposed to China in particular. So that reality has led the Australian Government to focus much more on national security than we have.
Will recent events, like the “Freedom Convoy,” Covid-19, War in Ukraine, and climate emergency, potentially spark a culture shift in Canadian national security?
The pandemic, the ‘Freedom Convoys’, and the war in Ukraine are all ongoing. What must happen for Canada to be more serious about national security are successive crises, getting smacked in the face and realizing that we aren’t ready, politically, but also concretely in terms of national security. I don’t think we’re that much different from others in how we respond to crises. However, we don’t plan very well in terms of national security. We’ll get smacked. We’ll go through crises, and we will slowly learn lessons from these crises.
The pandemic is two and a half years old. We’ve learned a lot. I co-edited a book with Dr. Leah West and Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam, that came out about six months ago on the national security implications of the pandemic for Canada. The intelligence community in this country learned a lot from the pandemic, it learned how to manage remote working for a lot of its staff, and to engage with the private sector a lot more. CSIS and CSC are reaching out to the private sector, and to help protect them against economic espionage, especially the biomedical/pharmaceutical research sector. It’s a huge improvement. Should there be more improvement of this type? Of course, a lot more. But things have been happening. With time, I think there will be steady progress.
Climate change is a massive national security issue for Canada in the longer term and it is abstract. Climate change is not primarily a national security issue. It’s an environmental issue that has economic, societal, political, and national security implications. I think we need to think about these a lot more, especially within the context of the massive heat waves and forest fires throughout the world, including in Canada. What is the role of the Canadian intelligence community in thinking about climate change? You don’t spy on climate change or collect human intelligence on climate change. However, climate change has national security implications, it can speed up or change migratory patterns that can have national security implications. It can intensify civil conflicts elsewhere in the world that can have national security implications here. Similar to the pandemic, in the coming years as it intensifies, one of the most critical economic sectors in Canada will be technologies to adapt to climate change. You can fully expect that China will be trying to steal intellectual property—it probably already is at this level. How do we think about all of that?
When you think about the implications of climate change in that way, there is a role for CSIS, CSC, and CBSA. The former Deputy Director for Policy at CSIS mentioned that it’s a concern for them. What exactly does that mean? What exactly do they have to do? What should they be doing more of in the future? What additional resources, skill sets, and so on are needed? If we stopped with one issue that we really need to think about more, that’s a key one.