CDA Institute Analyst Geoff Tasker offers an analytical survey of what was discussed at the government’s DPR-focused roundtable in Toronto. 

The new government’s Defence Policy Review (DPR) continues to make its way across the country, with Toronto hosting its contribution to the discussion with a roundtable on 20 May 2016. As is procedure for each of these events, invited presenters submitted short written statements prior to the meeting, outlining the areas they think are of greatest importance in any new defence policy. The DPR has thus far produced a wide range of expert opinion on how Canadian defence should structure itself but if these two roundtables are any indicator, drawing any form of concrete policy from the oftentimes varied and polarized recommendations will be a near impossible task.

This is not to say the preliminary ideas put forward for this panel were not both insightful and useful. Quite the opposite. While the statements certainly do not follow one specific stream of opinion, most are engaging and well thought out; the clashes of opinion serve for the most part to highlight multiple values and realities. It needs to be noted, however, that there is a highly noticeable difference in quality and effort between what different contributors seem to bring to the discussion and this is creating something of a black eye for the entire process.

In both this and the previous Vancouver roundtable, the majority of panelists address their area of focus with well researched, logical arguments. There are others however, who are much less thorough, electing instead to defer their contribution primarily to their own past writings, regardless of their relevance to the issues at hand. Worse still are some contributors who approach this review so narrowly, based on their own research or area of interest, that it is impossible to understand how they could realistically inform policy development.

Contributor Erika Simpson, for example, seemed content to base her written statement entirely around “arguing” how any new defence white paper will need to be different in scope and outlook from the 1964 defence white paper, of all things. Despite some cryptic suggestions on contemporary defence issues, it is difficult, if not wholly impossible, to see how framing an entire written submission around such a dated area of focus could benefit the discussion at hand. Nevertheless, Simpson and her research were granted special invitation to speak at the Toronto event in place of undoubtedly better qualified and deserving professionals.

The DPR has so far managed to raise a few eyebrows for the choice of roundtable locations. It’s odd then that a similar level of scrutiny has not been applied to the selection of participants. The suggestions and insight of contributors such as these are not only irrelevant and unhelpful, they also do the greater disservice of distracting from the larger discussion at hand. A degree of diversity is certainly needed to better inform policy. But the way the process appears to be proceeding – in which certain participants seem to be chosen solely to bring a diversity of viewpoints, irrespective of their insight, skill, or reputation – is bound to create inconclusive results.

It is still unknown as to how substantively these roundtables will play into the broader DPR process. However, the invitation to contribute one’s thoughts on Canada’s defense should not be taken lightly. If informed policy-making is to have any impact, it is the responsibility of both the speakers and those who select them to ensure the information being provided is useful and substantive.

Ideas around Canada’s supposed return to peacekeeping have been popping up in many defence policy discussions since this new government took office – and this round of the DPR was no exception. Few contributors were entirely opposed to the idea of Canada returning to its peacekeeping roots, although debate quickly emerged on how to best do so. Panelist Walter Dorn asserted that a Canadian return to peacekeeping operations is not only desirable for our own international reputation, but is also in the best interest of global security at large. It is not only our historical connection with the initiative which granted Canadians a strong reputation as peacekeepers; our bilingual, multi-cultural society coupled with our uniquely non-colonial history place Canadians in an extremely useful position for conducting or leading peace support operations in fragile states around the world. This position should not be taken lightly.

With ideas of conflict prevention and “peacemaking” taking on new urgency and US world influence on the decline, the international community can no longer rely solely on the United States to uphold international security. Greater initiatives and contributions are needed from capable states and as a G7 country, any Canadian reform toward peacekeeping to arise from this review should emphasize the need to substantially increase personnel while reaffirming logistics and intent.

While peacekeeping inevitably leads to reflection on how Canada wishes to be seen by the world, contributors such as Stephen Toope went one step further and asked the larger question of how we – as Canadians – wish to see our country. Successive governments have been content with providing the bare minimum to the armed forces and relying instead on the policies, capabilities, and indeed good will of our allies, not least the United States. As such, the image of Canada “piggybacking” off our NATO and NORAD allies has become popularized, not only amongst our neighbours but also to some extent in how we view ourselves. A renewed defence policy will certainly go a long way toward breaking down these perceptions. It also opens up an opportunity to give thought as to what new image we wish to have in its place.

Since the announcement of the DPR, there has been skepticism over the idea the defence policy review was going to proceed in isolation, without a formal directive on foreign policy. A full foreign policy review may not be necessary for the DPR to identify what the CAF needs. But, if the new policy is to provide a reflection of Canadian values, however, it may be useful to help identify the substance of these guiding values, and how we wish to promote and defend them. Doing so would give this DPR the direction it is currently lacking and create some much needed guidance on some of the more discretionary missions available to the CAF.

As the DPR continues to make its way across the country, multiple opinions have been brought forward as to how Canada can best restructure its defence policy. At this DPR roundtable, for example, MGen David Fraser (Ret’d), a member of the CDA Institute Board of Directors, recommended reviewing Canada’s balance of capabilities in light of discretionary and non-discretionary missions. David Perry, in turn, proposed certain key capability requirements for the CAF and the need to bring both adequate financial resources and an improved procurement system. By the end, however, we need to ensure the formulation of a concrete policy that will best serve Canadian defence requirements not only over the duration of the current government, but for many years to come.

This problem is only magnified by the fact that the Opposition has a duty to oppose government initiatives, which in turn degrades our reliability among our key allies, as noted by Adam Chapnick. With our democratic system relying so heavily on strong debate and opposition, they would also be sorely tempted once in power to scrap its predecessor’s defence policy in place of its own.

Overcoming this challenge will be difficult, but is not impossible. Governments may periodically change but the values and interests Canada has long stood beside and promoted have never lost their importance. If the DPR can come to terms with such ideas, we have the opportunity to create a defence policy grounded in national interests and values with the potential to last beyond just the current government – one that serves the country as a whole rather than being done only for temporary partisan advantage.

Certainly, the Toronto roundtable showed that the DPR still has the potential to produce something worthwhile. It also revealed, however, that without the proper grounding or directive, this DPR could leave Canada’s defence policy even more adrift at a time when it can ill afford it.

Geoff Tasker is an Analyst with the CDA Institute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). His research interests focus on international security and defence policy as well as conflict mediation and humanitarian intervention. (Image courtesy of Department of National Defence)

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