Volume 29

Volume 29 -The Promises and Pitfalls of Foreign Military Training: Implications for the Canadian Armed Forces

Introduction | Dr. Marc-Olivier Cantin

The provision of military training to foreign armies has long been a staple of the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) efforts to promote norms of civilian control, military professionalism, and humanitarianism abroad. From their involvement in training programs in newly independent African nations to more recent training missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine, the CAF has indeed developed, over time, an internationally-recognized expertise in inculcating military values and practices among allies and partners (Grant-Waddell 2014). Foreign military training (FMT) is now identified by Canada and most other developed nations as a key tool to advance foreign policy objectives and to project soft power (Martinez Machain 2021). The centrality of FMT missions in the activities of modern militaries is made abundantly clear when considering the efforts and resources that the US Army injected in such missions since the early 2000s:

Between 1999 and 2016, across 34 different programs, the USA trained some 2,395,272 trainees from virtually every country in the world, peaking at 292,753 in 2008. Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for over half of these trainees, but even leaving these two countries aside, the total figure was 971,054, with as many as 78,722 individuals in a single year (2016). The United States spent some $14.8 billion worldwide on its training efforts and sold training worth another $4.9 billion (McLauchlin, Seymour, and Martel 2022, 286).

Although the FMT operations of the CAF are far more modest in size and scope, they are nonetheless an essential component of the Canadian military’s endeavors to secure vital strategic interests. Through Operation Unifier alone, Canada has injected nearly $1 billion and has sent thousands of Canadian soldiers to train and support the Armed Forces of Ukraine (Government of Canada 2022).

Yet, despite the ubiquity of FMT missions in contemporary international relations, recent research has highlighted how such missions can also generate unwanted consequences that run against operational objectives and may leave recipient countries in worst conditions than prior to receiving training. Scholars have shown, for instance, that FMT can shift the balance of power between the military and the regime, leading to coups, or increase repression capabilities, which may then be used to infringe on human rights (Savage and Caverley 2017).

This contrasting picture raises important questions regarding the benefits and drawbacks of FMT for both supplying and recipient nations. Building on the discussions held during the Metro Expert Series Webinar titled “The Promises and Pitfalls of Foreign Military Training: Implications for the CAF”, which took place on May 6th 2022, this special issue of On Track will seek to address these questions, striving to identify on key lessons learned that can inform the future FMT operations of the CAF. Organized by the CDA Institute, this webinar featured presentations from four experts from the academic world (Dr. Carla Martinez Machain, Dr. Renanah Miles Joyce, Dr. Jesse Dillon Savage, and Dr. Adam Scharpf) and two senior officials from the CAF with first-hand experience with such missions (MGen Gregory Smith and MGen James Ferron (retd)).

This On Track issue contains four in-depth papers written by three of the above experts and two other contributors (Dr. William Reno and Lt. Col. Jahara Matisek). In this introduction, first, Ibriefly survey the history of Canadian FMT. I then review existing research and draw on recent examples to highlight to potential benefits and downsides of FMT missions. Finally, I introduce the four papers and discuss the implications of this project for research and policy.


This issue of On Track contains in-depth analyses from leading academic experts on FMT, who cover a wide range of topics including soft power dynamics and the way FMT can increase supplying states’ influence in recipient countries; the demand side of security assistance; the effects of FMT on coups in recipient countries; the impact of FMT on civil-military relations; and the inculcation of norms and values through such training. All papers reflect on the importance of their findings for the Canadian Armed Forces and discuss key policy implications.

The first article – co-authored by Lt. Col. Jahara Matisek, Military Professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and Dr. William Reno, Professor at Northwestern University – argues that a lack of broader strategic vision hampers efforts to identify when Canadian FMT missions actually achieve their goals. The authors suggest that, by failing to clearly articulate how FMT advances Canada’s long-term national interests, political leaders are undermining public support for such missions and are leaving Canadian trainers to wonder how their efforts concretely matter. Matisek and Reno contend that Canadian leaders must move beyond mere expressions of values and instead define clear and measurable goals and endpoints. The authors conclude by offering actionable policy recommendations based on their observations of Canadian FMT efforts in Ukraine and Niger.

The second article – written by Dr. Adam Scharpf, Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Copenhagen – analyses FMT from the perspective of recipient countries. It explores how the provision of FMT generates a dilemma for the governments of such countries, to which they respond strategically by weighing the political and military costs of receiving military aid, and as a result, adapting their demands accordingly. According to Scharpf, recipients carefully evaluate geopolitical interests, domestic military requirements, and the threats posed by potentially disloyal, foreign-trained security personnel to decide whether and how much FMT to demand. Importantly, these strategic calculations shape not only the timing and nature of military training provision, but it also sets limits on what such training can achieve. This has crucial implications for supplying nations like Canada, who must pay attention to local dynamics in recipient countries to ensure that training programs achieve expected results.

The third article – written by Dr. Carla Martinez Machain, Professor of Political Science at University at Buffalo, SUNY – examines how donors can use FMT as a form of soft power that they can wield to influence the normative and behavioral tendencies of recipient countries. Martinez Machain shows that influence is best attained not by the threat of removing something of value to recipient countries, but through the transformation of their mindset and preferences. In particular, training that directly focuses on the inculcation of liberal norms of human rights and humanitarianism can help decrease the use of repression by the military in recipient nations. The article highlights the need for supplying nations like Canada to commit for the long term and avoid shortcuts, since shaping partners’ preferences to match our own does not happen overnight.

The fourth and final article – written by Dr. Jesse Dillon Savage, Ussher Assistant Professor in Global Politics at Trinity College Dublin – discusses the effects of foreign military training on civil-military relations and coup propensity. It investigates how FMT can foster tensions between civilian elites and the military by promoting norms, creating networks, and increasing capabilities that may alter the domestic balance of power, suggesting that training missions may affect both the propensity and the capacity of trainees to stage coups. Importantly, however, Savage highlights the fact that the effect of FMT on civil-military relations is likely to be contingent on several factors, including the content of training programs and inculcated norms, regime type, and local political contexts.

The views expressed in this issue of ON TRACK are the authors’ and do not represent DRDC, the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces, or the Government of Canada.

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