Blogs are opinion pieces and reflect their author’s views

A good start for a new Defence Policy Review

Written by: Jean-Sébastien Rioux

On April 6th, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan fulfilled the Prime Minister’s commitment to launch a public consultation process that will lead to a comprehensive review of Canada’s defence policy to be released in early 2017. People in the defence policy community are quite interested in this milestone because Canada does not review its policies in this manner very often: In fact, the ministerial press release points out in the second paragraph that this “marks the first public consultation of this magnitude on Canadian defence policy in over 20 years.”


That is true: The last Defence White Paper was released in 1994, and that was preceded by a cross-country tour and a process for informing the Department of National Defence on what experts thought should be priorities in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.


The Martin Government released its International Policy Strategy in 2005 (one of its four parts was a Defence Strategy) and that one also was preceded by some roundtables – I attended one of them lead by Lloyd Axworthy in Montreal – but strictly speaking the public engagement process was not as extensive as the one recently announced. The Harper Government released its Canada First Defence Strategy in 2008 without a public engagement component.


By contrast, this government really wants to hear from you: Minister Sajjan appointed a committee of distinguished Canadians to advise him during the process; he announced that consultation sessions will be held in Vancouver, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. The government created a website replete with information and ways to comment; published a 36-page Public Consultation Paper containing information about the Canadian Forces and a list of ten priority questions the government wants to hear about; and even a form you can fill to inform the government if you are hosting an unofficial consultation session in your community.


There is also a parallel process where the government will solicit papers from individual experts, and I know that several Think Tanks and NGOs are now also writing formal submissions to the government. So there is no doubt that the government will receive a lot of feedback, and some of it will be very constructive and informative. The Trudeau government is to be commended for this initiative: Academics and experts will be energized and will present their best ideas.


If there is a hole in the process it is that logically, the government should begin with a review of its foreign policy, which would in turn inform the defence policy. It should therefore be asking firstly: What does Canada want to do in the world?


As it turns out, one thing we want is to trade more with regional blocs – the EU and perhaps soon with our Trans-Pacific partners. If this is the case, what force structure would complement these goals? Canada has key commercial and trade interests – and hence national interests – which should see increased focus for defence planning, particularly with respect to increasing our presence via the Royal Canadian Navy.


For example, in the Caribbean where many Canadian tourists visit each year, Canadian financial institutions are very active and hold trillions in assets, so we could double or triple our presence and be a key player in areas such as drug interdiction, earning kudos from our American allies in the process. And when we’re not going after traffickers or smugglers, port visits are a great way to engage in public diplomacy and show the Canadian flag. We could lead regular multinational exercises as a trusted regional partner.


The same goes for East Asia: As Canada expands its trade links there, having a more visible and sustained presence will play well with our new commercial partners who value consistency and familiarity in building trade relationships. We should station ships permanently as part of East Asian security cooperation, making port calls and showing the flag.


A reinvigorated Canadian presence in United Nations peacekeeping operations should also be well-thought and planned because of the costs of doing it wrong. Learning from peacekeeping failures in the 1990s and more recent lessons from Afghanistan, we should volunteer our Canadian Forces as long as certain conditions are present such as having a robust logistics system in place; operating under the command of a trusted partner (i.e., not under the UN’s command in New York City); and operating with allied forces that have the capacity and will to react in a crisis situation.


In summary, Canada’s new government could have started with a foreign policy review that tied into defence policy. So I grade this an A- rather than a full A.