Canada’s exclusion from the AUKUS security pact reveals a failing national defence policy
by Paul T. Mitchell, Professor of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College
Eventually the bill will come due when our government commits our forces to a mission they can no longer fulfil.
The recently announced deal on nuclear submarines between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, known as AUKUS, likely seems irrelevant to many Canadians.
The problem stems from Canada’s tacit “grand strategy” underlying our defence policy.
A country’s grand strategy typically outlines geopolitical realities alongside a plan to achieve its diplomatic goals.
In 1924, Liberal politician Raoul Dandurand famously said “Canada is a fire-proof house, far removed from flammable materials,” putting into words Canada’s approach to defence since 1867. Simply put, three oceans and a superpower sufficiently shield us from having to think about how to achieve national security.
Canadian defence policy has never varied from three priorities — defend Canada, defend North America and contribute to international peace and security — that have appeared in every Defence Department white paper since the 1950s, regardless of the governing party. This attitude was evident in the recent election campaign, when discussions about defence were largely absent, despite growing threats from abroad and the turmoil within our own military.
Diminished Canadian military
Since the heydays of defence spending of the 1950s, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have been gradually shedding fundamental capabilities — including long-range artillery, tanks, fighters that are now obsolete, submarine forces, destroyers and maritime logistics.
The current #MeToo moment racking military leadership, creating a turnstile for key senior positions, hasn’t gone unnoticed among our allies.
And while the CAF specifically faces new challenges in terms of diversity, its traditional approach to leadership has alienated thousands within the ranks, causing a rush to the exits, especially among the most experienced of personnel. The lack of support for modern equipment has also contributed to this problem.
Canadians, meantime, remain blissfully unconcerned by these things.
Harper dithered too
The need to replace CF-18 fighter jets has been evident for more than two decades.
Governments have had all the information they need to make a decision. Yet even the pro-defence Conservatives under former prime minister Stephen Harper dithered.
Our fire-proof house defence strategy encourages this antipathy. When you think you live in a gated community, the pressure to invest in alarms for your home disappears.
We remain steadfastly convinced that we are far removed from flammable materials. In recent weeks, some have even suggested that all Canada requires is some sort of constabulary force whose primary responsibilities involve fighting wildfires or search and rescue missions.
Perhaps that’s so. In the foreseeable future, only the U.S. would likely have the ability to invade Canada. In that unlikely event, our policy would have to be in a faint hope the international community would come to our rescue.
But what if the unthinkable happened? In the future, Canada’s geographic situation won’t save us from having to make hard decisions, just as it hasn’t in the past.
We could not avoid going to war in either 1914 or 1939. In 2001 and 2003, we were compelled by circumstances to send Canadian soldiers to Afghanistan to demonstrate our reliability as a partner. In 1941, 2,000 unprepared and very poorly supported Canadian troops were sent to safeguard Hong Kong: 800 of them were either killed in battle or through mistreatment as prisoners of war, a direct outcome of our fire-proof mentality.
China and the future international order
The two Canadian prisoners in China — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, known as the “two Michaels” — are presently paying the price for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou following an extradition request from the United States, another decision the Canadian government could not avoid.
Australia clearly would have preferred not to have to choose between the two biggest global superpowers, especially given its proximity to China. The country is also Australia’s biggest trading partner.
In 2018, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared: “Australia doesn’t have to choose and we won’t choose” between China and the U.S.
But a global order based on submitting to the whims of a renewed China clearly would have been intolerable to liberal-minded Australia. In the end, the Australians really had no other choice.
Canada has skated on thin ice so far this century. It’s avoided confronting the erosion of its strategic defence.
We can continue to drag our heels, but eventually the bill will come due when our government commits our forces to a mission they can no longer fulfil because we thought we didn’t need to concern ourselves with the health of the military.
In recent years, the “unthinkable” took place as we committed to a land war in Afghanistan and a bombing campaign over Libya. These will not be the last such surprises.
An honest rethinking of our strategy is the first step out of this dangerous situation.