Brian Stewart: A national security strategy for dangerous times

With the world in so much turmoil, Ottawa needs to become more creative in assessing what really counts for Canada's security and economic well-being, writes Brian Stewart.

At a time when the world seems plunged into a period of extraordinary turmoil and profound shifts in big power ranks, Canada could benefit from developing a better "grip" on reality.  

We need, that is, a grip on our fundamental national security interests. 

And we need to do that by developing our own national security strategy (no, we really don't have one). 

That's the strong conclusion of a major report out Thursday called The Strategic Outlook for Canada, prepared as a Vimy Paper for the Conference of Defence Associations think-tank in Ottawa.

The paper challenges Canada's tradition of generally leaving the long-term big strategic thinking to others, that is to U.S.-dominated alliances like NATO and to whatever other international coalition that seemed worth supporting in a crisis.

We've relied on "doing the right thing" when called on. Sometimes that has worked well; sometimes not.

But this cosy world view is no longer good enough. The world is in too much flux and old certainties are fleeting. Alliances like NATO just aren’t what they used to be. Important countries — and Canada is certainly one — have to look increasingly to their own best long-term interests. 

This means Ottawa needs to become more creative in assessing what really counts for Canada's security and economic well-being.    

Historic shift

Take one obvious historic shift now underway: the U.S. is out of Iraq, preparing to leave Afghanistan and is redirecting its primary strategic interests away from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific.  

Our European NATO partners, meanwhile, are battered by economic woes and struggling to find their own new focus.   Where does that leave Canada?  What are our strategic options? Do we need whole new alliances in the Pacific? How do we rebalance our separate alliance with the U.S.? 

Any strategic review of Canadian defence priorities will have to question whether the Navy should expand if the country's security and trade focus shifts to the Asia/Pacific region. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The sheer number of dangerous international flashpoints we now face should be a urgent reminder that we need to get our strategic thinking clear so that we just don't react without foresight the next time a world crisis or even war erupts.

Take just the current worries: Syria, on the razor’s edge of civil war; Iran and Israel, locked in a potentially catastrophic showdown; Egypt, where a new government might well scrap its non-aggression pact with Israel and move troops back into the demilitarized Sinai desert; and odd-ball North Korea, where nuclear weapons are now under control of another unknown leader.

Throw in our increasingly uncertain training role in Afghanistan, the global economic malaise, a near universal struggle over government budgets, not to mention climate and environmental concerns, and the term perilous is no exaggeration.

As prominent Canadian historian Jack Granatstein, who strongly endorsed the Vimy Paper's argument, wrote this week: "The economic, military and political crises that are coming to the boil this year are very real ones, and short-term stopgap thinking will not be sufficient to deal with them. Canada’s government needs to start thinking big. At last."

I've often been puzzled when covering Canada in the world by the usual modest reluctance we have to think big. 

But now-confused times argue the need for clear thinking braced by a grasp of historical trends as well as future needs and potential — not always an easy sell in our increasingly attention-deficit-disordered democracies (OK, ditto the modern media).

Sober reassessment

The Strategic Outlook for Canada report is timely, however, and may get a good hearing. Its two authors are respected and highly experienced analysts in military and diplomatic circles. 

George Petrolekas, a business executive who served as a Canadian officer in Bosnia and Afghanistan, is also a pre-eminent authority on NATO and coalition warfare. Paul Chapin is a former senior Foreign Affairs official.

Their challenge is not an attack on the current government, nor does it lobby for more defence spending.

Indeed, it calls for very sober reassessment of defence spending priorities given changing realities.

"Our intent is to tie the need for a made-at-home national security strategy that matches what we see going on in the world," says Petrolekas, who has advised top Canadian and NATO officers on strategy. 

The paper recommends that the federal government prepare a national security strategy for Canada that will be able to make tough choices on inevitably tighter defence budgets.

What will fit, for example, with new responsibilities in the Pacific and Arctic? Are we sure we’ve got the balance right between Army, Navy and Air Force needs?

The paper skirts the specific debate over the colossally expensive future purchase of 65 CF-35 strike fighters (which critics insist will cost somewhere between $20 billion and $29 billion) but is likely to stir the controversy further.

Expand the Navy?

Equally, any strategic review of our defence priorities will have to question whether we should expand our Navy, perhaps at the expense of the Army, if we shift our security and trade focus to the vast waters of the Asia/Pacific region. 

The need to review alliances may be even more pressing, given European weaknesses. 

The paper notes the U.S. will count even more on Canadian co-operation in the future and suggests Canada should be discussing military contingencies with potential new Pacific partners including Australia and New Zealand.  

Canada requires not just a military rethink, the paper argues, but major diplomatic and trade initiatives with China, an obvious priority. 

It should urge new understandings with a host of nations across the globe, including Turkey and Egypt, and if possible, Pakistan. 

Inevitably, in rethinking its place in the world, Canada will be forced to contemplate its own changing nature, as demographic and economic realities shift our balance more to our West.

'What's it all about anyway?'

It will be interesting to see if we become more strategic-minded as a nation, as opposed to short-term obsessed, for an added value of a long-term strategic review is the inevitable "What's it all about, anyway?" question.

That's the one that probes core national values.  

Strategy is not just about projecting future power and influence, or simply looking out long-term for oneself alone. 

To be successful, it also requires clarity about what we as a people stand for at home and internationally, such as, well, improving human rights and dignity and advancing peace where possible. 

A reputation is important out in the wide world. And we could always use some retooling in this area as well.