The role of Canada's military
Nov 8, 2010

The role of Canada's military

As the end of combat operations for Canada's military in Afghanistan quickly approaches its summer 2011 deadline, the question of adjudicating Canada's future military roles arrises. Do we take a further role in Afghanistan? Do we engage elsewhere in UN missions in, say, the Congo? Do we focus domestically? And what are the implications for the amount and focus of military spending?

On foreign operations, Canada is currently facing building pressure from the Americans (in the latest by John McCain on CBS) to take an active non combat role in Afghanistan after summer 2011 focusing on training. Ignatieff advocates for some level of future non combat role. Harper on the other hand is currently maintaining the official policy that this summer will be the entire end. Canada also has received UN pressure to join the Congo mission.

In contrast, the major military focus from the Harper administration is on domestic rearmament and Northern security. It is important to realize how fundamentally incompatible these two focuses are. For example, the recent enormously expensive purchase of 65 F35 fighter jets is entirely a domestic component. These overly advanced aircraft have relevance in joining with the US against advanced warfare  versus modern states, a thankfully highly unlikely eventuality. They will not be used in the kinds of foreign combat roles in failed states that Canada participates in like the Balkans or Afghanistan. Even if we accept (and I think these are largely over stated) the premise that a strong military presence in the North is important for security or strategic reasons, specialized ships and patrol aircraft serve this need.  Moreover, for foreign missions it is long range haul planes, lightly armored ground vehicles and other equipment, not fighters, that are needed. The fundamental incompatibility of these aims requires a clear strategic goal as to where the Canadian military is going.

The debate can be cast as between an isolationist policy and a liberal interventionist policy. The former is about bolstering Canadian security entirely for the sake of Canadians, through maintaining the long term viability of our military (hence the equipment upgrades and spending), securing the North and the like. The latter is about engaging the world and acting militaristically for humanitarian reasons where needed and possible with the goal not for exclusively security but because it helps humanity. The Yugoslav wars were entirely the latter while Afghanistan is a mixture of humanitarian liberal interventionism and fighting (rightly or wrongly) a security threat from the isolationist perspective. It is thus quite natural that the conservative and liberal parties are taking the approaches that they take. That said, there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance on both sides. To engage in foreign military campaigns requires military spending and there is little point to extensive military funding without intention to use them.

My sympathies lie in a very cautious liberal interventionist camp. I think a middle power like Canada has the capacity to use military force (particularly on the peace keeping and nation building aspects in international missions) to do good in the world. As such, the capacity creates a moral imperative to do so. I specify 'cautious' because one of the deadliest traps that can befall a people is to engage in an unjust war because of a superficial humanitarian justification. We see this time after time with American engagements and Canada in the role it plays it culpable in this error of false liberal interventionism justifications.  An engagement of force must be scrutinized to the highest degree; however, I believe such examples exist.

As for the isolationism perspective, I find little validity in it. The modern world exists in a Pax Americana and I see little rational for expending considerable sums maintaining the kind of modern army designed to fight off cold war era state vs state wars. The threats, such as they exist, are decentralized and take up residence in the kind of failed states potentially compatible with a liberal interventionism policy.

As for specific regions, as mentioned the two leading candidates in the short term are Afghanistan and the Congo. In Afghanistan we are well set up because we have considerable experience now in the region and because the Canadian military is superbly well trained compared to many, larger, European militaries and competent at training others. A mission focusing on training and other basic aspects of nation building could be a cost effective and safe plan. Moreover, it could do a lot of good. There is a saying that you can't have security without development and you can't have development without security. I believe Canada can help Afghanistan create secure development for its people. Given the horrific situation in Afghanistan largely created by foreign powers and the failures of the war both of which Canada as a (small) participant shares in the culpability we have a moral obligation to act in their benefit.

The Congo has been the worlds most deadly conflict in its various wars and is a failed state in scopes matched by few. Atrocities continue which an underfunded and under staffed UN mission are hopeless to prevent (such as the rape as a weapon situation). The west has historically and to this day ignore this region with the consequence of enormous suffering. Canada is well suited here because of French-English bilingualism and the fact that, while small, Canada has the ability to deploy very quickly which is of critical importance in a region where very rapid conflicts can escalate.

I don't wish to adjudicate here precisely whether Canada should get involved in either or the scope and focus if it does so. What is important however is a national conversation of these issues. Our media coverage is very sparse on the topic and largely consists of reproducing fairly shallow talking points. The F35 purchase, for example, has gotten a lot of attention with considerable debate over the costs, whether a different type of procurement bidding should have occurred, and whether copying the Americans is a good idea or not. Very little attention is given to these larger considerations of the role of Canada's military in general.

Update: Ironically on the same day I type this, CP has released comments indicated the Harper government is considering a proposal to do a training type mission similar to the one McCain advocated for.

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