Before there can be any sort of useful Defence Review there needs to be sort sort of a national Grand Strategy. I have not seen any such thing from the Justin Trudeau government unless running around the world trumpeting that sky-high deficits is good fiscal policy and talking to school children about climate change counts as grand strategic thinking.
Before one can enunciate a Grand Strategy one has to have a world view. As I explained, at the start of the year, I’m quite sure there are several strategic surveys out there, in government departments. What I am unsure about is whether any or even some of those documents agree with one another and whether ministers have read and grasped what their department’s strategic survey says and whether the PMO and PCO actually believe and of them.
I also think before any of us “ordinary Canadians” comment on e.g. the Defence Review, we ought to have some idea of the kinds of problems that we are facing. To assist us I have presented several times, what I regard as informed views on what is going on in Europe, the Middle East and the South China Seas. My primary sources have been, and remain, two journals that I trust for the breadth and depth of their analyses (and for the quality of the writing):
- The Economist; and
- The Financial Times.
Now the Financial Times reminds us that we need to add one more region to our Strategic Survey: Latin America. Recently both Brazil and, even more recently, Venezuela have had, are having political and economic crises. And now there are riots in Chile …
… mostly by students demanding free (or, at least, less costly) university tuition. South America seems to be slipping back into its bad old ways, reminiscent of the 1950s and ’60s.
So, my updated version now has four theatres that are in our “area of interest,” two are in our “area of influence” (and a third should be) and one is in one “area of responsibility.”
Canada has (nearly) global interests and we should regard almost every region as an Area of Interest ~ some more “interesting” than others, of course. Areas of Influence are those into which we can project political and economic and military power. Notwithstanding what our political leaders may say a paucity of military power means that our influence is weak – even when we are invited to the table. Our Areas of responsibility are defined by our own claims to sovereignty and by treaty.
It is my firm belief that we should expand our Areas of Influence much farther West and South into the Pacific region and also deeper into Africa, but that would require significant “investments” in National Defence, especially, that are not popular with the supporters of the current government. Peacekeeping in Columbia is not going to materially increase our influence anywhere that it matters.
In order, I think Latin America has the least potential to pose a serious threat to Canada, including to our vital (mostly economic) interests in the region. The Latin Americans may hurt themselves (and their immediate neighbours) but their problems are unlikely to spread too far. Even though Peacekeeping, in conjunction with Mexico, in Latin America will not do much good, it will not do any real harm, either, and it may even be a useful task.
The next less serious problem is in the South China Sea dispute. It is a naked power grab by China and we, and every law abiding country, should be helping the United States to assert our, collective, freedom of navigation (right of innocent passage) through the international waterways that China is trying to ‘nationalize.’ But, we also should understand that China is not interested in fighting a war over this … it is using “bully-boy” tactics because:
- They work;
- The opposition (Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam) is disunited and disorganized; and
- The other “regional powers” with some influence are, either ~
- Weak ~ Japan,
- Disinterested ~ India, or
- Unsure of how far to go ~ America.
The Chinese are, of course, trying to hide their naked aggression or, at least, “soften the blow” by using “soft power” in the region, including sending one of their hospital ships into smaller, poorer states on (welcome) missions of mercy. It is good politics and good policy but we must see it for what it is: propaganda.
But the Freedom of Navigation exercises can be sufficient and will work IF:
- They are regular;
- They are “peaceful,” that is to say clearly non-aggressive; and
- They are multilateral. It is both unfair and unwise to put the whole burden of asserting Freedom of Navigation on the United States: unfair because we all benefit; unwise because it is more probable that a US military officer, operating under uniquely US rules of engagement will “lose the plot” and escalate a situation farther then it should go. My own personal sense of the Chinese is they are willing to play “bumper cars” at sea and in the air, willing even to lose a ship or an aircraft but they have very firm limits. The US reaction, on the other hand is less predictable and, therefore, ought to be more worrying.
Canada should, regularly and routinely deploy a warship and one or two long range patrol aircraft into the South China Seas to assist in Freedom of Navigation exercises. That would require this government to accelerate the shipbuilding programme and expand it so that the Pacific Fleet is stronger. It would also mean that the CP-140 (long range patrol aircraft) replacement project would need to be accelerated. If, as I heard was the case a couple of years ago, we cannot crew all of our small, Kingston class, Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels then we should transfer two of them to the Philippines Navy. They are good little utility vessels that could do many years of good work protecting Philippines’ sovereignty.
The problems in North Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia are more dangerous and they are hard to counter but they are not of a nature that threaten our very existence.
First: some of the movements (all Islamist) have, actively, declared war on us and they mean to do us harm … but none, not even all of them collectively, are an existential threat to anyone except for a few, weak Islamic states in their region. (This does not deny that they may provoke a war with Israel that could go nuclear, but that, too, would remain confined to the Arab “world.”) The mean to and can harm us, but they cannot do deep, serious, lasting harm.
Second: the threat is asymmetrical and we, the US led West, are very, very bad a dealing with it. Put simply, we don’t really understand it ~ and I don’t care how many generals with PhDs and think tanks and bureaucrats write books on it, we.do.not.understand.it ~ which is not surprising because the 19th century Brits didn’t understand it, neither did the 18th century French, the 16th century Spanish or the ancient Romans, for that matter … Hadrian’s Wall is a symbol of failure.
What we should understand is what doesn’t work …
… the Islamist terrorists want to do this, again …
… and the odds say they will succeed in Los Angels, or Paris, or Toronto, or Berlin or New York, or … but that’s all they can do and, thus far, our only response has been …
… so we are in for a war of “tit for tat.”
There is an alternative but it involves the almost complete isolation (blockade) of North Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia while the unfortunate peoples of those regions address the issues that bedevil them. It is the “work” of a century. Failing some similar sort of a comprehensive, locally made “solution” we will face decades of loosely focused, often “lone wolf” terrorism and we will be, constantly, asked to weigh the price of “security,” often in terms of “liberty.”
The final and most dangerous threat is …
Russia is not, any longer, a “great power,” not as it was in, say, the 1960s and ’70s, anyway, but, although the comparison is unfair, we need to see Putin’s Russia in 2016 like Hitler’s Germany, 80 years ago, in 1936: not really a military-industrial ‘match’ for the allies but, led by a crafty, cunning, opportunistic bully, ready and able to exploit any and all allied weaknesses …
… the solution to Hitler’s aggression was obvious, to a few, in 1936: the West needed to rearm, urgently and confront him; had we done so we would, almost certainly have avoided this …
… but we didn’t and, in 2016, faced with another, not too dissimilar threat we are, once again, burying our head in the sand and hoping that “Sunny Ways” will make the dark clouds of naked aggression go away. They will not … only confrontation, from a position of strength, will convince Putin to back away.
Russia is more likely than any other actor to make us stumble into conflict. It is, also, the easiest threat with which to deal. Simple, not dreadfully expensive, military counter-measures will, almost certainly, be enough to deter Putin and his successors. But those military measures and counter-measures are not, I think, on the priority list of the current, Trudeau government.
In any event, the ongoing Defence Review is hobbled, before it even began, by the lack of a coherent Grand Strategy which needs to rest on some sort of strategic threat analysis … I’m sure one exists, it is likely that several do but I fear that it (they) is (are) filed away, gathering dust and ignored.