Foreign Policy drives Defence Strategy and Conservatives have Neither


Foreign Policy drives Defence Strategy – and Conservatives have Neither

A mark of a nation’s maturity in international affairs is its coherence between foreign policy and defence policy. Foreign policy informs defence policy and defence policy is informed by foreign policy. Absent a foreign policy, a defence strategy becomes a wish list.

The Conservative Government’s unwillingness or incapacity to articulate a coherent foreign policy beyond a few shibboleths has left the Canada First Defence Strategy in tatters.

Responsible governments around the world develop a foreign affairs strategy, a set of objectives they use to assess to be in their national interest, and build a defence and procurement strategy around that framework. A good example is President Obama’s recent pivot toward the Pacific region as one of his chief foreign policy priorities, and his subsequent shift of 60% of the U.S.’s naval capacity to the west coast.

It follows that the ineptly named Canada First Defence Strategy produces its own incoherence. Exhibit one being the F-35 procurement debacle. Over the last few years we’ve gone from a rock solid commitment to the F-35 to all options are on the table. Minister Ambrose said recently in question period that “full options analysis will be a full evaluation of all the choices and will not simply be a refresh of the work that has already been done.”

Yet even now the government is unwilling to ask the fundamental question of why Canada needs a stealth fighter given our military profile. Failure to answer that question can only lead to more muddle and more incoherence.

Unfortunately the policy incoherence has led to even more procurement. Virtually without exception individual procurements are either over budget, behind schedule or festooned with announcements but no deliveries. It would be generous to describe Canadian military procurement as a mess. Examples of this include Fixed Wing Search and Rescue planes, the Chinook helicopters, the Close Combat Vehicles and the F-35’s.

Even the standard military pattern truck, which should be the simplest of all procurements, literally got yanked off the bidding table minutes before midnight because of irregularities. We agree with Minister Ambrose when she said "Frankly, when it comes to procurement, I'm a little tired of being told why something can't be done. I'm also tired of being told I can only get partial buy-in for new ideas because people would rather see things fail first. And I've become tired of all of the duplication and competing agendas. I am fully aware of all of the internal obstacles to change, but I realize we won't be able to transform the procurement system overnight."

While procurement dysfunctionality gets the headlines, ultimately the readiness of our military will be determined by how it transforms itself in an era of ever lightening budgets.

Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, but in reality a modern military marches, flies and sails on its budget. As the largest discretionary item in the government budget it stand to reason that our troops will be expected to do more with less. Some estimates put the reduction at 11-12%.

It therefore behooves a responsible Minister to formally table a response to Lieutenant General Leslie’s excellent 2011 report entitled “Report on Transformation.” In it General Leslie lays out a detailed plan of cost savings and makes a number of recommendations to refine the ration between “tooth and tail.” 

To date the Defence Minister has been disinclined to take up General Leslie’s challenge. This has the Prime Minister feeling compelled to publicly lecture his Minister and staff at the swearing in ceremony of General Lawson, the new Chief of Defence Staff.

The Prime Minister could not have been more explicit. He wanted a lot more “tooth” and a lot less “tail” for the money. The Prime Minister remarked: “The forces will also be subject to the same pressures that the uncertainties of the global economy have imposed across our government and around the world... In order to free up resources to carry out work on the ground, administrative expenses have to be reduced.”

The Defence Minister has already been put on the sidelines for procurement which is now run out of the Department of Public Works. He would be well advised to use General Leslie’s report as a blueprint for transformation and sustainment otherwise he may find himself removed from that aspect of his portfolio as well. A Potemkin Minister if ever there was one.

However, the Defence Minister does have cause to complain. He is without guidance and direction from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs who have yet to articulate a coherent foreign affairs strategy.

The classic example is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Responsibility to Intervene (RTI). The most significant development in the last decade in foreign affairs and defence policy has been the R2P and its corollary the RTI doctrines. It is a certainty that there will never be an absence of conflict in the future so the real question becomes, how, and when it is appropriate to intervene.

Our present century will most likely resemble previous ones. There “will be wars and rumors of wars, warfare will be both regular and irregular, regional and international order will be fragile, challenged, unstable and liable to collapse. We can all hope that for a future when we discard violence as an instrument of political communication,” but prudence remains the supreme virtue in statecraft and teaches that we be prepared for the least pleasant.

Were we to have some foreign policy coherence we might have approached Libya, Afghanistan and Sarajevo with a different lens and different set of expectations. Our foreign affairs capacity has been so degraded as to severely circumscribe our influence for peace. So even when we do intervene we are in danger of “winning the war and losing the peace.”

It’s hard to know whether the defence and foreign policy incoherence is by design or by neglect. Recent leaks out of the Foreign Affairs Department suggests a little bit of both. What’s clear is that the Conservative government has no interest in projecting our influence and good will for the betterment of humankind. This Prime Minister is no Mike Pearson. You won’t see a Lloyd Axworthy inspired Land Mines Treaty out of this government or this Foreign Affairs Minister.

What Canada needs first is a coherent and focused foreign policy and a rational defence strategy to support it, not rhetoric about who loves the troops most and expensive photo ops for Conservatives to use in their campaign brochures.

It is in the best interest the Canadian Forces for the government to develop a real foreign affairs and defence policy that actually supports the troops and the Canadians they defend.

Hon. John McKay P.C., M.P.
Liberal Party Critic for Defence