Ottawa, Canada. 12 June. Two hundred years ago in 1814 what was then British North America burnt down the White House and with the help of British Regulars re-arranged much else in Washington. The Americans had launched an ill-advised and haphazard invasion of British territory and were rightly taught a lesson about manners and neighbourly relations. Today, Canada is one of the world’s richest, most secure and most neighbourly countries on the planet. There are few if any threats that Canada faces and the American behemoth to the south offers Canadians protection by extension. So, what role does Canada’s aspire to play in a rapidly changing and potentially very dangerous world?
My purpose in coming to green, leafy Ottawa has been to engage in two days of talks with senior Canadian foreign and defence officials on a range of strategy and security-related topics. My welcome is typically Canadian – honest, friendly and open. Indeed, I make no attempt to mask the fact that I like and admire this country which has always ‘done its bit’ either as a faithful British dominion in former times, as a close American and British ally in two world wars or as an under-stated and yet effective NATO member.
Canadians have turned modesty into a strategic doctrine ‘oftentimes’ (as the say here) being at the very forefront of American and British-led campaigns. Given little credit for their immense but under-stated sacrifice Canadians have seemed content to let others decide their strategic direction of travel. Indeed, one only has to look at last week’s D-Day 70 commemorations to get a sense of the pivotal role played by Canada in Europe’s freedom and yet their determination not to make a fuss about it. This was something reinforced in my mind during a visit to Ottawa’s magnificent war museum in which I had the honour of meeting two Canadian veterans.
And yet as I contemplate my visit I am still left with a very big question mark in my mind about Canada’s role in the world. Indeed, it would be easy for Canadians to sit back and leave world peace to others. Unlike many Western countries Canada need not fret about energy security as she sits on vast reserves of oil and gas. However, that is not the Canadian way and one can feel the ‘what next’ question hanging over Ottawa.
Neither is there a willingness here to really confront just ‘what next’ could mean. And. looked at strategically it is clear that the world and the political realism which again defines it will not leave Canada in peace. Canada is a three ocean state two of which will be contested – the Arctic and the Pacific.
The problem for Canada is that Ottawa has no tradition of looking at the world for itself and making the big, strategic choices such an analysis would force upon Canadians. For so long others have either made Ottawa’s strategic choices or provided the strategic context for Canadian action. However, with a US as uncertain and as uncertainly-led as at any time since the 1930s and with Europe in self-imposed, self-obsessed steep decline Canada must now think strategically for itself.
Specifically, Canada must decide what it needs to do to renovate the crisis-ridden rules-based, institution-framed system Canada helped to build and which Canadians have done so much to maintain. The alliances and unions of the twentieth century are in danger of becoming rapidly parochial in the twenty-first. Moreover, in the emerging world-wide web of democracies security will no longer pivot on Europe but on North America with Canada occupying a key position in a new West no longer a place but an idea.
Given the inherent modesty of this most congenial of countries the pragmatic, civil-military ethos that has infused much of Canada’s external engagements in the past fifteen years (and which have suited Canada and its sense of itself) will need to be replaced by something much more ambitious. My sense however is that Canada will need to break out of the self-defeating denial about the scope and pace of strategic change if Ottawa is to meet the coming challenges of what is fast becoming a hyper-competitive strategic age.
This is not so much because Canada itself will be threatened but because the values that define Canada will need defending. And here I see some very European complacency, particularly in defence policy. With Canada’s defence expenditure down at around 1.1% GDP (in reality) almost half the NATO target of 2% GDP Canadians like to suggest that it is not how much one spends on defence but how one spends it. That is of course right to a limited point. However, it is equally true that 2% well-spent is better than 1% well-spent and Canada needs and can afford to set an example to other allies. However, the controversy here over the purchase of the F-35 fighter demonstrates a very profound uncertainty about just what the Canadian armed forces are for and by extension Canada’s level of strategic ambition (which is really what the politics of F-35 is all about).
Last night unable to sleep I read the 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy. It is a decent albeit relatively light defence-strategic effort and certainly helped me back into unconsciousness. However, having read the Strategy I still could not work out what role Canada aspires to play. Indeed, the Strategy seemed to start with a question that to my mind is wrong for such a serious, grown-up country - where does Canada fit in to the plans of others, particularly the United States? Surely, the question Canadians need to answer is what role Canada in the twenty-first century?
There is a also a deeper question Canada must again answer. It is the question those marvellous Canadians answered very clearly on Juno Beach; to what are extent Canadians prepared to defend the liberal values which define this great country, where and how. To answer that question Ottawa will need strategy, not just politics.