World when Liberal defence policy, ‘Strong, Secure, Engaged,’ was written, no longer exists

This oped was originally published in the Hill Times on May 25, 2020. 

By James Bezan, Shadow Minister for National Defence &
Leona Alleslev, Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

While Canada is not yet in recovery, now is the time to define the priorities for the next phase. To prevent drastic economic collapse the government established sweeping emergency benefit packages at substantial cost to the nation. The Parliamentary Budget Officer suggests that it is not unthinkable for the federal debt to reach $1 trillion this year, possibly bankrupting a generation. In Canada’s recovery tough conversations will need to be had on reigning in government spending. If the past is indicative of the future then it is likely defence spending will be the first casualty. But in the post COVID world that would be exactly the wrong approach.

When national defence budgets were slashed in the 1990’s under the Liberal government, Canada was able in part to benefit from a “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War. However, the world in 1995 is not the world of 2020. Canada’s defence and security capabilities have eroded, resulting in diminished supply ships, fighter jet, frigate, and subsurface capacity and limited cyber-security infrastructure. Additionally, the nature of warfare has changed, with the emergence of commercial economic and information targets. Canada’s military, through no fault of those in uniform, has been laid bare and there are no further “dividends” to cash in.

This at a time of unprecedented global instability shaped by the questioning of the strength of critical alliances such as NATO, the erosion of the credibility and influence of multilateral institutions like the UN, W.H.O and the W.T.O and the rise of great powers engaged in changing the global economic world order.

With the world distracted, focussed on stopping the coronavirus pandemic and saving lives, adversaries are watching carefully and actively pursuing their national objectives. Reports have emerged of low-yield nuclear testing by the Chinese Communist Party. The Russian regime, despite its own mounting cases of COVID-19, embarked on an Arctic military exercise, unparalleled in its complexity and execution. China’s COVID-19 initial underreporting of cases and silencing of doctors attempting to sound the alarm potentially hampered the speed and seriousness with which Canada responded.

The virus has allowed rivals to observe major western nations’ response to a global crisis. The playbook on recalling aircraft carriers, bringing troops home from overseas operations, shutting down borders, supply chains and economic engines – provides valuable economic and security intelligence to those interested in achieving competing national interest gains. The simultaneous effects of COVID-19 on the economy, foreign policy, and national defence have been profound.

To attain a prosperous future, Canada will have to view previously mutually exclusive objectives; the economy, foreign policy and security, as inextricably linked. We will not have the luxury of cutting defence spending to balance the budget. Instead, we will have to repair our economy and spend on defence to ensure Canada’s recovery and effective transition to post-COVID-19 life. The world when the Liberal defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, was written, no longer exists.

Instead, Canada must re-prioritize both the structure of Canada’s foreign policy and defence and security framework to define the core capability requirements of Canada’s military. This will represent a substantive paradigm shift to respond to the rapidly changing nature of both alliances and warfare. And, most importantly, it will need to be funded and delivered as a critical element of Canada’s economic recovery, not in addition to it.

As a middle power and a trading nation, Canada’s future prosperity requires strong partnerships with like-minded and confident nations, devoted to the protection and advancement of our collective values. Who we trade with is as important as who we train with. Canada’s future depends on leadership that is principled, focused, and dedicated to the hard work of getting Canada back on track, and honouring our commitment to our allies as a trusted defence partner. Security is the foundation upon which all other success are built and a post COVID recovery must include a redefined foreign policy and defence structure.

Canada’s Conservatives stand ready.