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Experts call for an overhaul of Canada’s national security policy to cope with an ‘angry’ world

Rarely has the world intruded so viscerally — and with so little apparent effect — upon the great national conversation that we call a federal election.

Launched just as two decades of nation-building efforts in Afghanistan were collapsing, the election (which produced a Parliament strangely similar to the one dissolved in August) also saw what some observers have described as a strategic snub by Canada’s closest allies: the establishment of a new U.S.-U.K.-Australia alliance to contain China.

And yet, questions about Canada’s current place in the shifting sands of the global order barely rated a mention on the campaign trail.

That could change quickly as the new (old) Liberal government faces a bevy of pressing international commitments and crises, ranging from the benign but significant gathering of world leaders at the United Nations to the slow-rolling humanitarian disaster afflicting Afghan refugees.

The newly re-elected minority government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have to hit the ground running. On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden mapped out a strategy for confronting authoritarian states without triggering a new Cold War.

He did so a week after surprising the world with a new security alliance — AUKUS — involving two of Canada’s closest Commonwealth allies, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Events in the world beyond our borders did come up during the 36-day campaign. More often than not, however, they were used by campaigning leaders as a cudgel with which to beat down their opponents.

Some would say that’s what election campaigns are all about. Seasoned pols will tell you there are no votes to be won in Weyburn, Saskatchewan with talk about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

But many experts say the reluctance of Canada’s campaigning leaders to address the changing geopolitical landscape and the threats it may produce is myopic and dangerous — especially now, with the country slowly recovering from a foreign-spawned global pandemic that brought life as we knew it to a standstill.

‘The world is a pretty angry place’

Those experts say they’d hoped the alarming world events of the past 18 months would force the campaigning parties to think and talk about national security and how Canada can protect its interests globally. It didn’t happen.

“We’re coming to this realization that the world is a pretty angry place,” said Aaron Shull, managing director and general counsel at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.

“Countries don’t have friends. We have alliances and strategic interests, but we are now coming to the realization that we have to make our place in the world.”

experts call for an overhaul of canadas national security policy to cope with an angry world
A nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarine of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is seen during a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. (Reuters)

Shull and University of Ottawa historian Wesley Wark are co-leading a project that hopes to re-imagine Canada’s national security strategy.

Wark is one of the country’s leading intelligence experts and has been a vocal critic of Canada’s failures in pandemic preparation. He examined the foreign policy planks of each major party and found all of them wanting.

Vague, scattershot approaches to foreign policy

The Conservatives produced the most exhaustive list of promises but they were scattered and unfocused, said Wark. 

“None of the parties have a central coherent statement on national security. What is it? What does it mean to us?” said Wark. He summarized the Liberal government’s position as status quo, while saying the NDP made some general pledges without a lot of specifics.

The Liberal platform contained no dedicated national security section — a puzzling omission, given the fact that the previous Trudeau governments spent enormous amounts of time and energy dealing with the fallout from external events: the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the pandemic.

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A health worker takes a nasal swab sample of a Kashmiri to test for COVID-19 in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

Still, said Wark, a lot of thought is being given within government to reorganizing the national security framework. He said there is some “enthusiasm” on the part of senior bureaucrats for the project.

He said he hopes that revamped framework includes climate change and pandemics in a new definition of what represents a threat to this country’s interests.

Reacting after the fact

Shull pointed out that, unlike other nations, Canada does not have a permanent cabinet committee to deal with national security matters.

“We tend not to treat national security issues with seriousness at the political level in the public discourse,” he said.

“The pinnacle of national security in this country is the incident response group. It’s an ad hoc committee of cabinet that meets on a periodic basis, but here’s the thing — incident response by definition means you’re already on your back foot. It means something is happening and you’re responding.”

Put simply, Shull said, what he and Wark are proposing is a new national security council, or some other body that would allow Canada “to lean into the world and not always be responding.”

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Afghan refugees are shown in an Italian Red Cross camp in Avezzano, Italy, on Aug. 31. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

He said the Trudeau government needs to ask itself what Canada’s “core interests” are and how best to protect them.

Canada has not had a national security strategy since 2004. Shull said that means Canada doesn’t have a current strategy.

AUKUS might be the catalyst that starts those discussions in Ottawa, Wark said — but first they’ll have to overcome the widely-held belief in government circles that the Canadian public doesn’t care about national security.

“It is a belief that is convenient to political cadres because national security discussions are often hard and complex,” he said.

But COVID-19 itself was an external threat in the beginning. If anything, the pandemic might serve to convince Canadians that the time to have this conversation is now, Wark said.

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