Volume 51, Issue 1: Winter 2017

Hawks & doves: mixed signals on military engagement

Image by Nicolas Raymond

All three mainstream political parties see Canada’s security as heavily dependent on a stable and prosperous world order, guided by rules applying equally to all and that respect Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity. That in turn predisposes Canada to help shape that kind of world. As usual, the devil is in the details — what policies, mechanisms, and partnerships are needed to achieve this?

Somewhat surprising is the tripartisan agreement in support of foreign military deployments, with the main point of contention being whether the missions are under the auspices of the United Nations, run by NATO or ad hoc coalitions-of-the-willing. Canada is not a minor player here. We rank 16th in global military spending and are 6th among NATO members. Canadian Forces are currently involved in 17 military missions outside North America. They range from naval support for drug interdiction in the Caribbean to logistical support to NATO in Kosovo to air-to-air refuelling, reconnaissance flights and special forces in combat training and assistance in Iraq. Recently there have been new commitments to NATO operations in Eastern Europe. To that you can add expanding Canadian military exports. Three operations — military exports, NATO deployments and the promised return to peacekeeping — offer a window on the Trudeau government’s approach to employing military force beyond North America.

Military exports

Foreign military sales don’t fit the usual definition of a military operation, but they are nonetheless a form of intervention in the recipient country. They qualify as full-fledged government operations inasmuch as they require extensive financial, promotional and regulatory involvement. The latest contract to ship Canadian-built armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, arranged under Harper, was signed off by the Trudeau Liberal government early in its mandate. Canada has been building armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia since the 1980s, despite the Saudis being egregious human rights violators. Not only were the Liberals’ current permit approvals issued amidst Saudi beheadings of undesirables, there were also reports of Canadian-built vehicles being used in Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen and to quell opposition demonstrations in Bahrain. In addition, a similar model of vehicle was reportedly deployed against Shia civilians in Saudi Arabia itself.

The Trudeau government’s excuses are varied if unoriginal, such as the declared importance of honouring a previous government’s contracts, i.e. ignoring Canadian law requiring each government to grant (or withhold) permits for all shipments under its watch, regardless of contract signing dates. The other excuse — “if we don’t do it, somebody else will” — while obviously true in an unregulated arms market, ducks the issue. Under the new Arms Trade Treaty, when one country concludes that the treaty requires an export be blocked, the cooperation and consultation provisions of the treaty are designed to get other signatory states to honour that conclusion. The claim that cancelling the deal might have little impact on the Saudi’s human rights record ignores the extent to which allowing the sale confers a kind of Canadian political blessing on the desert kingdom and its violations of human rights standards.

The most persistent rationale on which successive Canadian governments continue to rely is jobs — a sorry consequence of making arms sales an industrial/job-creation strategy. In the 1970s, Trudeau the elder’s government decided that new armoured vehicles for Canadian Forces should be built in Canada (under licence by a Swiss company). A heavily subsidized plant was established by General Motors in London, Ont. It was clear from the outset that the plant would not be sustained by Canadian orders, so exports became essential — and the Saudis were buying. The plant, now run by General Dynamics, has since depended on repeat Saudi orders. A similar tale is unfolding with Textron Systems Canada, part of the American Textron Systems. Building a fleet of 500 tactical armoured patrol vehicles for Canadian Forces, it is now also looking for the customers it will need when the Canadian order dries up. The company reports that countries in the Middle East, Europe and Africa are expressing interest. Again, the promise of jobs is set to trump issues of human rights. Canada’s long-standing policy is unambiguously intended to prevent military sales to states with “a persistent record of serious violations of human rights” or where they might be used against civilians, but this is routinely ignored when jobs and lucrative repeat orders are on the line.

Does intervention make us more secure?

Canada’s chosen name for its part in NATO’s 2014 Readiness Action Plan, Operation Reassurance, says a lot. Under the plan, NATO is to deploy 4,000 troops in four battle groups along the Russian border in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Trudeau has committed Canada to lead the group in Latvia, involving 450 Canadian troops. This is all happening against a backdrop of escalating military machinations along both sides of the Russia/NATO border.

NATO has been busy. It has expanded its response force from 13,000 to 40,000 troops and launched a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, deployable within 48 hours. Military training exercises abound and, in July 2016, NATO announced that its European ballistic missile defence system had reached initial operational capacity. The Russians, for their part, have been far from idle. They have expanded sea and air patrols in the Barents and Baltic seas, moved additional combat aircraft to Crimea and nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. In March 2016, a Russian exercise with 80,000 personnel fought a simulated war against the U.S. and NATO.

Some of NATO’s newer East European members applaud the return of Cold War-like missions and others no doubt welcome the opportunity to counter the musings of the U.S. president-elect about the obsolescence and cost of NATO. But others, like German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, are warning against “warmongering” and “sabre-rattling.” Even the chair of NATO’s Military Committee counsels moderation. General Petr Pavel insists “it is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression, because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan have, to their credit, called for a return to diplomatic engagement with Russia, including cooperation in the Arctic and restored NATO/Russia dialogue in Europe.

Much is made these days of Europe taking more responsibility for its own security. NATO wants all its members to boost defence spending to two per cent of GDP, and Donald Trump says major increases should be a condition of continued U.S. support. The underlying assumption is that military escalation will shield the Baltic states from Russian interference. Yet it is internal political disarray, not military weakness, which leaves governments like those in Ukraine or Georgia open to destabilization and direct intervention. While reliable surveillance of Baltic frontiers is essential — indeed, that is a requirement for all states — protection from any Moscow destabilization efforts in the Baltics depends on those countries having inclusive political institutions and processes. NATO’s deployments on the borders of Russia exacerbate tensions and ignore the most effective and proven defence against interference — namely, strong and respected governance and citizen engagement through trusted institutions. Europe’s preoccupation with military responses in a new Cold War scenario cannot be laid at Ottawa’s feet, but the Canadian seat at the NATO table is once again being used to convey solidarity with, rather than a challenge to, misguided alliance actions.

Peacekeepers or powder monkeys?

That peace operations have become complex is hardly a suprise. But much current commentary on Canada’s coming missions in Africa insists it is delusional to talk about them as peacekeeping, because in places like Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo there is simply no peace to keep. These are seen as dangerous and intractable conflicts that put intervening troops in harm’s way — the implication being that, for all practical purposes, Canadians are being sent into wars with no end in sight.

A long string of failed peacekeeping operations is available to drive home the point. Yet there have also been substantial successes — and the UN is systematically attentive to the lessons available in both experiences. UN doctrine makes an operationally relevant distinction between war-fighting and peace-supporting military interventions — the former being designed to override political processes, the latter to facilitate them. UN-mandated peace operations tend to succeed when political process (political/diplomatic engagement to resolve underlying conflicts) is central to the operation. That means heightened development assistance — a spending envelope with a broad range of security relevant applications — is key to successful peacekeeping.

The jury is still out on the Liberal government’s return to peacekeeping. The defence minister has acknowledged that successful peace operations must involve much more than military interventions. One key measure of the government’s posture will be the money. If Canada starts to inch its way toward the NATO goal of military spending at two per cent of GDP, while keeping official development assistance at current or only slightly higher levels, we will have one answer. But were it to maintain military spending at the current one per cent of GDP and join the Nordics in raising development, conflict resolution and war-prevention spending to one per cent of GDP, we’d have quite another.

How has the new Liberal government fared on foreign military engagements? Its arms-export controls are an embarrassing failure. Troop deployments to Europe demonstate Canada’s complicity in NATO’s drive for conflict escalation. Only the promised return to peacekeeping holds any possibility for an enhanced Canadian contribution to international peace and security.