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By David Scheidl, March 6, 2024

Canada is in deficit. But it’s not just the federal budget.

Our military is in disrepair, with dangerously low capacity to execute its core missions. Our industrial productive capacity has decayed significantly over the past three decades. Our overall economic health has taken significant blows, making it more difficult to address long term state capacity challenges.

Internationally, Canada has become a diplomatic minnow of sorts. Yes, we contribute to a basketful of disparate activities abroad. But our engagement spreads our resources thinly across a range of areas and problems, eschewing prioritization of core interests over peripheral ones. What has been the result of this penny-packeting of our strength and resources, contributing a little bit to everything? Low expectations and respect by allies and adversaries alike.

The view among our allies is that Canada is an inconsequential player in the arena of serious challenges confronting the West. We are in the red everywhere, and increasingly unable to pursue our core national interests.

Activity alone is no replacement for clear strategy.

Canada’s instruments of state power and finite capacities must be concentrated in the regions and upon the issues that are vital to our national interest. To this end, Canada needs to develop an easily understood and properly resourced grand strategy calibrated to our contemporary conflict-ridden and dangerous international environment. Such a grand strategy would feature the calculated matching of Canada’s means to our ends within an intellectual framework that will enable policymakers  currently seized by the issues of the day to instead plan and act on a more coherent long term basis.

How should we define our interests? Canada has the same interests that any state rightfully seeks for itself and its citizens: the preservation of its sovereignty, security from external attack, the ability to pursue prosperity, and the capacity to build a society set to improve the material conditions of future generations. Such goals are clear and simple enough for any state to ascribe to, yet carry with them unique strategic implications, dependent upon a particular country’s geographic position, population demographics, political alignment, and national strength.

Taking in hand our unique geographic, political, economic, and social attributes, in tandem with the general interests outlined above, we can reasonably articulate a number of core strategic interests for Canada.

First, our geography ties us physically, politically, and economically to the United States. Our prosperity and security are inextricably linked to the United States here in North America, and internationally within the order that they have built and maintained. Preservation of the US-led international order is a core interest for Canada. We have not just benefited immensely from that order but have played a role in its establishment.

While numerous hot spots threaten this order, nowhere is it being more sorely tested than in two primary theatres, and by two primary adversaries, Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific.

The maintenance and enhancement of Western cohesion against these shared threats represents another core strategic interest for Canada. Without a West that is unified in purpose, stalwart in resolve, and materially able to defend itself and the international system from aggressive revisionism, Canada will find itself utterly unable to guarantee its own security, prosperity, and sovereignty.

However, Canada’s size precludes a totally independent pursuit of our interests. History demonstrates that we achieve success best when we operate within a constellation of alliances and associations as a reliable and valued ally. A grand strategy for Canada would concentrate on ensuring we are a reliable, valuable, and contributing ally, and not a latent risk to Western cohesion and security. We would do this by materially contributing in critical areas, with sustained commitment toward unique activities or capabilities that would bolster our allies overall security, and specifically Western readiness for war.

At the same time, Canada, like other medium-sized powers, must not overstretch itself by attempting to have a seat at every table. Prioritization of our core national interests, given the state of our instruments of state power, national finances, capabilities and other resources, means retrenchment. It means Canada drawing down its commitments anywhere else in the world, and on any other issue, that is not linked to the defence of North America, the security of NATO states from Russian aggression, and the maintenance of the regional status quo in the Indo-Pacific.

Any major foreign-facing program or policy which does not support our core interests in these three decisive theatres should be scaled back and its resources reallocated to enable decisive commitment to our core interests. This is not to say that such projects further afield are not worthy goals, nor that no good has been achieved through these projects. However, we no longer enjoy a world in which significant aid, economic investment, and military deployments can be dispatched to anything other than core Canadian interests. We do not have sufficient resources to concurrently play a decisive or materially valuable role in the regions that are of core national interest for Canada, while spending liberally in more peripheral ones like South America and Africa.

Naturally, there will be costs associated with such a realignment. Canada will no doubt lose influence among states that previously received Canadian aid, economic investment, and diplomatic attention. Indeed, we will likely be forced to sacrifice some longer term geopolitical benefits by drawing down in peripheral regions to bolster our more immediate strategic interests. We will be spending more on military rearmament, industrial capacity, and secure supply chains for critical goods in a period of financial weakness. Preparation and deterrence, expensive though they may be, cost less than a modern war.

A recent Telegraph article noted that Great Britain spent only 3% of GDP on defence in 1935, and five years later, as Britain fought on into 1940, it was spending roughly 40% of GDP on defence. More recently, we can look to the experience of Ukraine and how war has imposed radically higher costs as that state strives to defend itself and survive in the face of Russian aggression.

To pursue realignment, the Canadian public should be bluntly apprised of the threats we now face, and the dire need for revitalization of Canada’s instruments of national power. Elbridge Colby, a U.S. strategist and former senior defence official writing in October 2022, emphasized that for any state, “…a refusal to reckon with reality in foreign policy is immoral.” For Canada, a defined, meaningful role will need to be publicly laid out to retain support for a shift to a more concentrated approach to foreign engagement. This in turn will require a multi-partisan recognition of our interests, and a willingness to constrain the politically petty in favour of the nationally vital.

There is a role for Canada to play, in complementing and adding useful capacity to the Western coalition. This could entail relieving larger powers of peripheral but manageable burdens to enable their own concentration on larger problems. Canada’s leading convoy security efforts in the Western Atlantic during the Second World War, or certain elements of armament production and aircrew training, are historical examples of such contributions.

Alternatively, we might choose to act on issues within one of the decisive theatres that larger powers have had to leave aside due to their own issues prioritization. Smaller powers, especially those aligned with the West but often overlooked as core partners by the USA, would no doubt welcome sustained material collaboration from Canada. Canadian efforts could naturally flow towards strengthening those overlooked states in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, growing joint capacity and military/industrial capabilities that improve state security and resiliency.

To this end, Canada should focus on contributing in ways that demonstrate we have skin in the high intensity conflict deterrence challenge that confronts the West. In North America, our focus should be continental defence via improved Arctic sovereignty (i.e. a robust naval and air presence) supported by a national anti-access area denial (A2AD) series of systems that take up the burden of defending the North against Russian and Chinese action. Canada should also take decisive action in rooting out foreign influence networks that have a pernicious influence on Canadian elites and our body politic.

Abroad, we have committed to leading a brigade sized NATO force in Latvia to deter Russia. This effort should be strengthened so that our force is capable of major sustained combat operations without significant resupply from Canada in the opening weeks of any conflict. Building up substantial local war stocks will be a material demonstration that Canada is a valuable defence partner. Relatedly, we should expand our ability to supply European allies with the energy, resources, and defence material required to sustain NATO cohesion and preparedness.

Given our primary efforts will focus on defending the homeland and Europe, any Canadian contribution to the Indo-Pacific must be smaller, and appropriately focused. Canadian contributions should center on a dependable naval presence partnered with key regional allies such as Japan or Australia in exercising and preparing to deter an adventurous China.

These targeted projects would demonstrate genuine utility to Canada’s allies and would enable Canada to rebuild and reconstitute our military forces, industrial capacity, and reorient our supply chains to ensure their security in future crises or war.

The West’s debate over defence spending purely as a percentage of GDP, divorced from capacity, capability, and sustainability, has wrong footed our thinking. In mid-2022 the British Army Chief noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the West’s 1937 moment. “We are not at war,” he remarked, “but [we] must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.” Separately, a recent Wilton Park conference report emphasized the challenge facing the West, noting that, “An arms race is already underway, and democracies need to engage and win…governments must [be] seen to give defence a far higher political priority…and make commitments to the medium and longer term.”

Our experience supporting Ukraine’s self-defence against Russia should provide policymakers and the Canadian public with an idea of the problem’s scale. Russia’s larger industrial base, coupled with the support it received from partners like China, Iran, and North Korea, has thus far enabled Moscow to grind away at Ukraine despite the greater resources and general wealth in the West.

Frederick the Great famously noted that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. Pursuing Canada’s core national interests will be impossible without material improvement not just in our military capabilities, but in our ability to resource, resupply, and reconstitute such capabilities during high intensity conflict. That is what Canada requires.

Procuring needed military systems, and concurrently building up industrial capacity, is always fraught with problems. However, the status quo wherein ships can take a decade or more to be built, and modern military aircraft just as long, is no longer acceptable. In rebuilding our military productive capacity, we should keep foremost in mind that it is one thing to build a ship, or plane, or missile, or tank. The true test of any country’s military industry is the ability to replace said implement in a timely manner in wartime. Were Canada to lose ships to hostile action, or simple accident, how long would it take before we could produce a new ship? How rapidly can we build or source new planes? UAVs? Missiles?

Modern weapons are far more complex and dependent on long supply chains, and significant industrial capacity to produce at scale, than their past counterparts from the world wars. At the same time, their lethality and range has advanced to such a point as to shrink the time and space that states have on the advent of war to pursue rearmament and industrial mobilization. In short, modern warfare has intensified the dynamic wherein states must prepare for the replenishment and revitalization of their military forces in advance, with a keen eye towards the type of conflict is likely to be fought. Within this context, a hard look must be taken at what military capabilities we must have the ability to build, and what capabilities can be sought from strategic partners likely to be under greater burden vis-à-vis their own defence needs.

Should Canada not pursue this grand strategy of refocusing our efforts and resources on our core strategic interests, we will become increasingly irrelevant to our traditional allies. As we are relied upon less, our interests, views, and policy aims, will be given progressively less attention. Our position as a continental security partner will likely founder as American trust in our dependability declines, with potentially severe political, economic, and security costs. Our lack of credible deterrent capacity within a coherent Western alliance would also make Canada an increasingly attractive target for hostile states. Finally, we are likely to become increasingly isolated, as the United States and other serious partners remove Canada from certain associations like the G7 or concentrate on new organizations such as AUKUS, to meet the acute strategic needs that Canada ignores.

Ignoring the security concerns of our closest allies, especially those of the United States, imperils our own national interests. Yet simply pushing more money into a series of disconnected activities, with little thought over what ends we are attempting to achieve, will avail little.

Marshalling our national resources, rebuilding our industrial base in tandem with our allies, and reconstituting core elements of state power such as the military, diplomatic, and intelligence services are important. Such realignments of national capacities must be undertaken in a strategic manner.

Canada cannot afford a disjointed external policy of drift. Instead, we must focus fully on restructuring our means towards the achievement of core national interests. Canada cannot and should not avoid deeper participation in Western efforts to defeat Russia in Ukraine, or to deter China from imperial adventurism against Taiwan. Such efforts are tightly linked to our core interest in preserving the international order in which such aggressions are unacceptable, intolerably disruptive, and potentially fatal.

Should a war break out between the United States and China, Canada is likely to be involved whether we choose to be or not. It would be prudent for Canadian policymakers to develop our defence, industrial capacity, and diplomatic approach based upon that stark realization.

David Scheidl is a civil servant and a member of the Canadian Armed Forces Primary Reserve. The views expressed herein are entirely personal and in no way reflect the views of the Government of Canada, nor of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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