Defence Policy, International Security and the Military: Time to Talk

South of the border, there have in recent years been a growing number of voices expressing serious concern over the militarization of American life.

I certainly share that sentiment.

Is an F-16 fly over and trooping the colours  really appropriate for the opening of the Super Bowl?

The USA is apparently becoming the Praetorian pole in an increasingly  heterpolar world order. Still, I think that a debate of this nature is culturally healthy, and have always admired the fact that some of the most trenchant, even withering criticism of U.S. policy and actions comes from domestic sources, including not least that country’s many military academies and war colleges.

Even in the mainstream media, a decade’s worth of assumptions used to justify deploying the military to pursue the epically misguided global war on terror are finally being questioned.

One could only wish that a similar degree of the scrutiny accorded defence issues in the USA  might one day be evident in the discourse on international policyin Canada.

Apart from a few faint echoes in the academy and a handful of specialized publications, that discussion here  is practically non-existent. I find that most unfortunate.

Canadians need to start talking about the kind of military that they require in the face of all identifiable threats and challenges. They must then somehow try and square the outcome of that conversation against a thoughtful consideration of whether or not the defence capability that they need matches the one that they have got.

I have my doubts.

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Post-Afghanistan, the Canadian forces are fully kitted up. Main battle tanks and artillery. Light armoured vehicles and troop transports. Heavy air lift. New fighter aircraft are next.  By international standards, they may be small, but they are sharp. After a period of rest, they will again be ready for combat.

But here’s the rub. Garrisoning our borders will not stop infectious disease. We won’t find alternatives to the carbon economy by sending out an expeditionary force to capture them. Generals and admirals won’t be able to save us from a warming planet or changing climate.

That said, and to be sure, in the firmament of international policy there is a place for hard power instruments, and I am certainly not an unequivocal pacifist. Having a capable military gets you a place at the table at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and the ear of some influential people in Washington.  And  not just hawks and neo-conservatives.

But is that enough?

Militaries exist, in the first instance, for capturing or killing enemies, and for compelling your adversary to submit to your will. This is what armed forces  were designed to achieve and why they are lethally equipped.

It seems unlikely, for example, that any kind of diplomatic intercession could have stopped Hitler and the Nazis. The problem is that, early in the 21st century there is no threat out there that looks remotely like the Third Reich, or even Imperial Japan. In the nuclear age, moreover, large scale conventional war has become inconceivable.

In fact, the enduring lesson of the Cold War is that militaries work best when they are not used. Take the blade out of its sheath for purposes of doing harm, and it tends to make a terrible mess, as can be witnessed today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Libya seems set to become the next case in point.

The problem with leading with the sword is that you run the very real risk of allowing policy to become an instrument of war, rather than vice versa.

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Today, militaries are being deployed as first responders in complex emergencies, such as natural disasters in fragile or failed states. In such cases, the questions must be put: how, when, and with what should a nation intervene? Given the elemental purpose of the armed forces, in humanitarian intercessions are they really the most appropriate international policy instrument, or do they just get the tasking because they have the nominal capacity while the other instruments have been allowed to wither for lack of resources? When resources are scarce, does this represent a misallocation?

Crucially, could not purpose-built civilian organizations do a better, more cost-effective  job?

A decade ago, recruitment advertisements for the Canadian Forces had the memorable refrain. “There’s no life like it”. Soldiers were being shown keeping the peace.

Today, the slogan is “Fight” and soldiers are shown going to war.

If security is the flip side of development, does this re-alignment make sense?

None of this came up in the recent federal election campaign, which is unfortunate.

It is time to begin an overdue national conversation on where to go with defence policy, international security and the Canadian military.

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