Canada and Conflict; A hard-hitting look at Canadian security, post 9-11, from the Afghanistan war to US relations and Arctic sovereignty; Patrick James, Oxford, 2012

I picked this book up because of the reference to ‘Arctic sovereignty’ in the sub-title. I recently read the account of Arctic adventurer, Cameron Dueck (The New Northwest Passage, A Voyage to the Front Line of Climate Change;, and I was curious about the region, particularly in the context of the disappearing ice. But before getting to that, the book examines some other fields of conflict.

The context of all the conflicts involving Canada must include the US. Canada’s war preparedness for many years was minimal with foreign policy based more on international cooperation particularly through the UN, than national self-interest. Following 9-11 Canada joined with the international war on terrorism (approved by NATO and the UN) and attacked Afghanistan. James argues that this position was a realist response to show power in the face of what was being interpreted by the US president as the ‘throwing down of the gauntlet’ by the radical Islamists and Al Qaeda. It wasn’t popular to see underdevelopment and anger toward US influence around the world as a cause of 9-11. Canada’s participation in this war also facilitated keeping open the lengthy border between the US and Canada, a necessary action form the national self-interest point of view.

Did Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan come about through incrementalism (bureaucratic creep, one decision at a time) or was it something else? There is a significant difference between going to train soldiers and police, building hospitals and other infrastructure (as it was doing in late 2001) and the direct combat role that Canada took from 2005 onward. James cites government documents that support the idea of a Canadian Forces prepared for war in a world where failing and failed states threaten national security. The thesis of this book is that the perspectives of realism, liberalism, the world of ideas and the government and domestic policies combine to determine Canadian security policy.

The reality of being the neighbour to the US has historically been a significant determinant of Canadian security policy from pre-Confederation days through the American Revolution and the Civil War and so on. NORAD cooperation during the Cold War and oil hunger more recently underlie security policy decisions. During the Trudeau era two national policies signaled a distancing from the elephant, the National Energy Policy and the Foreign Investment Review Agency. The so-called Third Option sought relations with countries other than the US. It is ironic today that the current Canadian government (Conservative, under Steven Harper) is also pursuing a ‘third option’ and the issues of ‘energy policy’ and ‘foreign investment’ are at the top of the national agenda.

Canada separated itself from American security policy objectives in the past, for example, by not acceding to the Reagan ‘Star Wars’ initiative (Ballistic Missile Defense). Arctic security issues have a similar history of tension and co-operation. Canada holds a different view on Arctic sovereignty to the US. Where Canada sees the projection of its national boundaries to include the waterways between the large northern islands, the US sees the Northwest Passage as ‘open’. Another differentiation came with Prime Minister Chretien’s refusal to participate in the Iraq War of 2003-10 proposed by US President Bush as the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ and based on the now proven false assertion that Iraq possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’. “From the viewpoint of most Canadians, the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ looked like a fig leaf for American unilateralism and disposition toward military solutions”.

The contrast between the material buildup of the military and the psychology of maintaining distance from US militarism reveals the current Canadian disposition toward security. Canada’s position on the world stage post 9-11 is more pragmatic, a balance between liberal and realist points of view, but not without criticism. Anti-Americanism, particularly, is seen as ‘cloying’ in the Canadian self-image. That same “self-image as a moral nation is built more on the way we treat ourselves – through programs such as national health care – than on how we treat others” (Canada – Standing Committee on National Defense, 2006).

James, however, suggests that such actions are seen by some as evidence of Canada hitching a ‘free ride’ or seeking to live under the US umbrella; others see it as cause for making Canada irrelevant; and still others see it as underlying the Canadian government decision to ‘beef up’ military spending particularly during its involvement in Afghanistan (under Liberal PM Martin). Conservative PM Harper has implemented further military spending with a particular focus on Arctic security (air, surface and sub-surface).

Throughout, Canadian-American cooperation on security continues. The current Canadian security policy is based on being a ‘reliable partner’ to the US. Internationally, Canada’s armed forces policy is aimed at having the capability to sustain military operations over time and at a distance, if needed. James adds ‘Although Canada said ‘no’ to BMD in the last decade, that does not mean the US will never ask about it again. The border is a never-ending issue and, of course, the Arctic sovereignty is in the midst of a period in which change is coming quickly.”

Future Canadian security policy will be based on increased military spending. The Conservative government plan, Canada First Defense Strategy, would see $490 billion spent over 20 years. With respect to Can-Am security, the ‘Beyond the Border’ (2011) initiative will include “a shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness”.

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