I welcome the opportunity to kick off this series on the future of the Canadian Forces (CF), not least because the series invites a broader discussion of the role of the military and the Department of National Defence (DND) in Canadian foreign policy. Too often, media coverage and expert debates about the military end up focusing on its capabilities: the technical characteristics and costs (or cost overruns) of particular weapons systems, the size and composition of CF personnel, and the like. These are important questions in their own right, but they presume that we have an idea of what we want our military to be doing – or, more precisely, what kind of foreign policy we want for Canada, and what role the military can play in effecting that policy.

In recent years, Canadian foreign policy has sometimes seemed to boil down to a military policy. Yes, we have launched free-trade negotiations around the world and promoted religious liberty, among other things. But as Eugene Lang recently observed, aside from trade promotion, the main pillar of our foreign policy appears to be the willingness to provide Canadian military forces to fight in coalition operations.

“We need to remember one thing before we embark on a discussion of the future of the Canadian Forces: Our military is an instrument of national policy, not the other way around – and it is but one instrument.”

This fits with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s view of Canadian history and world affairs as a series of momentous struggles between the forces of good and ill. He has suggested that these struggles have shaped the course of world history and defined Canada’s identity.

If Harper were correct, it might make sense for Canada to elevate war-fighting readiness to the very top of our foreign-policy priorities, to highlight looming international threats, and to encourage our allies to take a firm stand in the face of these dangers. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind Canadians about their nation’s history of military prowess – say, by earmarking $28 million to celebrate the anniversary of the War of 1812.

However, we have a problem if this is the premise for our discussion about the future of the CF, because Harper’s stylized rendition of Canadian history and global affairs is dubious. While Canadians have demonstrated bravery and valour in combat, and some of these conflicts have been turning points in our history, we also have a proud tradition as a nation that has learned to avert conflicts through diplomacy, abroad and at home. This is as much a part of our history and identity as martial glory or moral rectitude. Indeed, the ability to work through problems using the tools of diplomacy and multilateralism as opposed to violence may be most central to who we are as a people, and to what we do in the world. At the very least, these qualities have been instrumental in keeping this unlikely country together for the past 145 years.

So, before losing ourselves in debates about how best to equip the CF for the future, I would encourage the contributors in this series to consider the broader purposes of Canada’s foreign policy. Failure to question these purposes may be tantamount to accepting the current ones as given, which today means accepting the primacy of the military as a device for achieving our foreign-policy goals, and the corresponding pre-eminence of DND in Ottawa relative to the two other “international departments”: the beleaguered Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the much-maligned Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

This imbalance in our international policy instruments may simply be an artifact of the Afghan mission – where, by necessity, military personnel dramatically outnumbered civilian diplomats and aid officials – but I don’t think so. The elevation of Canada’s war-fighting military as a symbol of patriotism has been more than the result of the bravery or professionalism of Canadian troops in Afghanistan; it has also been a deliberate act of government policy.

The centrality of the CF and DND in Canada’s foreign policy, and in our foreign-policy machinery, is therefore unlikely to change, even as Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan winds down.

I am not suggesting that we should neglect the CF. On the contrary, we need to maintain a multifunctional military that is capable of learning new methods quickly, because the only constant in war is that the next conflict is unlikely to look like the last. Happily, the CF demonstrated its adaptability in Afghanistan, where it implemented a complex strategy in an unfamiliar and very difficult environment. Moreover, although there were equipment gaps (from clothing to transport) at the beginning of the operation, Canada’s contingent in Kandahar arguably ended up being the best-equipped unit in the entire International Security Assistance Force.

No, my point is not that we should neglect the military. Rather, it is that we need to remember one thing before we embark on a discussion of the future of the Canadian Forces: Our military is an instrument of national policy, not the other way around – and it is but one instrument.

This post first appeared on the Canadian International Council website.

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