Canada's International Security Strategy

By Ross, Douglas Alan | International Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Canada's International Security Strategy


Ross, Douglas Alan, International Journal


Beyond reason hut not hope?

The failure of Canadians to define a satisfactory strategic policy or to produce a native school of strategic thinking may to some extent be attributed to the difficulty of producing a rational strategy for an irrationally conceived country.

John W Holmes, 1983'

These observations, made over a quarter century ago, were debatable at the time and remain so today. They were made mere weeks after US president Ronald Reagan's "star wars" speech advocating the construction of a global antiballistic missile (ABM) defence system. They also came just three months before the shooting down of Korean Air Lines flight 007, an event that would help trigger the second most tense confrontation of the Cold War - the Soviet nuclear alert that coincided with NATO's Able Archer 83 command post exercise later that November. The rising nuclear tensions of the period, in the context of what Holmes later termed the "brutal unilateralism" of Reagan's declaration, probably generated his speculative observations.2

Several objections may be made to Holmes's comments. First, what country has ever been conceived rationally? Second, how many countries, great or less-than-great, can actually be said to have developed rational security strategies and then attempted to implement them? And of those states, how many have done so successfully? Since 1945, with the exception of the last years of the government of John Diefenbaker when CanadianAmerican relations were in severe disarray, have Canadian international security policies ever been seriously out of step with Canada's national interests or those of its allies? Rational or not, Canadian international security policy may have been more or less appropriate given the limitations inherent in the country's middle-power status.

Holmes's remarks probably reflected a continuing frustration with Canada's limited ability to influence its ally's strategic behaviour. Occasional bouts of excessive American nuclear aggressiveness had been a problem, and not just during the lead-up to the Cuban missile crisis. Korea 1953, Diên Bien Phu 1954, the Chinese offshore islands crises of 1955 and 1958, Berlin 19 61, and the American nuclear alert during the Middle Eastern crisis of 1973 had all been cause for concern regarding nuclear risk-taking or possible nuclear use. The Soviet nuclear alert during the Czech crisis of 1968 also had been an occasion of significant nuclear risk but was not understood to have been so until years later. Having Ottawa press for a stronger, more dynamic commitment to stable nuclear deterrence and cooperative nuclear arms control agreements during the 1980s may have been what Holmes had in mind - and the related idea that a robust school of Canadian strategic thought someday might better help to restrain both American fits of nuclear imprudence and conventionally armed interventionary zeal - even though the "diplomacy of constraint" had yielded no visible record of success in either Korea or Vietnam.3

Those rare instances of successful strategy may actually be manifestations of retrospective evaluation and imaginative reconstruction by historians, political scientists, and national security officials with a theoretical or literary bent. Strategizing may be more a matter of aspiration and afterthe-fact myth-making rather than the deliberate, thoughtful creation of national security goals linked to efficient instrumental means for their attainment. Such imagined reconstructions may most typically mask the real historical processes of non-rational state adaptation (for example, the accretion of territory in the British empire), idiosyncratic politico-military experimentation and bureaucratic infighting (American decision-making over the Vietnam intervention or Soviet policymaking on Afghanistan), or outright non-rational gambling with respect to issues and choices of war and peace (Winston Churchill's irrationally defiant refusal to make a political settlement with Germany in 1940-41, noted by David Eaves in his essay for this issue). …

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