Defence Review Roundtable: Montreal

by Steve Saideman

I got the chance to participate in the Defence Review via a roundtable in Montreal.  Since I pooped all over the project when it was first announced, I have to say that I am both impressed and thankful that the Minister of Defence and his staff invited me to join the process.  That was mighty big of them.

The meeting was governed by Chatham House Rule, which means I cannot attribute stuff to anyone.  So, I will apply Saideman House Rule–I will describe the event and then say what I said.

There were two of the four panelists–Louise Arbour and Gen. (ret) Ray Henault, the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary John McKay, an individual from Ipsos to run the meeting (we were an semi-focused focus group), a bunch of folks from Dept of National Defence to observe/record, and eleven participants.  Of the eleven, four were academics, one was a retired military guy and academic, three were from non-governmental organizations associated with international law and humanitarian stuff, and a few retired military folks. The four academics were myself, Stéphanie Von Hlatky of Queens, Thomas Juneau of U of Ottawa, Frédéric Mérand of U of Montréal, and myself.  Remi Landry is the retired mil guy/Sherbrooke prof.  I know all of these academics quite well, and was again super-impressed by how sharp they were on this stuff.   I am always impressed by the former Chief of Defence Staff Henault, having interviewed him and then bumping into him at various Ottawa events since then.  I don’t know the right honorific for Louise Arbour, but she is the first Supreme Court Justice I have ever met, and I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk about ICTY since she served as a prosecutor (of Milosevic!).

Of the various meetings I have been to related to the defence review, this was a younger room–I was the median age, I think.  Of the 11 invited speakers, two were women, which is not very good, but better than any other meeting I’ve attended thus far.  The one visible minority couldn’t make the meeting apparently.

The three primary sessions were to focus on the threats facing Canada, Canada’s role in the world, and then how to shape the Canadian Armed Forces to deal with such stuff, but the topics bled into each other quite a bit.

What did I say?  Well, I handed in this document beforehand focusing on the need to make hard choices, that NATO is a key driver of whatever Canada does, that personnel costs are a huge part of the budget, and that the folks who conflate “full spectrum” with “combat capable” are attempting to confuse the issues.  The good news is that only one person was making that assertion yesterday–it didn’t dominate the conversation.  I tried to pick my spots so I didn’t repeat what other folks said about geography means that Canada faced few threats (I did say that before the meeting to one of the participants and boy did that upset that individual).  Indeed, with SVH, Mérand, and Juneau saying such smart stuff, I often sat back and just nodded.  I did get into a sustained conversation between the two panelists and myself on the new NATO mission and what conflict prevention might mean.

I did indicate that there is a basic tension going forward: that the military learned that we, the West, do nation building poorly, so it is unlikely that we will do another Kandahar anytime too soon BUT the civilians will eventually forget and send the military someplace to do stuff that is really, really hard.  Will we do another Libya, I was asked? And I said yes, since air power appeals to politicians as a relatively less risky way to impact a crisis.

One thing I did push back on is the idea that Canada can get stuff from the US for participating in NATO efforts–that the idea of getting side payments (pipelines or whatever) for “punching above our weight” just isn’t going to happen, that leading in such efforts has some benefits but mostly meaning that Canada leads in such efforts, not that a US president will go against his/her base to give Canada goodies.  That one’s credit for being a good ally and showing up is a fading asset as American politicians change and forget, so Canada needs to keep on participating if it wants to have the reputation of being a good ally. Still, a couple of the speakers did argue well that Canada has not paid a price for not going along with the US on stuff.

There was a general sense that the public does not really get what the military is doing or what it needs.  I am not sure of that–do we have surveys?  But I did suggest one way that DND used to facilitate outreach–the now dead Security and Defence Forum that funded research and training at universities.  Indeed, I pointed to two of the academics in the room as products of that effort–SVH and Juneau.

Overall, the quality of the conversation was quite good.  Last week’s Parliamentary session was too much of retired military guys trying to make sure no hard choices were going to be made and defence contractors advocating for their particular areas to be funded.  The retired military guys at this one had more diverse interests and were not just focused on preserving the status quo. This meeting had thoughtful exchanges with good questions raised by the panelists and by the Parliamentary Secretary.

What does this all mean?  Well, it is not so clear.  We will know more once we see the final document. The general consensus seemed to be that there is not much wiggle room or bandwidth for decisions, as the big ones have already been made (ships, planes, personnel costs), that the government will have to make decisions before the report comes out (Latvia or not, Mali or not), and that the panel will hear heaps of things so they can pick stances that might align with their preconceptions.  The nice thing about having Louise Arbour and Margaret Purdy on the panel is that they don’t have much in the way of preconceptions, which balances the experience (and expertise) brought by Henault and former Minister of Defence Bill Graham.  I do think that if there are bits and pieces of consensus out there among the many meetings and submitted recommendations, they might be useful in the intra-DND fights over what the document will say.  Of course, on any particular issue down the road, the Minister of Defence may make calls that do not align with the document and the PM/cabinet can decided to ignore the recommendations of the Minister when he does base his recommendations on the defence review document.

Oh, and it meant a whole lot to me to be in the room.  I learned a lot from everyone there, and I am glad that the government is reaching out.  It is a nice change from the previous government.  And, yes, I was flattered and honored to be involved.

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