Late February in Ottawa can only mean one thing—the Conference of Defence Associations annual general meeting, in this case the 72nd, which has over the years evolved into the pre-eminent military conference in Canada.
The speakers at the two-day event were illustrious as always, including Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon and a wide range of top Canadian and American generals. The CDA is an umbrella group of military associations of which The Royal Canadian Legion is the largest. The Feb. 26-27 event was attended by approximately 400 people, a number which included several ambassadors.
While the stated theme of the first day of this year’s seminar was Canada-U.S. Relations: The Security Dimension, the speeches over the course of the day covered a vast range of topics, from Canada’s and North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role in Afghanistan to the nature of the conflict in the Middle East to the rise of Chinese naval power.
Foreign Affairs Minister Cannon gave the keynote address, starting off the conference. Cannon, for his part, did speak largely about the relationship between Canada and the United States, noting that his new counterpart—U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—was not only excellent to work with but did indeed have a different approach than her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
“We can expect a renewed approach to multilateral co-operation,” said Cannon of the new U.S. administration, “a new approach to Afghanistan, and the introduction of what Mrs. Clinton called ‘smart power.’”
Cannon remarked at length upon the need to balance security concerns at the Canadian-U.S. border with the need to keep economic traffic moving efficiently. “Our American neighbours know that a secure efficient border…is key to our shared prosperity,” he said. “Since 9/11 we’ve sought to balance legitimate concerns about security with the need to maintain open borders that are central to the prosperity of our countries.”
According to Cannon, over a billion dollars in trade flows across the border every day, “close to a million dollars a minute, which supports seven million jobs in the U.S.,” he said. “The thickening of the border limits trade.”
The backdrop to Cannon’s remarks is that several recent studies in the U.S. pointed to the Canada-U.S. border as a likely source of infiltration in any new attack. Thus, in many ways Cannon’s remarks constituted part of an open and public argument between the two countries about how best to manage the risk.
Cannon then went on to talk about Canada’s ongoing role in Afghanistan and in the Caribbean, where the Canadian Forces have been helping in various drug-interdiction roles.
“We are defending ourselves against threats to our security long before they materialize on our shores,” said Cannon, invoking an age-old, tried-and-true stratagem for national self-defence. “We want to detect, deter, disrupt and defeat military and terror threats as far from our border as possible.”
As a last note on this subject, Cannon told the crowd how Canada had recently contributed $10 million to help the U.S. secure nuclear material in Russia and Ukraine as a part of the ongoing non-proliferation effort intended to keep such weapons out of terrorist hands.
Next up to speak was Ray Henault, former chief of the defence staff and former chairman of the military committee of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who spoke to the crowd on the topic of NATO At 60: A Military Perspective.
Henault gave an optimistic appraisal of the slightly frayed NATO alliance, which has been under extreme pressure on several fronts recently. Not only is NATO having a hard time cajoling member countries into providing troops for the mission in Afghanistan but the NATO command structure in that mission is widely seen as troubled. Meanwhile, the alliance is having difficulty negotiating with its European Union partners, the United Nations and the newly recalcitrant Russia.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Henault stated that NATO is the “pre-eminent defence and security alliance” in the world today and argued, overall, for the success of the organization, but did concede that it didn’t come without a significant amount of turmoil within the alliance.
“Gaining consensus among 26 allies is difficult, and it remains difficult,” he said. “The process is often divisive.”
As for the issues with the European Union, a question from the floor at the end of the speech prompted Henault to go into further detail about the growing EU indifference toward the NATO alliance, which has apparently gotten to the point where the EU representatives no longer attend meetings.
The two organizations, said Henault, are “somewhat thwarted in their attempts to do things collaboratively by their political approaches. They need consensus, and this consensus could not be achieved in the time I was there.”
While 21 nations belong to both NATO and the EU, Henault didn’t see the common EU defence policy as a threat to the NATO alliance. While some suggest that many of those EU countries may simply form their own alliance, Henault disagreed.
“The problem will remain for some time yet,” said Henault, “but I don’t think we should be concerned about any threat to NATO. We don’t see anyone trying to get out of NATO, there are just nations trying to get in.”
Another questioner wanted to know about the nature of the declining relationship between NATO and Russia.
Everything was going well, said Henault, and then the bubble broke. “Since August of last year there have been very few NATO-Russia meetings. They have stalled out.”
Henault’s final questioner was retired Canadian major-general Lewis MacKenzie, who spared nothing in phrasing his inquiry. “I really wish I could join you in your optimism,” he said, “but I’m more a pessimist. I feel that NATO is failing in southern Afghanistan and Canadian soldiers are dying because of it. (NATO) hasn’t produced the basic resources for (the mission.) If the lack of ability to produce troops for Afghanistan isn’t a sign of failure, I don’t know what is.”
Henault replied, “Yes, there have been difficulties and they are largely because of political differences. Those will have be resolved if we are to improve burden sharing among allies. NATO is a consensus-based organization and that means there will be compromises.”
Essentially, Henault was pointing out that among many NATO allies there is limited political support for sending troops into combat.
Later, the conference reconvened with a series of speakers on the topic of Asia-Pacific And Canadian Defence And Security.
Australian Colonel John Blaxland gave an interesting speech about Australia’s role in Afghanistan. Australia operates in Oruzgan, just north of Kandahar, as the junior partner of the Dutch-led Task Force Oruzgan. They have just over 1,000 troops there in roles varying from mentoring and reconstruction to special operations and artillery.
While Australia is by far the largest non-NATO contributor to the mission, and one of only a few willing to contribute troops into combat in Pashtun areas, Blaxland concluded that “Australia recognizes that while counter-insurgency engagements can be long and drawn-out affairs, they are indeed winnable. However, military efforts alone will not be sufficient in Afghanistan.”
In one of the final speeches of the day U.S. defence analyst Dr. Norman Friedman spoke on power relationships in Asia. Friedman’s essential point was that turmoil in the Middle East is actually at its root being caused by a religious reformation in the Islamic world, not unlike many of the (often violent) reformations that have taken place in the history of western religions. The situation is, says Friedman, basically an Islamic civil war and he thinks the unrest and militancy will last 50 years at least.
He believes the best the West can do is to try to support stable Islamic governments and to keep angry mobs and terrorists from killing our citizens.
“I think there’ll be a lot of dead people before this gets better, sorry to be unpleasant,” concluded Friedman.
On Friday morning the topic shifted slightly to Changing Times, An Evolving Canadian Forces: A New Defence Strategy and the first speaker was Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay.
MacKay, who spoke with an effusive charisma more characteristic of a campaign trail than a military conference, told the audience of an unprecedented effort to embark on a complete rebuilding of the Canadian Forces.
“The best soldiers need the best equipment,” said MacKay, “but building a military takes time.”
He told the crowd of the new ships, new vehicles and new planes, all in the works. “We’re acquiring new equipment—a whack of it—and that’s a Nova Scotian unit of measure: a whack of it!
“We’re also working to improve defence procurement, and there is room for improvement,” he said in a moment of understatement which made the audience break out in spontaneous laughter and clapping.
On Afghanistan, MacKay was again bluntly optimistic despite the exponentially increasing level of violence. “While progress is slow, it’s real,” he said. “It’s there for all to see. It may not happen at the pace we like, but it’s happening.
“There are 22 schools under construction, progress on big projects like the Dhala Dam. There are children being immunized against the scourge of polio and progress most importantly in the Afghan national security forces. In the past few months, an Afghan brigade planned and conducted its first independent operation.
“The CF combat mission is scheduled to end in 2011, but that does not mean an end to Canada’s contribution…we will reconfigure the mission so that we can contribute in other ways,” concluded MacKay.
Following MacKay was Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk who began with an inadvertently sobering reminder of the increasing age of Canada’s veterans. When Natynczyk asked for all of the Second World War veterans to stand, it seemed there was only one. And when he asked for Korean War veterans to stand, there appeared to be only two.
From there Natynczyk went on to give a whirlwind overview of the state of the CF today. He touched on everything from the difficulties of recruiting to the difficulties of securing an Arctic territory much larger than all of Europe to the gentle irony that one of the U.S. units going to reinforce the CF in Kandahar province received its first battle honour at Queenston Heights in the War of 1812.
The session wrapped up with briefings on their respective commands by Chief of the Land Staff Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, Chief of the Maritime Staff Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson and Chief of the Air Staff Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt.