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Canada Is Not a Neutral Country, Conference Told

The world is full of problems and we can’t solve all of them, but despite the mess, we have to try.

“The world is full of problems and we can’t solve all of them, but despite the mess, we have to try.” 

If there was a defining theme to the annual Ottawa Conference on Defence and Security, it was probably just that.

The highlights of this year’s gathering—organized by the Conference of Defence Associations and held at the Chateau Laurier on Feb. 21-22—all revolved around the idea of new security issues and how best to cope with them. Sure, the “old problem” of Islamic militancy and the war in Afghanistan was consistently referenced, but the topic took a back seat to new problems of economic decline, cyber attacks and, perhaps most interestingly, our national lack of strategy to deal with these threats, or any others.

“While we might still be guided by principles, pragmatism” will determine what we actually do, the CDA’s Ferry de Kerckhove told the crowd of several hundred during the conference’s opening remarks.

Instead of solving problems, we will simply learn to cope with them. “Our wonderful world is one big mess, and there is no shortage of opportunities to make it better,” concluded de Kerckhove, former Canadian high commissioner in Pakistan and ambassador to Indonesia and Egypt.

In order to set up John Manley, the conference’s first major speaker, de Kerckhove made a brief mention of Afghanistan that revealed, among other things, that a new sense of realism has overtaken Ottawa in regards to that mission. “We’re all leaving Afghanistan, but is there a single person who earnestly believes the place will look better in a few years?” de Kerckhove asked.

Manley, the former deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs, current chief executive officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, wasted very little time in taking up the challenge.

“I think the outcome is not as positive as we would have hoped,” noted Manley, who played a large role in the Canadian mission there as the head of what became known as the Manley Commission, a high-level review of Canadian participation in the war.

“The mission we all embarked on in 2001 was not to create a democratic, western state,” he said. “We went to disable al-Qaida’s capabilities…and suddenly we found ourselves with a failed state with no mechanisms of government whatsoever, and that was a huge challenge.”

Manley went on to discuss some of the problems with the mission, including that the man who would lead the new country of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was selected quickly and without great forethought. “He wore neat hats…spoke English well,” said Manley to explain, partially in jest, why he was selected.

“There is widespread corruption in the Afghan government which undermines the mission that we, at great expense, have tried to pursue,” said Manley.

One of Manley’s points about the mission in Kandahar set up the next group of presenters almost perfectly. “Canada is not neutral,” said Manley. “When there’s something that matters we’re prepared if necessary to bear arms.”

The next panel, set to discuss the potential need for a Canadian national security strategy, would take up Manley’s assertion directly as they attempted to determine if there needed to be some kind of public document to express exactly what might matter enough that Canada would be willing to bear arms.

Instead of solving problems, we cope with them. Our wonderful world is one big mess, and there are lots of opportunities to make it better.

The three panellists were Ian Brodie, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper; historian Jack Granatstein and retired major-general Richard Blanchette, former senior adviser to the Canadian National Security Adviser.

In what was perhaps the liveliest 75 minutes of the conference, the panel began as a simple attempt to lay out the purpose of a having a national security policy, but spiralled into a debate about political leadership and how much power and freedom of action should reside in the government of the day.

Looking away from evil only makes it more costly to confront it later, argued Granatstein. “Not looking away, but recognizing reality, is what a national security strategy should aim for.”

Agreeing strongly with Granatstein was Blanchette, who argued that “we need a national security strategy in Canada because we need leadership in this country.” We need a strategy that can anchor politicians’ choices and behaviour so that they can lead.

Brodie was, largely, opposed to the need for any “biblical” document that might provide a road map for Canadian interests and actions, arguing instead that the document would inevitably be too broad to be useful. “If you are under pressure to be comprehensive then you are under pressure to be useless,” he said.

Further, Brodie went on to note that the only way such a document would ever get produced is if there was a strong parliamentary pull for it—the NDP must demand it, basically.

In the afternoon on Thursday it was time for a panel discussion titled Thinking Strategically About Cyber, which featured retired major-general John Adams, the former director of the Communications Security Establishment Canada and General Keith Alexander, commander of United States Cyber Command.

It was a sobering presentation from both men, as Alexander noted that 85 to 90 per cent of North America’s “critical infrastructure” is controlled by private companies and therefore the defence of those networks is a private concern as well. This is a departure from traditional models of national security, where the government was responsible for keeping everything safe and functioning.

“We could have a cyber Pearl Harbor,” said Alexander. “And people will ask why we didn’t prepare for that? That’s why we should be preparing now.”

In addition, Adams noted that while “cyber war and cyber terrorism” haven’t really happened yet, cyber crime has cost the global economy about $400 trillion in the last year. “It’s a runaway freight train, it’s beyond belief.” said Adams.

The conclusion both men agreed upon was a stronger integration of uniformed military personnel into the cyber struggle.

On Friday the conference concluded with a few more panels, a videotaped speech by Defence Minister Peter MacKay in which he focused mainly on budget issues and the ongoing cuts to defence spending.

Following MacKay was Canada’s new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson. Proving himself a capable and affable speaker, Lawson gave a brief overview of the current state of the Canadian Forces and even dropped in a joke or two: “I’ve been CDS for almost four months now, so I’ve got it down,” he said. “At least the part where you exude the bravado you’re not quite feeling yet.”



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