“Canada’s back!” went the cheer when the Trudeau government was first elected in 2015. For a government that desperately begged other countries to pick it for a temporary seat at the Security Council and searched hard and long for a 12-month peacekeeping mission, Canada is now giving clear indications that the traditional foreign and defence policy of collective security through the UN, NATO and NORAD is being weakened.

While it has maintained a rhetorical commitment to collective security, Canada’s actions are increasingly disconnected from allies and friends as it becomes more and more self-absorbed and less interested in what happens beyond its own borders.

From the beginning of the Second World War until now, Canadian leaders learned that Canadian security came from working and fighting with allies against aggressors. Canada was a founding member of NATO. Through NORAD, Canada worked with the United States to ensure North America was protected from the Soviet threat. Canada was equally committed to collective security through the United Nations. Forces were provided to stop the invasion of South Korea by North Korea and to repulse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Canadian faith in collective security has been one of the most important elements of Canadian foreign and defence policy. This enjoyed bipartisan support of all Canadian governments – until now.

The Trudeau government has progressively reduced the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to contribute to collective security in defensive alliances. While it stated its intention to continue the Canadian commitment through its defence policy – Strong Secure, Engaged (SSE) – it has done little to implement its promises in the five years since it was released, and has announced in the most recent budget that the policy will be reviewed.

Canada does not have a formal foreign policy under the Trudeau government. Canada did agree to NATO’s most recent update to its strategic concept released in 2010 — in which the alliance commitment to collective defence was placed as the first among the three core tasks of the alliance. The update to this document will be released at the Madrid summit scheduled for June 22 where it is expected that the alliance will further strengthen its commitment to collective defence. Canada must concur for the update to move forward but it has not officially or publicly pronounced its position. However, the actions taken by this government point to an abandonment of this commitment in all but rhetoric.

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The government has recently shown increasing unwillingness to sustain international action to provide collective security. We abandoned the Kurds and the Afghans to their fate. We have ignored the efforts of our “friends” in the Asian Pacific region as they respond to the growing power of China. We are not part of the discussion between the U.K., the U.S. and Australia in the AUKUS talks. Canada remains the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to refuse to ban or restrict use of Huawei 5G equipment in the face of the Chinese intelligence threat.

The current government has also declined to give its military the tools for collective security. Unlike most of its allies, it stalled on the need to buy a modern-day replacement for its 1980s vintage fighters. The U.K., Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland all made decisions to buy new aircraft in a reasonable time. Canada has only recently announced it will begin negotiations regarding the F-35. The government has made slow progress replacing our 1990s-era warships and has made no meaningful commitment to replace our 1980s submarine fleet. The government has made some defence policy promises but has not acted to modernize the equipment to ensure NORAD remains capable of responding to the Russian and Chinese threat. The government acknowledged in the SSE that it needed to expand the number of personnel in the regular forces, but this too has not happened. All that is offered is talk.

Perhaps the best illustration of the Trudeau government’s move away from the principle of collective security is its relationship with Ukraine and Russia. To be clear, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2014, not 2022. The Russian narrative is that the Crimea was not an actual part of Ukraine and that the Donbas region was being held against its will, but the fact remains that Russia invaded these regions.

The Harper government’s response focused on four actions. First, Canada insisted on raising Ukraine in the Arctic Council, causing a Russian boycott of one meeting. Second, Canada supplied Ukraine with Radarsat-2 satellite imagery to track Russian military activity. Third, Canadian Forces through Operation Unifier helped train Ukrainian forces. Fourth, Canadian Forces were recommitted to Europe through Operation Reassurance.

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Once elected, the Liberals soon moved to cancel many of these mild steps. They publicly chastised the Harper government for its treatment of the Russians at the Arctic Council. Led by then-foreign minister Stéphane Dion, they welcomed back the Russians and announced they were not going to link Russian aggression to the Arctic. They canceled the decision to provide Radarsat-2 imagery to Ukraine, citing licensing challenges and targeting limitations.

On a positive note, they renewed Operation Unifier three times and expanded Operation Reassurance. They also agreed to lead the enhanced forward presence battlegroup based in Latvia.

But the Trudeau government was reluctant to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons and never explained why. The likely explanation was fear of antagonizing Russia. It was only in the days prior to the renewed Russian attack in February 2022 that the government agreed to send Ukraine lethal military aid worth $7.8 million and in the most recent budget finally committed another $500 million in military aid. To put this into perspective, in 2019 the Trudeau government allowed the sale of $2.8 billion in lethal weapons to Saudi Arabia under a deal signed by the Harper government despite substantial ethical concerns about their use. Canada did not have a policy against selling lethal aid, it just didn’t want to offend an aggressor state like Russia until it went far beyond what Canada could ignore.

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Once the Russian attacks resumed in 2022, Canada acted to preserve its image as a good ally. It provided lethal military aid and will now provide Radarsat-2 imagery, solving the seven-year-old licensing problem. It also provided substantial rhetorical support for Ukraine. But a general pattern of behaviour has emerged. Canada waits until allies make an announcement such as targeted sanctions and then agrees with them a day or two later. The one time Canada moved earlier than most Western countries was to decide against a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace.

The Liberal government policy until the renewed Russian offensive was to focus on appeasing the Russians – be it in the Arctic, regarding non-lethal arm supplies and the cancelation of the provision of Radarsat-2 imagery. Canada changed course only after the egregious Russian resumption of war, and always following the action of NATO allies.

The lack of coherent, formal policy combined with the feeble response to Russian aggression suggests the Trudeau government has little appetite for collective security against aggressor states, its rhetoric notwithstanding. A few commitments remain such as its deployment of a NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia, and the continued presence of a frigate. But the overall lack of foreign policy direction, the reluctance to modernize the Air Force, Navy and NORAD and the reluctance to take firm action against aggressor states is not encouraging.

All of this points to Canada forsaking a longstanding, meaningful commitment to the principles of collective security. Even beyond the Ukraine invasion, Canada is missing in action with allies in the Asia-Pacific region. If Canada is moving toward a new isolationism, Canada risks becoming irrelevant to our friends and allies. It may also leave us with fewer friends when we confront our own security threats.

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Rob Huebert
Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary. He is also a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies.

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