As global insecurity runs high, Canada can no longer presume any country, starting with the US, will protect us. We will have to think for ourselves.

Post-COVID emergency, Canada’s security and intelligence (S&I) community will find itself protecting a country whose strategic circumstances have changed dramatically since the publication of the ground-breaking 2004 National Security Policy. The long-term existence of the country is far from assured. That our American ally will protect us in a pinch is wholly uncertain. (American-based threats to Canada are themselves far from improbable.) The border with the US is quasi-closed. Our global enemy-to-ally ratio, in demographic terms, is six-to-one. And our national information space, online, on TV, radio and in print, is increasingly colonized by debates led by American algorithms, topics and vocabulary that have little to do with the pith and substance of Canada’s daily reality, including a national security picture that is far more complicated than that of the post-9/11 period.

In this more complicated context, the consequences of national security failure for Canada could be catastrophic, and the need for national seriousness and excellence in national security is commensurately great.

Canada’s first National Security Policy (2004)

Back in 2004, I was a member of the small team that wrote the first National Security Policy our country has known. That team, led by Canada’s first national security adviser (Rob Wright), was comprised of a handful of people who worked out of the Privy Council Office (PCO). Other notable players on that task force were William Elliott (future RCMP commissioner), Graham Flack (future deputy minister), Ben Rowswell (future ambassador to Venezuela) and Peter Jones (future professor at the University of Ottawa).

I was in my second full year at PCO, fresh out of graduate school, and had, out of the Priorities and Planning (P&P) Secretariat, written several of the principal framing papers for national security in the context of the large-scale, year-and-a-half transition planning exercise between the Chrétien and Martin governments.

The final National Security Policy (NSP), titled Securing an Open Society, had eight chapters, with individual chapters dedicated to classical intelligence, emergency planning and management, public health emergencies, transportation security, border security, and international security.

Just as the Spanish flu led to the creation of Canada’s Department of Health in the early 20th century, the NSP built on the world’s and our country’s contemporaneous experiences with SARS (and BSE), leading to the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada as well as the position of Chief Public Health Officer (now significantly in the news) for Canada’s new century. The NSP stated clearly that “the Government intends to take all necessary measures to fully integrate its approach to public health emergencies with the national security agenda.”

Nevertheless, the clear driving force behind the 2004 NSP was not health emergency management but instead the national reaction to 9/11 and growing American strategic, political and security-community preoccupation with counter-terrorism. The NSP was meant to signal Canada’s domestic security bona fides in exchange for American economic forbearance – in particular, at the Canada-US border, then considered an existential economic interest for Canada. (The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were raging at the time, but for Ottawa, neither strategic event was deemed to portend existential domestic threats to Canada.)

To be sure, the public health dimension of the NSP was itself significantly connected to the overall counter-terrorism agenda – both explicitly and in psychological presupposition: it included measures related to chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear (CBRN) terrorism and emergencies, for instance.

COVID-19 and the end of Canadian strategic luck (2020)

A year after the NSP was published, I would be sent on secondment from PCO to the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) in Canberra. There, I would become the chief writer of Australia’s 2006 national counter-terrorism policy, Protecting Australia Against Terrorism, an important deliverable in the last years of the government of John Howard.

CBRN terrorism in particular and public health emergencies in general, just as in the Canadian NSP, were part and parcel of the Australian policy, consistent with a whole-of-government, whole-of-federation, all-hazards approach to national security.

Australia, too, was responding to the 9/11 attacks, but even more so to the 2002 and 2005 terrorist attacks in Bali, Indonesia, preceded by the 2005 attacks in London.

My humble observation is that while Australia is a smaller, younger and considerably less complex federation and society than Canada, its security and intelligence community and culture are not only better resourced than Canada’s but also far more serious in terms of their “felt appreciation” of the consequences of failure.

How could this be so? Answer: The Australians had a reckoning with strategic (indeed, existential) bad luck that Canada had not experienced until the coronavirus emergency. The “white,” colonial Australia that the late Australian wit Donald Horne described as “the lucky country” saw itself as abandoned during the Second World War to Japanese bombardment by its principal imperial ally, Great Britain. Thenceforth, Australia would have to defend itself.

Now, as Canada emerges from the Great Quarantine, we will find ourselves poorer, more anxious, and more surrounded by global (and continental) instability than at any point since the Second World War. We will, for the first time in modern history, have to think for ourselves and not presume that any country, starting with the US, is there to protect us. Canadian S&I will evidently be critical in this regard.

I propose five key pivots to bring us to the right standard of S&I performance.

Pivot One – Canada’s mental map and national interests. The “border” preoccupation of the NSP has, over the last two decades, become consolidated in the mental map that underpins the calculations of Canada’s S&I community. But that mental map is, in my judgment, badly outdated and excessively simplistic in light of Canada’s real strategic geography and changing power relationships in the world. A mental map of “ACRE” – America to the south, China to the west, Russia across the Arctic, and Europe to the east – makes far more sense for the coming decades. (We will live or die by this four-point strategic game. We may even become a major power in our own right in the process of playing it.) Canada must survive the ferocious pulls of these great powers at all our borders while trying to avoid being crushed by their various interactions across our massive geography and political space. Moreover, the “A” vector in ACRE should not be presumed to be automatically friendly – or even not hostile – to Canada.

Pivot Two – Ideology. The Canadian S&I community is today intellectually and psychologically vassalized to the American S&I community. Even within the Five Eyes framework, Canada considers itself “one” with the US, subordinates readily, quotes from American texts and publications as authority, and presumes that American analytical frameworks for the world and Canada alike are sound. But what if the American frameworks are poor or outright wrong? What if American political pressure torques intelligence reporting into unreliable territory? And what if American analytics represent strict American interests in a world in which America will not necessarily wish or be able to defend Canada (and certainly not Canadian interests)? Answer: Canada will need to learn to think for itself in S&I terms. This ideological transformation will take time, but it will necessarily be self-conscious and carefully choreographed.

Pivot Three – Capabilities and size. A Canadian S&I community that thinks for itself and is surrounded by great powers must operate at an appropriately significant scale (bulk) and with substantial independent capabilities. This means: a manifestly independent foreign human intelligence capability (in my view, deployed eventually out of the Department of National Defence (DND), as with the birth of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service); triple the quantum of linguists and top area and disciplinary analysts at the International Assessment Secretariat (IAS) within the Privy Council Office, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), DND, the Communications Security Establishment, Global Affairs (GAC) and, yes, Public Health; and original research and contributions to the development of a properly Canadian school of strategy with its own mentality, doctrine, vocabulary and world-beating talent.

Pivot Four – Relationships. While the US S&I relationship within the Five Eyes may (or may not) remain primus inter pares – first among equals a Canada that thinks for itself will need and want to profit from professional working relationships with all of the major powers of the world, and indeed most of the second-order ones as well – whether they are like-minded or, as in most of the cases, not. The global coronavirus emergency will have disabused us of the notion that only democracies generate good, legitimate or moral intelligence or frameworks, and should commend to us far greater promiscuity in our search for the best information possible to defend or advance Canadian interests.

Pivot Five – Literacy of consumers. Canadian intelligence and security information is irrelevant without a Canadian political and bureaucratic readership (audience) that is not only literate about the issues, but also, critically, curious about what it does not know. The emergence of a literate and porous audience for Canadian S&I is fully a matter of political leadership. A political leadership in Canada that recognizes Canada’s changing strategic circumstances, the more dramatic pressures on our national survival, and the need for real Canadian thinking and strategy can, within less than a decade, change Canada’s S&I culture – from the term-taking to the term-setting. The latter will better equip our country for survival and success in a world that is far less innocent than the one in which the original NSP was written.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by kentoh.