This article is based on a talk held at McGill University that is part of a series of nine delving into the theme of “What should be on Canada’s policy radar?” The panel discussions are being held all through this year to mark the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, publisher of Policy Options magazine. The discussion at McGill University focused on: The future of national security in the world of the “n-block war.” Panelists included: Jennifer Welsh, Canada 150 research chair in global governance and security at McGill University and director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies; Ali Dizboni, associate professor in the department of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada; and Vincent Rigby, 2022-23 McConnell professor of practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University. The moderator was Andrew Potter, associated professor (professional) and graduate program director at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. A video recording of the panel discussion is also available.
From the war in Ukraine to combatting foreign interference in its elections, Canada remains unprepared to confront a rapidly shifting security environment defined by an international order in transition and the growing interaction between domestic and global extremism.
To confront these contemporary challenges, Canada must adapt its national security architecture to strengthen its ties to the trans-Atlantic security community, combat home-grown radicalization and prioritize security both within and beyond Ottawa.
While the re-emergence of great power competition between the United States and China is reminiscent of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is also occurring within an international system that lacks the rigidity of the Cold War. This competition – generated by the relative decline of the United States and China’s decades-long period of dynamic economic growth and military modernization – has prompted renewed fears of a return of great power war.
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However, in contrast to the hardened blocs of the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R., the contemporary international system has yet to display a similar inflexibility in response to the Sino-American rivalry. This lack of definition has been displayed by the war in Ukraine, Jennifer Welsh noted at the panel discussion. Much of the Global South has remained neutral while the United States and China have intervened either actively or tacitly in the conflict, said Welsh, Canada 150 research chair in global governance and security at McGill University.
This lack of structure within the global order has also led to the growing potential for catastrophic risks, particularly among nuclear powers. The nuclear taboo – the norm that nuclear weapons are different from conventional arms and thus unusable in armed conflict – has prevented their use since the end of the Second World War. But Welsh noted that this attitude has been eroded by key states such as Russia, presenting a severe and immediate threat to Canadian security.
Along with these developments abroad, Canada is also facing a domestic security environment featuring home-grown threats supported by transnational actors. Fears of foreign terrorism have declined, but concerns over ideologically motivated violent extremism, particularly on the “alt-right,” have grown since the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. These threats, driven primarily by social media, have also blurred the traditional boundaries between legitimate social movements and organized radicalism, complicating the efforts of law enforcement to distinguish between legal protest and illegal criminal activity, said Ali Dizboni, associate professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
Moreover, Canada’s national security institutions have failed to adapt to these dramatic changes and they remain critically underdeveloped relative to their international counterparts. Beyond its traditional national security architecture such as the Department of National Defence and the Incident Response Group, Canada does not have a permanent cabinet-level body focused on national security, a striking contrast to allies such as the United States.
Canada has not revised its national security strategy since 2004, a misstep compounded by Ottawa’s lack of review of its foundational security legislation, including the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act, McGill professor Vincent Rigby said.
To operate effectively within this evolving landscape, Canada must reconsider its place within the global order, effectively merge social and security policy-making, and reform its national security institutions.
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Canada must recognize that it is no longer a global “middle power” but rather a more junior power among a Western bloc once more coalescing around the United States. Welsh argued that the Sino-American rivalry has upended both multilateral institutions and open engagement, two traditional hallmarks of Canadian foreign policy. To overcome the gridlock within global governance caused by the Sino-American rivalry, Ottawa must instead heighten its commitment to the bounded Western order to maintain its relevance to the United States and NATO.
This lack of rigidity within the current global order may also offer Canada the possibility to pursue a broader security agenda by leveraging temporary alignments among regional blocs, such as within the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum committed to ensuring co-operation in the High North. However, this approach cannot substantially replace its focus on maintaining the trans-Atlantic security community.
As demonstrated by the so-called Freedom Convoy, domestic grievances fueled and financed by foreign actors also have the potential to escalate into national emergencies and ultimately into international crises as when protestors blockaded the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, severing a critical trade link between the U.S. and Canada. Consequently, Canada must consider both the motivations and the means driving the interaction between international and domestic radical movements.
Dizboni also argued Canada must acknowledge that both right- and left-wing extremism is rooted in longstanding social malaise rather than having been sparked solely by the pandemic. We must structure our national security policy accordingly. This will require the creative integration of social and security policy-making, from reducing income inequality to enacting electoral reform to improving government transparency, based on the recognition that the most secure societies are often those that are perceived as fair by their citizens.
Canada must also continue to eliminate contact between violent extremists and police and military services, a dangerous trend that threatens to erode the legitimacy of state-sanctioned force, while also interrupting the cyber capabilities used by extremist organizations to co-ordinate acts of violence.
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Beyond recognizing how this changing security environment may redefine Canada’s priorities, the federal government must also reform its national security infrastructure by introducing a cabinet-level national security council. While such a high-level institutional mechanism may become overly bureaucratic, it offers an effective forum for intra-governmental decision-making and public communication, both critical aspects of formulating sensible security policy within a dynamic environment.
As mentioned by Rigby, this body would also be modelled on the United Kingdom’s integrated review of its foreign policy, defence policy and development policy to consistently evaluate Canada’s national security posture.
The process of creating a new institution, along with publishing a revised national security strategy, also presents an effective avenue to communicate with the public. While security issues are often far from the minds of voters, barring a crisis such as the war in Ukraine or the occupation of Parliament Hill, this council would allow the government to engage in more consistent conversations with Canadians. The visibility of an official body would also reduce the perception of government secrecy, a factor that often drives effective misinformation campaigns.
Canada is ill-equipped to confront the long-term security challenge posed by great power rivalry, which also threatens its ability to manage domestic disturbances. In response, it must adapt and develop its national security institutions to compensate for a decline in multilateralism, a rise in ideologically motivated violent extremism, and the historically low priority given to the management and communication of security threats. While Ottawa may not be interested in war, war is increasingly interested in Ottawa.
This article is part of What Should Be on Canada’s Policy Radar? special feature series.