The Conservatives, the NDP and defence

Kim Richard Nossal offered his thoughts on the Conservatives, the NDP, and national defence in Embassy Magazine today. 

Nossal notes that the CPC’s defence policies are been largely driven by domestic considerations over the past five years. He believes that they should adopt a more strategic, internationally-minded approach to defence planning.

While I see his point, I think he goes a bit too far with the argument. Domestic factors may have been the predominate consideration in defence planning since 2006, but they weren’t the only ones. When the PM decided that the CF would deploy on a training mission in Afghanistan after 2011, he was as concerned with Canada’s standing in NATO and with requests from the US as he was with how it would be play domestically. Similarly, while the government used domestic rationales to justify the purchase, the F-35 procurement is meant to give the CF the capability to take part in allied air operations overseas in the coming decades. Although I accept Nossal’s main point that the rhetoric the CPC uses to sell its defence policies is largely domestic in focus, I do not think that international strategic considerations were absent from defence policymaking. Quite the contrary.

That said, I also agree with Nossal that a majority government will give the CPC an opportunity to cast defence decisions in strategic, international terms. Time will tell if they seize that opportunity. 

With respect to the NDP, Nossal argues that the party must abandon its pacifistic, anti-American tendencies and embrace more moderate defence policies. The NDP’s election platform suggests that they are already moving in that direction. Their platform affirmed the importance of Canada’s NATO membership and role in NORAD, as Nossal recommends. The NDP also pledged to keep defence expenditures are their current level.

However, the platform further promised that an NDP government would end Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and make UN peacekeeping the CF’s core contribution to international peace and security. Nossal is not fond of these ideas. He states that the NDP will need to follow the Australian and UK Labour Parties in embracing a ‘serious’ approach to international military interventions alongside NATO allies. 

While I see what Nossal is saying and understand where he’s coming from, I would add a note of caution. Specifically, I worry that Nossal is basically telling the NDP to mimic the LPC’s defence and international security policies. I’m not sure that the NDP should follow that advice. Above all, it would bring us back to the bipartisan consensus on defence matters that has stifled debates and discussions about military issues since Paul Martin became PM. Second, it would alienate the NDP’s base and could weaken the party in Quebec. And third, it would perpetuate the view that there is only one right way to think about defence in Canada. Those who believe this often use terms like ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ to shame and belittle those don’t think ‘properly’ about Canada’s national defence. I find this patronizing and unhelpful. Many Canadians share the NDP’s fondness for UN peacekeeping and aversion to combat operations. They deserve a voice in Parliament, too, and their views should be part of the Canadian defence debate. It is precisely when they are publicly debated and represented in the Commons, in fact, that the logic and appeal of these ideas can be properly scrutinized. If Canadians find these proposals wanting, they can return to the Liberals or support the Conservatives, just as Nossal predicts will happen. In the meantime, though, those with pacifist leanings will have been given their chance to make their case, which is good for our democracy. 

In sum, my sense is that Nossal would like national defence matters to rise above petty partisan politics. He shares this point of view with many in the Canadian foreign and defence community. I remain skeptical, though. Keeping defence a partisan issue is essential for a heathy defence debate, robust accountability, and democratic deliberations. Reasons of state and national interests will inevitably be paramount in defence decision-making, no matter which party forms the government. But defence decisions will also be informed by ideological leanings and a desire to meet the expectations of the Canadian public. To my mind, that’s how it is and should remain.

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