Charting a New Course in Foreign and Defence Policy
By David Pratt
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very pleased to be with you today to share a few thoughts on the subject of foreign and defence policy and procurement. I would also like to thank the organizers – the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, the University of Calgary and the School of Public Policy for inviting me.
Since we are also talking about procurement, I must declare an interest up front. My company David Pratt & Associates helps companies in the defence industry market to government. In the five years I have been in business, I have or am currently representing companies interested in selling a range of products – from armoured vehicles and ships to engineering equipment and cybersecurity.
However, I must also add that the opinions I am about to convey are opinions I have held for a good many years before I became a lobbyist consultant.
On October 19, as some of you may recall, Canadians elected a new Government, which I can assure you I voted for. With this new Government, I believe there is more of a desire to encourage and foster debate and to attack problems with evidence based decision making and a desire to produce good public policy and not just good politics.
It seems to me we have this glorious window of opportunity, this breath of fresh air, where the new government is focused on implementing their platform, but are open to new ideas and approaches to address defence policy and procurement issues.
Many governments are far too pre-occupied with the next election to have anything that resembles a long term view of the national interest and where the country needs to be in ten or twenty years or beyond. Previous governments have all been guilty of this. And if there is one lesson that I hope will be absorbed from the morality tale that played out over the last four years, it is that that type of thinking does not necessarily guarantee you good political results.
There is no doubt that the “vision thing,” as President George Herbert Walker Bush described it, is harder to achieve in the 24 hour news cycle world that we live in. But if politicians want to truly lead, then they will need to integrate and balance their short term political goals with a longer term strategic vision that produces a coherent plan on a number of fronts for the way ahead. Easy to say, but obviously a lot harder to do. But if politics is the art of the possible, it is time for policymakers to vigorously push on the boundaries of what is possible.
So let me get right into the topic at hand – defence policy and procurement and the three points that I would like to leave with you.
The first is the need for a substantive foreign, defence and aid policy review with significant parliamentary and public input that is part of a regular process.
The second is a long term funding commitment by the government to support its diplomacy, defence and development policies.
The third and final issue is the need for a single point of ministerial accountability in defence procurement as well as a cabinet approved procurement plan.
On the first point, within the Liberal platform was the following election commitment. It states: “The Canada First Defence Strategy is underfunded and out of date. We will immediately begin an open and transparent review process to create a new Defence White Paper that will replace Harper’s failed Canada First Defence Strategy.”
Now comes the sticky part. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that defence policy simply cannot be divorced from foreign policy or even, for that matter, aid policy. All are tools of statecraft to be used interdependently to support the interests, values and obligations of a country, like Canada, which depends heavily on the international system for its prosperity and security.
It has also been my view that defence, diplomacy and development must also been underpinned by a broader strategic view – for lack of a better term – a grand strategy that will allow a country to not just to survive, but to thrive for generations to come. There are many components to this: foreign, defence and aid policies are definitely part of it, but so are policies related to industry, science and innovation, trade, tax, immigration and refugees and social policy – to name just a few. Private companies have long term strategic plans, so why shouldn’t countries.
In an excellent piece that appeared last week arguing for a foreign policy review, my friend Colin Robertson quoted Lester Pearson saying that it was better to do foreign policy than to review it. But, he noted, even Pearson and I quote “recognized the dangers of complacency and acknowledged that foreign policy is too often reactive, rather than creative.” Trudeau, the elder, seemed to have ignored Pearson’s advice when his government produced a review called “Foreign Policy for Canadians” in 1970.
Today, we might observe that Pierre Trudeau possibly felt the need for a “differentiator” to establish that the Trudeau foreign policies (here I think of China) would offer some change in substance and tone from those of his predecessor. Trudeau, the younger, might wish to ruminate on this. I would suggest that the need for his government to distance itself from some of the previous government’s policies is significantly more acute than those which existed in 1970.
Our most important bilateral relationship is obviously with the United States and the early vibes between Obama and Trudeau appear positive. However, it seemed the longer the Harper Government was in power, (and here I’m thinking mostly of pipelines) the less cordial the relationship became.
When we consider how much the Harper Government deviated from the more traditional foreign policies that marked previous Liberal and Conservative Government’s, I think we can expect some significant changes. For example, the Harper Government’s approach to the Middle East, on China (initially), its attitude toward the UN, its neglect of Africa (with the exception of the initiative on maternal health), its belligerent tendencies when dealing with Russia and Iran; these are all areas where I think (thankfully) we can expect change.
Teddy Roosevelt’s famous statement that one should “speak softly and carry a big stick” seems to have been lost on the previous government which thought that doing the opposite would somehow be effective. And when foreign policy becomes, as it did during the Harper years, largely an extension of domestic politics, the currency of diplomacy is debased and Canada’s stature in the world is undercut.
It is perfectly natural then that this new government should want to put its own stamp on foreign and defence policy – the need for differentiators is important. But it is also important that the pendulum not swing too far in the opposite direction. In fact, the basics of Canadian defence policy have not changed significantly since the end of the Second World War. Our defence policy has rested on key three pillars: the defence of Canada, the defence of North American alongside the United States, and contributions to international peace and security. But the devil of foreign and defence policy is always in the details – and there are many.
The decision to end the bombing mission in Iraq and Syria is definitely a differentiator. And if the government was deciding to abandon the fight with ISIS or Daesh that would be a tectonic shift in policy. But that’s not the case. Personally, I don’t think it is earth shaking for the Trudeau Government to pull out of the bombing mission when we were flying such a small percentage of the sorties. And I’m encouraged by the statements that the government continues to be four-square with the allies on the need to eliminate Daesh.
If Mr. Trudeau is looking for a differentiator, one of the options that the new Government might consider is taking the fight to Daesh outside of the Iraq/Syria region. All indications are that it is metastasizing into a global terrorist actor with the wide ambitions. It is already active in parts of the Sinai, in Yemen and Libya. Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Daesh and there are groups in Afghanistan and some of the Al-Shebaab in Somalia who have strong connections with organization. The objective of Daesh certainly appears to be to strengthen the various connections between all these groups, assume the mantle of leadership, and expand from the Atlantic coast of Africa to south East Asia.
In this regard, Canada could join France in support of the security measures being taken by the G5 Sahel member states in the region – that is Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Chad. Such military action would be in support of regional players and the UN stabilization mission in Mali. The clear objective would be to prevent Daesh expansion. Joining this effort would definitely demonstrate a new and perhaps even more effective approach to the problem of fighting global terrorism than dropping bombs in Syria and Iraq.
Canada could make a very valuable contribution in the region with logistical support, strategic airlift and perhaps some more trainers and Special Forces. It is worth mentioning as well that this would go some ways to addressing some of the foreign policy aims in the Liberal Platform which include doing more in French speaking Africa as well as in supporting UN peacekeeping missions.
On the need for parliamentary and public involvement in a regular policy review process, in my view, the Chretien Government’s 1994-95 Foreign Policy Review and Defence White Paper probably set the gold standard for process and timing for policy reviews. The special joint committees of the Senate and House of Commons which studied foreign policy and defence along with a National Forum on Canada’s International Relations ensured a high degree of public input, coordination, cooperation and harmony. I very hope the Government adopts that as their model.
I can’t stress how important in my view this issue of public involvement is. If you are formulating a policy on behalf of Canadians to interact with the rest of the world, to periodically send our sons and daughters off to fight wars, to sell our goods abroad, to send our aid dollars to places most Canadians have barely heard of and will never visit, you better have their buy in. And if, you want to seek a broad political consensus among political parties, setting aside the hyper partisanship we have seen in recent years around foreign policy, then engaging in a national dialogue on these issues is pretty important.
As we did during the 1994-95 White Paper process, I would strongly recommend we go with two special joint committees. We should give them the resources they need to do the job – the staff seconded from government departments, the budgets to travel in Canada and abroad and the mandate to do what’s necessary to elicit the best testimony available.
What a great way to introduce and immerse this new crop of parliamentarians into foreign and defence policy. It might also allow our much beleaguered Senate to once again show Canadians the type of work it is capable of doing.
Since the Chretien White Paper, there have been three other major reviews: The Martin Government’s International Policy Statement, the Harper Government’s Global Commerce Strategy and of course the Canada First Defence Strategy. The latter promised large new investments in the military, but post Afghanistan the spending commitments largely evaporated due to the Government’s deficit reduction program. All were largely in house affairs with little or no public or parliamentary involvement.
So when we think of it, it has been 20 years since our last substantive foreign and defence policy review with wide parliamentary and public input. That is far too long in my view. At the very least, we should have major foreign policy reviews every ten years, with a defence policy review every five years. In the case of defence policy, this would be roughly similar to the practice of both our American and British allies where the US does its Quadrennial Defense Review and the Brits their Strategic Defence and Security Review.
Canada’s approach in contrast has been haphazard and ad hoc. And our governments have typically been allergic to defence reviews for the simple reason that they want little or no constraints on their freedom of action. That’s all well and good, but Canadian defence and security policy has suffered as a consequence. Our friends and allies deserve a measure of predictability from Canada in policy terms that comes from regular defence policy reviews.
My second point is rather simple and straightforward. It is the need for a long term funding commitment by the government to support its diplomacy, defence and development policies. One of the things we have heard from the new Government which I applaud is the phrase “Canada is back.” We have heard it uttered most recently on the issue of climate change but it has also been stated in relation to our foreign policy generally. Well, if Canada is indeed back, and I very much hope it is, then there will be a price to pay. As a G-7 member, to paraphrase and with apologies to my friend John Manley, we seem to spend most of the time in the John when it comes time to pay the bill.
Liberal and Conservative governments alike must plead guilty on all counts. Under Mr. Chretien’s watch, we hit 1.1% of GDP and under Mr. Harper’s watch, we hit an all-time low of 1.0 % of GDP. The fact is we have been free riders since the end of the Cold War and have been taking peace dividends when there were none to take. And our friends are taking notice. First slide.
This story appeared in the Economist during the election campaign. It referenced a recent study by the Canadian International Council and said “Canada’s self-image as a contributor to solving the world’s problems is out of date—by a couple of decades. Before 1995 governments of all hues pursued a generous foreign policy, even when Canada’s own finances were so rocky that this was hard to afford. Since then the country’s economy has improved but its external policy, reflected in defence and aid spending, has grown far meaner.”
The story quotes Megan McQuillan and Robert Greenhill of the CIC saying “Over the past 20 years, Canada has never contributed its fair share to international engagement”.
Second Slide. This is obviously not new information. However, what is somewhat new is the extent of international awareness that we are not paying our fair share. It’s not as though our allies haven’t noticed in the past. They have. The first time I met Donald Rumsfeld as Minister over ten years ago one of the first things he did was ask me about Canadian defence spending.
So what are we going to do about it? When I was Chair of the Defence Committee, we put out a report on the state of readiness of the Canadian Forces in November of 2001 that suggested that we raise our defence spending over three years to between 1.5 and 1.6% of GDP. I still believe that, with the support of Canadians through a comprehensive foreign and defence policy review, hitting a very modest target of let’s say 1.5% of GDP over a period of ten years is do-able. As you can see, my ambitions have waned with my advancing years. Third Slide.
Which takes me to my third point on defence procurement and the need for a single point of accountability as well as a cabinet approved procurement plan. This was one of the issues that was front and centre within the Liberal defence platform which rightly described procurement under the previous government as “paralyzed.” The Liberal promise was to “ensure that major projects avoid the bottlenecks that have plagued our Armed Forces under Stephen Harper.” Now I think this is another one of those things that is easier said than done. But I genuinely believe that a single point of accountability – one Minister in charge – is a step in the right direction.
As my former ADM Mat and friend Alan Williams has written: “The current structure is not a product of poor judgement or (poor) understanding by previous decision-makers. In fact, it was developed to enhance openness, fairness and transparency in defence procurement. But it is now outdated.” Williams in his book “Re-inventing Defence Procurement: A View from the Inside” argues this point persuasively. In a situation where you have two ministers accountable, you have no ministers accountable.
And so, it is important to take DND’s technical authority and PWGSC’s – now Public Services and Procurement’s contracting authority and its contract signing authority and merge these functions. These are ideas which have been around for some time. The Defence Committee’s study of procurement in 2000 recommended that the government study the procurement practices of NATO and allied countries and review the possibility of bringing defence procurement under one roof in DND. The government on the advice of the bureaucrats unfortunately rejected the recommendation and didn’t even bother to study the option. My predecessor as MND John McCallum tried to revive the idea, but was once again stymied by officials at PWGSC.
It stands to reason that trying to get a decision out of one Minister is much easier than having to get separate decisions from two or three. And the same applies to the approvals necessary from Treasury Board which could be brought together saving time and energy. And it may sound simplistic, but even having all the procurement officials in one building would accelerate the process since meetings are easier and don’t involve cab rides around the city.
I have heard this from a number of people who have been close to the procurement process. So, my advice would be to bring them all together – the technical authority – the contracting authority – and perhaps even those responsible for the Industrial and Technological benefits – and place them under the authority of the Deputy Minister reporting to the MND.
In terms of a cabinet approved procurement plan, I believe this is important to bring some order to what is now an unpredictable and costly process. A couple of years ago, DND launched the Defence Acquisition Guide. In an earlier life, it was called the Defence Capabilities Plan and in my time it was referred to as the Strategic Capabilities Investment Plan or SCIP.
None of these plans or guides were Cabinet approved. They were all subject to change without notice. The defence industry is reluctant to commit its time and resources to upcoming programs when there is no predictability and stability in the plan.
There have been many procurement failures in this country and I’m not about to list them all, but one of the most egregious in my view was the Close Combat Vehicle program where companies spent tens of millions of dollars in engineering costs, shipping, destructive testing, responding to RFPs and marketing their products only to have the competition cancelled a few days before bid expiry.
A long-term plan that is Cabinet approved and that clearly identifies requirements, priorities, timelines and notional budgets will address these concerns and facilitate timely and productive investments by industry.
Finally, perhaps the biggest beneficiary from such a plan is the Canadian military. You can probably imagine how discouraging and disheartening it is when needed capital programs are bumped down the priority list to make way for purely political commitments, commitments that eat away at the military’s limited capital budget. There will be times where, for urgent operational reasons, as we saw with the recent contract for an interim oiler with Davie, there will be a need to deviate from the plan. But this should very much be the exception.
In closing let me simply say that when our friends and allies tell us “the world needs more Canada,” it is both a compliment and a criticism. They would like to see more Canadian diplomats, soldiers and aid workers as part of our contribution to international peace and security. The figures on aid and defence spending as a percentage of GDP don’t lie. We absolutely must do more.
But decisions on what we do in the world are properly the domain of our elected representatives in Parliament. I very much hope that they will get engaged and lead a public dialogue on these important questions. We are a rich nation and we are a creative nation. Some additional money and a dose of creativity are definitely what is needed as we set our course for the years ahead.