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Canada, Getting It Right This Time the 1994 Defence White Paper

Authored by Dr. Joel J. Sokolsky. | May 1995

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A cynic might claim that Canada should have no difficulties adjusting to ?strategy during the lean years.? In the first place, the Ottawa government has never had to worry about formulating its own national security strategy. Since confederation in 1867, in war and peace it simply adopted the strategy of its allies. And in the second, with the exception of the world wars and the early years of the Cold War, the Canadian Forces (CF)1 have known little else but lean times. Indeed, it has been charged that Canada began collecting its ?peace dividend? the first time the Cold War ended, during the detente of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the last 20 years it has spent only 2 per cent of Gross National Product (GDP) on defense. The so-called ?commitment-capability gap? has plagued the CF into the 1980s, while heightened peacekeeping duties have continued to place a strain on resources in the first 5 years of the post-Cold War era.

The latest White Paper on defense, released in December 1994, seeks to chart a course that will allow Canada to better cope with the transformed international security environment that it faces abroad and the stark fiscal realities that it faces at home.2 These realities were brought home by the Federal budget reductions in February 1995. Here, too, the past practice may foster a measure of scepticism. The three previous White Papers, and the budgets to fund them, proved to be poor predictors of both global and domestic trends. Their policy prescriptions seemed to be more appropriate to the situations which preceded their release rather than those which followed. As a result, they had extremely short lives as guides to subsequent defense policy and force posture decisions.

It is argued here that this time, the White Paper seems to have gotten it right. It contains a reasoned and realistic assessment of global trends and, more importantly, of what domestic politics will allow. While not articulating a ?strategy? in the classic understanding of the term, theWhite Paper does provide an approach to the role of defense policy in support of overall Canadian foreign objectives which more closely matches commitments with capabilities. This is not, however, because the CF are to be given the capabilities they have so long been denied, but rather because the current policy adopts a leaner view of what Canada?s commitments should be.


As defense analyst Douglas Bland has observed, the new policy moves away from a ?strategy of commitments? toward one of ?strategy of choice derived from Canada?s national interests.? The 1994 White Paper thus prepares ?the way for a national strategy and armed forces structure more appropriate to the new security environment.? It is a document about ?choice and change.?76

The 1994 Canadian White Paper is indeed about change and choice. Ottawa has changed defense policy from its Cold War orientation. But it has also chosen to sustain its traditional alliance ties that have marked Canadian defense policy since 1945. But here, too, there is change. Thus, for the first time in two generations, NATO will no longer be the focal point, in either word or deed, of defense policy. But it is also the result of fiscal realities. The government evidently believes that membership in NORAD and NATO, and any new military ties it forges, will be inexpensive. It will afford Canada the ability to maintain close defense relations with the world?s most powerful nation and an array of medium powers at acceptable (and indeed declining) levels of expenditure.

As with previous White Papers, the 1994 document very much reflects the global trends that preceded its writing. Not surprisingly, then, peacekeeping constitutes an important part of the new policy. Here, it may be argued that this White Paper will suffer the same fate of its predecessors in that its proposal will be more appropriate to the immediate past than the future. This is because the rising tide of peacekeeping in the post-Cold War era may well have peaked. But, the White Paper acknowledges the problems of contemporary peacekeeping. It does not put its emphasis upon this role exclusively, but rather in maintaining a general commitment to multilateral approaches to security. To be sure, there is a certain hollowness to the White Paper?s claims for global combat capability. And the new links, which the government indicates it wishes to establish with regional powers, carry little implication of solid security commitments. Nevertheless, the proposed posture is about as much as the Canadian forces, and Canada?s allies, could expect.

The 1994 Canadian White Paper on defense gets it right this time. But this is not so much because it offers an impeccably reasoned and clairvoyant national security strategy. But, rather because it is largely consistent with overall foreign policy objectives, what the public purse is capable of paying for and what the Canadian people are likely to support. As such, it responds to the challenge of a more secure, yet unpredictable security situation abroad and the more precarious, yet inescapably certain realities at home.

In an ironic sense, Canada may well find that it can finally put its particular, if not always successful, experience in setting national strategy in lean times to good use.


1. In 1968 the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Army were ?unified? into a single service, with a single rank structure and even uniform. Initially divided along ?environmental? and functional lines, eventually Maritime Command, Air Command and Land Forces Command came to replace the older services. Since the 1980s, more frequent mention has been made to the Navy, Air Force, and Army and the distinctive uniforms returned.

2. Canada Department of National Defence, (DND) 1994 Defence White Paper, Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1994 (hereafter, 1994 White Paper).

76. Douglas Bland, ?New Direction for Defence,? The Ottawa Citizen, December 5, 1994, p. A9.