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Thinking About Strategic Posture Options: Dutch lessons for Canada?

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CDA Institute guest contributor Srdjan Vucetic, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, looks at what lessons Canada could learn from the Netherlands as it proceeds with its defence policy review.

The Trudeau government’s maiden budget pledged important new commitments, but defence spending was not one of them. One could argue that this is only logical: money should not be spent before the defence review is completed and Canada’s priorities in this policy area are set.

At the moment, the government is getting ready to kick-​start the defence review public consultation process that will give Canadians an opportunity to have their say on what they think are the major threats, risks, and challenges to Canada’s security, the appropriate roles of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the types of capabilities these roles require, and so on. If done well, the process will help everyone—that is, military personnel, the defence industry, the academic and think tank communities, and the general public—understand what is at stake. The last real defence policy consultation took place in 1994, which is also the year of Canada’s last Defence White Paper. Since then, the world has greatly changed, and the new Defence White Paper will in no small part be judged by the way it takes these changes into account.

Some continuities must be taken into account as well. The outstanding case in point is the persistent underfunding of the Canadian military. Phrases like “limited budget” and “narrow budgetary scope” tend to irk people in the CAF, but they reflect Canadian preferences today. Indeed, while many expect future budgets to be more generous to the Department of National Defence (DND) than Budget 2016, no one envisions Ottawa suddenly committing 2 percent of national income to defence. These preferences are not uniquely Canadian by the way. Within NATO, 2 percent may be a formal requirement for membership, but today only five of its 28 members meet it. The justification is always the same: size of defence budget counts less than what one does with it. One could argue that this is only logical, too.

The challenge of the defence review consultation process will be to bring these two conversations together: the abstract one about the nation’s place in the changing world and the practical one about the likely allocation of funds. For clues on how this can be done most effectively, Canadians might wish to consider the experiences of their NATO allies. A good model comes from the Netherlands. In 2013, the Hague-​based Clingendael, a.k.a. the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, provoked a nationwide debate on defence policy by releasing an imaginative think piece on the “future of the armed forces of the Netherlands.”

The report, which the think tank made available in English as well, was written on the basis of three sets of assumptions. The first one was to treat budgetary constraints as a given. At the time when this report was written, the Dutch government had not only cut defence spending, but also publicly acknowledged that maintaining near-​full spectrum capabilities of all three armed services – the army, the navy and the air force – was no longer possible.

The report’s second working assumption was that the Netherlands would continue to maximize its comparative advantages within the collective security architecture in the transatlantic region and work closely with its friends and allies in NATO and the EU. The assumption was not heroic in light of the enduring consensus on what the Dutch armed forces are for: to defend the nation (territory, people, economy, infrastructure, etc.) and its allies; to contribute to the rules-​based international order; and to support civil authorities, if and when needed.

The third assumption was that countries have multiple interests, not one. According to Clingendael, in 2013 the Netherlands had four key interests: (1) influence in the international community; (2) preservation of prosperity and economic development; (3) enhancing security and stability; and (4) promoting human rights. Although mutually inclusive, these interests imply very different types of the armed forces:

  1. An “influential” Netherlands implied an “air-​based intervention force”;
  2. A “trading” Netherlands prioritized a strong “maritime force”;
  3. A “global stability” contributor called for a force capable of conducting “small but robust” overseas expeditions; and
  4. A “human rights” promoter suggested investment in a military force capable of carrying out disaster relief operations and engaging in post-​conflict state– and society-​building.

By all accounts, the report succeeded in getting the government, the media, and the public to think harder about various trade-​offs that arise in deciding what the main threats and risks are for the Netherlands, as well as determining which operational capabilities to prioritize in light of the available resources. Clingendael’s conclusion was that the sharp edges of these trade-​offs would be blunted most effectively with Option 3, a.k.a., “robust stabilisation force.” The most controversial part was the argument that the acquisition of the new F-​35 fighter jet served fewer national interests than investment in other operational capabilities (The Dutch government ended up ignoring this particular recommendation.)

Dutch and Canadian defence debates are obviously very different, but, as Mark Collins at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute pointed out three years ago, parallels exist. Clingendael’s working assumptions travel well. For one thing, much like their Dutch counterparts, the CAF are under-​funded and coalition-​oriented. For another thing, Canada’s core interests, too, are multiple, ranging from international influence-​seeking to peacekeeping. The fact that these interests, taken together, imply a continuing commitment to a multiservice defence force that can combine homeland defence with multilateral coalition operations overseas, does not negate trade-​offs. Some of Canada’s interests are best served with large troop numbers in the army, others with sound naval capabilities, and still others with an air force capable of carrying out day one bombing missions. The Clingendael report offers one method for thinking more creatively about strategic posture options. For this reason alone, participants in the Canadian defence review and its public consultation process would to do well to read and learn from it.

Dr. Srdjan Vucetic is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. (Image courtesy of the Firearmblog.)

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