PRISONERS OF THE PAST? A Conversation about History and Policy

TIM Sayle:

Well, folks, here we go. I’ve looked at a contemporary (or future) policy problem and tried to draw on some lessons from the past to inform my thinking and recommendation. I’m talking about my National Post op-ed, “Canada’s new NATO role should be defending North America.” I noted that I think NATO is going to get stronger in Europe, and that Canada should take this opportunity to pick a defence policy focused on defending North America. Canada remains a fully committed NATO ally. My reasoning here is drawn from my work in the archives, and especially from a chapter I’ve written for a book that will be edited by Asa McKercher and Michael Stevenson.

The story I tell in my chapter is one of an (ultimately failed) Study of National Security Policy by the External Affairs, National Defence, and Privy Council Office in the mid-1950s. As the Canadian officials debated just what Canadian national security policy should be, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff made clear he regretted the continued deployment of Canadian troops to Europe. The decision to send troops was made in 1951, but they had become less important militarily by 1954 and 1955. It was expensive and split defence efforts. But External Affairs prevailed, arguing that the Canadian forces should stay in Europe. Otherwise the departure of the Canadian troops would undercut faith in NATO and have political consequences for the Cold War. Canadian defence policy, sighed Clerk of the Privy Council Robert Bryce, is “a prisoner of the past.

My position is both optimistic and pessimistic. It is optimistic in that I believe that the European allies in NATO will be strengthening their defences. NATO is going to get stronger. That strength gives Canada an opportunity to carefully weigh its choice. We should avoid getting pulled back into ad hoc deployments in Europe merely to wave the flag. We should ensure that all of our defensive capabilities are built to defend North America. Pessimistically, I think we are going to need these defensive capabilities in North America, to protect Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic and to serve as a guarantee that Canada has a strong voice in continental defence decisions (especially when speaking with our much larger continental defence partner).

I know all of us have thought and taught about the role of history in policymaking. I am hoping we can have a discussion about it here. What do you think of this notion that Canada’s Cold War policies, while part of a successful effort, should not necessarily be repeated? Does your understanding of Canadian history suggest a different reading and a different recommendation? What do you see as the main challenges of directly linking history with the present and the future? In what other ways am I wrong?

SUSIE Colbourn:

All of the old arguments that External Affairs made decades ago are still there, more or less unchanged. Sure, Canada’s military posture and deployments in Europe look very different these days than they did during the Cold War, but the basic, well-worn argument remains the same: Canadian contributions to NATO are a way to demonstrate Ottawa’s commitment to European security and to the bonds of alliance in ways that redound to Canada’s political benefit and ensure the security of Canadians and their allies.

Personally, I think there’s much truth to this argument, even today. But successive governments haven’t always been the best at spelling out why being in Europe matters for Canadian interests.

In part, this is a product of a chronic reluctance to define and openly discuss the idea that Canada has any national interests. And so, Canadian officials have historically resorted to justifications that centre the country’s reputation as a good ally which pulls its weight. (Any cursory glance at Canadian defence spending versus the NATO targets over the past few decades might put a dent in this line of argumentation. In 2021, Canada’s spending beat out Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium, and Slovenia, coming in at just 1.39 percent of GDP.)

I’m happy to put my cards on the table: I don’t share Tim’s policy prescription that Canadian efforts going forward should – or, for that matter, could – focus on the defence of North America. Familiar political considerations, including a desire to build up and sustain ties that counterbalance the (numerous) links with the United States, will likely push some policymakers to pursue a Canadian role in Europe with a strong emphasis on showing the flag. Any contributions the government of Canada pursues, whether an extension of the current enhanced forward presence or an expanded role as NATO’s posture adapts to the new realities of Russia’s war against Ukraine, need a serious justification with actual strategic thinking behind it. In other words, what can Canada do that Ottawa’s allies can’t do without Canadian contributions? Why does a Canadian presence matter? If, as is so often the case, the argument boils down to having a seat at the table, then what does the government of the day want to do with that seat?

Here’s where I do agree with Tim. It’s long past time for a serious Canadian conversation about strategy, and the historical record shows that all too often, generations of Canadians in and out of government have sidestepped these conversations, instead opting to muddle through and cobble together policies that didn’t exactly align means with ends.

JOHN Keess:

I don’t think we are prisoners of the past. I think Canadian decision-makers today share a prison with the political and military leaders of previous generations: a prison formed by geographic, demographic, and economic factors. The walls of this prison are formed by three paradoxes:

First, because Canada is dwarfed by the United States in North America, but is so far from allies in Europe and Asia, there will never be a “natural” shape for Canada’s military forces to take.

Second, Canada is big enough to matter economically and diplomatically but not big enough to be decisive.

Third, Canada has no long-term interests in the Global South significant enough to engender a continued commitment of military effort to any one area, but, historically, Canadians have rejected isolationism.

These paradoxes are surprisingly resilient. In 1940, C.P. Stacey, the father of academic military history in Canada published The Military Problems of Canada. His 80-year old analysis still stands out for its clarity:

Canada’s military problems are not, in the nature of things, concerned exclusively with the Dominion’s own territory . . . .the initial task of a student approaching these problems is to familiarize himself with the military geography of Canada – its relation, both geographical and political to other countries, both geographical and political, to other countries, and the extent to which nature, modified by the works of man, has made the defence easier or harder.

Such a student finds that the problem is dominated by three great topographical facts, two natural, one created by man: two oceans and a long land boundary.

Paradoxes are both resilient and limiting, so I think our strategy should be driven by our limitations, not our ambitions.

Let’s start at home. There is no way we will ever be anything other than a very junior partner in continental defence. This isn’t a matter of policy, it’s a matter of our industrial capability relative to that of the United States.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Canadian military spending varied from a peak of 7.4% of GDP in 1953 to a “low” of 4.0% in 1962. Amid all this spending, the most important task was continental defence – the RCAF was the biggest service in terms of both budget and personnel, and Air Defence Command was the biggest component of the RCAF. Even then, Canadians had no hope of leading in this field.

The most visible limit of Canadian industrial capability was the failure of the CF-105 Arrow interceptor programme. As I noted in my National Post op-ed, maintaining even this “national” programme would have been impossible without significant American technical assistance.

Given that Canadians have been nursing Arrow mythology of Canadian technical supremacy and American skulduggery for sixty years, I expected at least one angry, ahistorical comment – and I received one too! Let’s, for the sake of argument, indulge the romantics and assume that Diefenbaker was brave stupid enough to find the money for the project by scrapping the navy. Arrow squadrons would have still been reliant on American weapons, American avionics, and radar detection belts in Canadian territory mostly manned by American personnel, feeding into American computer systems, and defending the American deterrent. Nothing about the Canadian effort would have given Ottawa any voice whatever in decisions about the shape or use of that deterrent.

That demographic and industrial balance has grown even larger – protecting the deterrent now means ballistic missile defence and space-based surveillance, and the United States is the unquestioned world leader in space industries. From an American point of view, Canada is a country with a population smaller than that of California and a GDP roughly the size of Texas.

There are also political problems. Historically, both the Americans and the Europeans have seen the defence of the deterrent and the defence of Europe as separate problems. Canadian representatives tried, and failed, to fold NORAD into NATO when they negotiated the original agreement in 1957-58. Because NORAD protected and fed information to their own nuclear retaliatory forces, the Americans were keen to have as few voices as possible at the continental defence table. I don’t think they’d see it any differently now. This is fine with European members of NATO – when Pierre Trudeau tried to get European assistance for North American defence, or at least a European acknowledgement that Canadian efforts at home benefitted them, they ignored him.

When it comes to Arctic sovereignty, I think we should focus more on building sovereignty than securing it. There is zero chance that anyone will mount a conventional invasion of the Arctic – any force big enough to occupy the Arctic would be rendered unsustainable by the conditions there.

 Any military presence in the Arctic should thus be constabulary in nature – the Canadian Ranger organisation is a good example of how to do this well. On a related note, the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) programme has been criticised for producing ships with only light armament, but realistically, does anyone think a Canadian vessel is going to sink a Chinese – or American – oil tanker going through the North-West Passage? The AOPS are there to ensure a Canadian presence and maintain de facto acknowledgement of Canadian sovereignty with maximum efficiency, and they do this job very well.

If we want to build on the Rangers and AOPS, the best way is probably through expanded search-and-rescue (SAR) capabilities. If you get into trouble while travelling through disputed waters, and the first person you call is a Canadian – well, you’re making a pretty good argument that the waters are under effective Canadian jurisdiction.


My first thought was how “Defend North America” rolls off the tongue almost as smoothly as “Buy North America.” Now Tim doesn’t use this slogan of course, and these conversations are happening in different spaces, but I can’t help but think they are related.

In a historical sense, Article II of the NATO Charter in 1949 was dubbed the “Canadian Article,” because Canada worked so hard to have an economic clause included that pushed the alliance beyond military matters. If you need help reading between the lines here, that’s because Canada could not compete with the military might of other members, but had a better chance of being on the same level in terms of cultural or economic cooperation.

Canada is continuing to figure out its path of economic cooperation with our southern neighbour and we’re somewhere between “the worst deal in American history” and a destination advertising “Buy American.” (Whether we’re moving along this path in an electric vehicle made using Canadian critical minerals is another story.) It is true that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did need updating for the Internet-era, and with President Donald Trump’s pressure, the modernized United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement was signed. After this mile marker, many simply wished protectionism would take a back seat with President Joe Biden’s election. It’s hard to keep any such optimism when you consider his recent March 2022 State of the Union where he said “Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America” to cheers of U-S-A, U-S-A. At this point the best retort the Canadians have come up with is “Buy North American,” a phrase ushered by business execs to Canada’s ambassador in D.C. to Ontario Premier Doug Ford in his March trip to Washington. Canada has not secured exemptions to these measures, and the last crisis over electric vehicles had Canada’s Deputy Minister Chrystia Freeland say it was the most important issue in the bilateral relationship.

But Donald Trump threatened more than just NAFTA. Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his memoirs he had to convince Trump not to quit NATO in the middle of a 2018 summit. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican Party, and if he’s re-elected – and of course no one knows if he would actually do it, but – America leaving NATO is at least a possibility. And there is value in working out worst case scenarios, even if they are not the likely outcome. Before actual war in Europe caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the popular war to talk about was a civil one, a civil war in America, to be exact. Tim’s piece is focused on defending North America with the United States. But what about defending Canada in NATO without the United States? Or defending Canada in NATO with an ongoing European war and an American civil war?

As Tim has argued, “Even small roles in Europe can be costly and distracting.” Refocusing Canada’s NATO role in North America seems in many ways exactly what alliances are meant to do. Before World War I the Anglo-Japanese alliance was to free up the British in the Pacific to allow the royal fleet to concentrate around the European continent instead, right?    

The other thing Tim’s piece made me question is whether this would be a reversal of the military policy I have known in my lifetime: interoperability. Canada couldn’t be all things to all people, and we couldn’t have a mini U.S. army, so instead we would have smaller pieces that could fit in to where the United States needed us to be. My reading of Tim’s argument would be a reversal of this. Of building our own total capacity. I’d like to know more about this.

And to that end I’m reminded of the words of Adam Chapnick on the 75th anniversary of Canada’s functional principle from World War II:

“The Canadians were convinced that the logic of their arguments would lead to global influence. They failed to anticipate that the great powers might privilege their own national interests over those of the international community, or that allies like the United States and the United Kingdom might use their clear military superiority as leverage in negotiations focused on the non-lethal elements of international organization.”

Canadian foreign policy is an ever-changing balance of interest and capacity. Let’s tie in the road metaphor I started earlier. Canada reached a fork in the road in World War Two, one that led Canadians towards the Americans economically and militarily, for better or worse depending on which historians you ask. Even critics then realized the decision had been made and there was no going back. But infrastructure, even of the metaphorical kind, needs maintenance and planning.

If Canadian politicians really mean what they say about our integrated economies and looking at North America as a whole in the trade sphere, then shouldn’t this also apply to defense? For example, if Canada committed the full 2% of GDP to defense, could Canada get an exemption from Buy America? Canadians can logically talk about how tariffs hurt U.S. consumers, but so far that has not been enough. If we are going to talk about North America as one in trade, it makes sense to start talking about it in defense too. “Buy And Defend North America” is a bit too on the nose, but you get the point.

To be very clear, I do not hope for a transactional Canadian foreign policy, but I think it’s what we’re left with until we can answer the more existential question Susie posed: “what can Canada do that Ottawa’s allies can’t do without Canadian contributions?”    

DAVID Webster:

I probably should not even be here. I am not a historian of NATO, of defence, or of Europe. But I do have some background on Canada and the world, and I often feel like NATO, ostensibly a project with a defined geographical limit, actually is a global actor. I’ll agree with Tim that Canada’s defence policy should concentrate on defending Canada. And if that’s the case, perhaps we should, like Donald Trump does but Tim definitely (despite the tweets) does not, ask fundamental questions about NATO membership as part of the conversation. If we do, we would be doing as Susie asks, and addressing the “chronic reluctance to define and openly discuss the idea that Canada has any national interests.”

If we should not be “prisoners of the past,” perhaps we should also avoid doing what Canadian policymakers all too often do, which is to ignore the past. That’s not to say we should simply do what we’ve always done, simply because it is what we’ve always done – policy as bureaucratic inertia. But the number of Canadians who assume we were forced to join NATO when we actually played a crucial role in NATO’s creation is remarkable. The number of Canadians who assume Canada has always been mostly a peacekeeper and negotiator is more remarkable still – it includes the current minister of foreign affairs, in fact. Or there’s the former foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, who called it “absurd” to say Canada had ever been a colonial power – when we all know Canada was an active participant in the British Empire. So I’d suggest that policy needs to be informed by a clear calculation of what Canada’s national interest actually is, and a clear and informed awareness of the past.

So on Tim’s opening question, I certainly think that Canada’s cold war policies should not be repeated. This is not the same world, despite some facile talk of a “new cold war.” Analogies of cold wars and Munichs are not helpful. They mislead more than help. Canada should respond to Ukraine with an underlying logic about territorial integrity, as the African Union member states on the UN Security Council did. That has not been the case. If we look at Ukraine and Yemen, Canada has (rightly) offered support to Ukraine. In Yemen, Canadian arms flow to Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East, Canada largely looks the other way when Israeli forces cross a border.

Even Ukraine lies outside NATO’s limited geographical scope. Yet again and again, and against Canada’s interests, NATO has been pulled outside its area. First France insisted that Algeria be included, and later Algerians were quite convinced they were fighting ‘the West’ and ‘NATO’ in Algeria. Canada, Britain and the United States armed Dutch forces in a colonial war in Indonesia. That was pre-NATO, but NATO loyalty saw the United States and Canada effectively endorse French rule in Vietnam, Portuguese rule in African territories, and so on. Formed for European defence and to keep the Americans involved in Europe, NATO became known in the majority of the world as a bastion of colonialism, and alienated billions. There may have been a “long peace” in Europe, but conflict was displaced South. Outside of NATO, for better or for worse, Canada would have had more space for manoeuvre. This holds true today.

In Europe, then, I would agree that the logic of a Canadian troop presence, which can only be small, is not as strong as the logic of a focus on home defence. Canada can be creative and engaged globally even if it has no troops in Europe, and instead supports the victims of military aggression on a case by case basis. Within or outside NATO, the capacity to support Ukraine is there.

And as Jennifer points out very well, there are security threats just across “the world’s longest undefended border” – not of an invasion, but as she asks, “what about defending Canada in NATO without the United States”? It’s a daunting challenge, but Canadians will have to conceive of the country not as (in the hackneyed words of Senator Dandurand) “a fire-proof house” but as a vulnerable place. Taiwanese or Timorese could teach us a lot about that. Indonesians could teach us a lot about balancing between an unpredictable America and an assertive China.

A focus on Canadian defence of Canada has implications. Terrorism can’t be addressed through traditional national security thinking, it needs a global policing response – which means work with India or Palestine is as important as work with Iceland or Poland. It means thinking, as historians like Whitney Lackenbauer have done, about Arctic defence as also an Indigenous land issue. It means climate change and relations with China are central to thinking about Arctic defence. Defence, after all, is always about a lot more than defence.

So bring on the debate. What we need is to break free not so much from the past, as from the “official mind” that has seen North Atlantic policymakers sing from the same sheet music for too long, with only ad-hoc responses seen as within the range of possibility.


First off, I agree fully with Susie that Canada gained influence in European capitals by sending troops to NATO during the Cold War, and receives those benefits today from continued deployments. No dispute there. My point, I guess, is that I think Canada would receive more benefits from focusing on North America, even at the cost of influence lost by not permanently garrisoning troops in Eastern Europe. Both approaches have costs and benefits. How we quantify and compare them is the difficult part. So how do we measure what is best? How do we avoid ad hoc, short-term policies that do have obvious and clear benefits, but that might detract from our ability to invest and engage in policies that might be better in the long run? (With temperatures shockingly high in the Arctic right now, the long run is not so long.) I agree that we could make the same case today for a Canadian garrison in Europe as we did in the Cold War; I think we’d get the same transactional returns from Europe. But the larger balance has changed so much – NATO Europe is strong; Russia does not pose the political and ideological threat of the Soviet Union – that the Cold War logic for sending troops to Europe has evaporated.

The point about slogans is an important one. In a time of crisis, we can see Canadians rallying to support defence. But what about when the crisis passes? I think the best way for building broad-based political support for a coherent and well-resourced defence policy is to focus on defending Canada. Not all Canadians will be excited about this, but I think it is an easier political ‘sell’ to more Canadians than the alternatives.


[Sighs deeply, and mutters something about Avro Arrow mythology.]


[Looks sternly at John while moving to obscure the Avro Arrow poster on the wall behind him.]

On interoperability and Canada going it alone on defence: I’m really not making an argument that Canada can or should emerge as an independent military-industrial power. Since we started this conversation, Canada has (nearly) bought F-35s. I expect that we will continue to buy equipment developed by (or in partnership with) allies. That is the only way forward, I think. Centring Canadian defence policy on North American defence and Canadian sovereignty will still very much require working with the United States and with other NATO allies in the North Atlantic and Arctic. I do not see an end to the pursuit of Canada’s ability to operate with partners and as part of an alliance – just a more judicious selection of the types of abilities and roles we require.

Since my op-ed was published, NATO’s secretary general has called for “substantially more forces in the eastern part of the alliance, at higher readiness, and with more prepositioned equipment.” Russia has also re-opened previously shuttered Arctic bases. We also know that as part of Moscow’s “special” state of nuclear alert, Russia sent nuclear submarines into the North Atlantic. I’m drawing out two starkly contrasting issues to make a point here – but where should Canada put its limited resources? Into platforms and programs that would enable Canada to protect its sovereignty at home, and that could also be useful in NATO’s broader deterrent role (which includes the Arctic)? Or into specific capabilities especially useful in defending against a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe, but of no immediate and obvious use to continental defence or the maintenance of sovereignty at home? Essentially, I’m not convinced that the idea Canada will always be a junior partner in North America is a strong enough argument that Canada should commit to being an even-less-junior partner in North America as well as a small contributor to the defence of Europe. But again, as Susie pointed out above, it all comes down to just what it is Canada is seeking to achieve with its limited defence outlays.

These are grim times, but how much grimmer when we imagine a war in Europe and an American civil war! Holy smokes, Jen! In a way this connects with the above point about slogans and getting Canadians on the same page about the primary purpose and focus of our defence establishment. I was struck by Michael Den Tandt and Wesley Wark’s argument in their op-ed, “How Canada can improve security if American democracy collapses.” Their sixth “key” point was the need to “reinforc[e] a sense of uniqueness of the Canadian political project, distinct from the United States.” The defence of North America will always be coordinated with the U.S. but it seems to me that a Canadian defence and foreign policy that centres Canada is an important pillar for maintaining the very idea of “Canada.”

David’s notion that the Government of Canada does not think about history or that policy flows from an official mind is provocative. In some ways I wish that was the case. While there has never been a firebreak between policy and politics, I’m more concerned that Canadian policy in recent decades has been cobbled together on an ad hoc basis and that calculations are primarily short-term and political rather than long-term and with at least some attention to geopolitical risks.I’m worried that the current crisis presents an obvious short term political opportunity to gain from committing more Canadian forces to Europe. But a careful review of the last time Canada did this would force us to recognize such a commitment is nearly impossible to undo, and it came with real opportunity costs. Any time we are “applying history,” we are looking back but also looking forward. And it is my assumption – and here is where I take off my historian hat to look to the future –  that those opportunity costs are going to be more severe this time around.


I think the Cold War provides us with some interesting examples around force design. It’s a devilish problem for Canadians, because any general-purpose force will be dwarfed by much bigger allies, but over-specialisation reduces flexibility. In the lead up to the 1964 Defence White Paper, defence planners made an exhaustive and good-faith attempt to design a “triphibious” force, mounted in some combination of light carriers and aircraft, that would be heavy enough to support NATO in Europe in an emergency but also mobile enough to conduct UN intervention missions on the Congo – ONUC model – that is, something closer to counter-insurgency and peace enforcement than traditional peacekeeping. They concluded that any force capable of doing both tasks well would be too expensive, but that any force devoted to one of these tasks wouldn’t make much political sense. If the triphibious force was there to support NATO, why not just keep it in Europe? If it was there to support an “independent” policy in the Global South, did it make sense maintaining ships reliant on a UN mandate when Canada did not have a permanent seat at the Security Council? If you’re interested in these force structures and reviews, I list some of the options on my blog and discuss them in the context of nuclear weapons here

Specialisation remains a tempting solution to this problem, but I think we should avoid it. We’re simply not big enough to specialise in enough areas, so we’d be rolling the dice on which capabilities might be useful down the road. Let’s say we had cut two of our three mechanised brigades five years ago and invested in building a really top-notch air-defence capability after the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. We used the savings to buy Patriot missile batteries, high-end radars, the works. We’d look pretty great now. But what if we had done it in 1984? It would have also made sense then, and we could have accompanied the decision with a lengthy, formal statement of interests, objectives and strategy. Documents aside, this specialist air defence capability would have been effectively useless in Rwanda ten years later and equally useless ten years after that in Afghanistan. Even in 2014, it would have limited our options, as we would have had very little to contribute in the fight against Da’esh.

It is far more difficult to build up new capabilities than is often realised, because you’re developing leaders as much as buying kit. Even in a “non-technical” trade like the infantry, a modern sergeant takes about ten years to produce. It’s true that defence is more than military force, however, our policy options are ultimately limited by our capabilities, and these capabilities have long lead times.

Ok John, you’re thinking, stop saying what we can’t do and start saying what we can.

Fair enough. The first step is accepting that any defence policy will be a bit messy – what the CAF needs is not a perfect solution right away, but good options that can be built up as necessary. This is where interoperability comes in. Imagine the CAF as an egg. In the yolk are “middling” capabilities – frigates, medium-lift helicopters, and medium-weight land forces. These forces can do pretty well in high-intensity combat, like that in Ukraine, so long as they link into specialist capabilities provided by other armies. They’re also pretty flexible – light enough to move quickly by air, robust enough to hold their own in a situation like the Balkans. They’d probably do reasonably well if a sudden emergency required a hasty deployment to the Asia-Pacific.

The white of the egg is strategic lift – aircraft and ships that can deploy these forces. We need much more of these. Currently, we have only five heavy-lift aircraft, and they’re pretty worn out. The National Shipbuilding Strategy only includes a couple of support ships. Besides giving us the flexibility to deploy the “yolk,” they are often a sought-after asset for UN missions.

The “shell” is a bunch of specialist capabilities, where we either focus down or leverage alliances. In the event of a change in strategic circumstances, the government can roll the part of the shell closest to the new challenge, then the yolk can float to that part of the shell. If need be, the CAF will have to re-equip as part of this move, but this is fine. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Special forces – Canada has well-known special forces. They’re excellent for jobs like the counter-Da’esh mission in Iraq. But they are by nature small and hard to expand, and because they’re small, they face high burnout rates. There are some jobs, like training local forces, that can be shared with conventional forces, as they did in Iraq – sort of. The conventional and special forces training teams actually operated under two chains of command. There are good reasons for this, but there are also serious equipment and cultural incompatibilities between conventional and special forces. We could do a much better job of training conventional forces to work with special forces, and vice-versa.

Submarines – Despite the ribbing the Canadian submarine community gets, the sub fleet does excellent work that only submarines can do. Submarines, however, are extremely expensive and technically fussy.  Even if we don’t go in for nuclear subs, the AUKUS deal is a model worth looking at – by building a common fleet, the Australians get to share maintenance facilities with two much larger fleets, and will likely build joint training facilities as well.

Tanks – Tanks are excellent to have on a high-intensity battlefield, but they’re hard to move and need lots of specialist maintenance. They also need lots of specialist training  – once we lose this capability, it would be hard to bring it back. The Dutch and Germans have a joint Leopard 2 tank battalion. Why should we not do the same, and set up a joint Canadian-American unit or Canadian-British unit in Europe, where the tanks are most valued? If need be, we could use this base to expand the capability when we needed it.


[Interrupts with a groan of deep sadness and despair.]


[Continues, unphased.]

Ground-based air defence – ground-based air defence is highly technical. What if we paid for Canadians to take up liaison roles with US Patriot missile batteries in Poland? If we ever wanted to establish a more robust air defence capability, we’d have a trained body of experts

Hew Strachan argues that “strategy” is a process people do rather than a clean, standalone concept, and I’m inclined to agree with him. If we look back on the Cold War, for example, even crisp-sounding terms like “flexible response” ended up with multiple definitions, many of them incompatible. Let’s keep it grounded and start with a look at what we can and can’t do, then work up from there.


A detailed force posture is all well and good, except … we also need something more than that. We need a political strategy, a sense of what Canada can (and can’t) do well in the world, and a real conversation about what Canada’s interests are. And, to this, I’d – predictably – add another item: a knowledge of Canada’s past, of how earlier Canadian governments both Liberal and Conservative have engaged the world around them, what’s worked and what hasn’t. A real, nuanced knowledge, not the old slogans and comforting mythologized stories.

David and Jennifer have both come at this from different angles, but I’ll pull the two strands together. Slogans have tended to trump nuance. We cling stubbornly to a set of seemingly undying myths about Canada’s place in the world. Canadians are inherently peacekeepers, we’re told. Just last week, we had another round of hand-wringing courtesy of the CBC about how the war in Ukraine “could force Canada to shed its self-image as a peacekeeper.”


The suggestion is almost laughable if you think about the historical record. The history of peacekeeping alone has already dealt blow after blow to this notion. The 1990s, for instance, were a string of episodes that dented and damaged the idea of peacekeeping “Canadian-style.” And, you’d think that the war Canadian forces fought in Afghanistan might have also made people reconsider their knee jerk assumptions about what the Canadian military does.

Except it doesn’t seem to have changed the old myths one bit. Canada continues to be championed as a “peacekeeping nation.” A commitment to peacekeeping continues, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, to be presented as an immutable part of the Canadian national DNA alongside all of the other myths David pointed out, including the most pernicious one: that Canada has never been a colonial power.

The national conversation about Canada’s history is not divorced from questions of policy and strategy. A blind adherence to familiar myths and a willingness to return to the same old slogans time and again might be politically expedient in the short term, but it seems to me that it is also narrowing the horizons. It forecloses space to talk seriously about the basic paradoxes and realities that have shaped Canada’s role in the world for decades, if not centuries. At least implicitly, it dismisses a more nuanced understanding of the past, one that could openly discuss the shortcomings as well as the strengths of early Canadian foreign and defence policies.

To kick off this conversation, Tim asked about what role history can play in policymaking. The thing that stands out to me is that telling more complex histories, revealing the contradictions, tensions, difficulties, successes, etc., etc. – in other words, writing the warts-and-all version of the past – is not just an academic exercise. Recent research in the United States suggests that historical narratives and historical cases are the most likely type of academic research to influence policymakers’ thinking and decisions, particularly in the national security space.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that void isn’t filled by the old myths, rather than a clear-eyed view of the past.

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