Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at Carleton University. Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book Intelligence Analysis and Policy Making: The Canadian Experience.
The recent announcement of a strategic defence partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) has caused much predictable handwringing across Canada. After all, are we not a chronic joiner of multilateral initiatives and a partner in the Five Eyes intelligence-gathering partnership, which also includes New Zealand? Some have blamed our exclusion on Ottawa’s failure to ban Huawei from our 5G networks, its relatively weak stance on China, or its lack of military capacity.
But in fact, the agreement reflects more of a continuation of a trend, rather than a radical shift within the Five Eyes.
According to the research for our book, what might be called a “Three Eyes” between Australia, the U.K. and U.S. has informally been in existence for some time on some issues. That’s largely because Australia works harder than Canada does to make its presence known among its partners; it also invests more resources in strategically nurturing its relationships, especially with the United States. Australians are better represented in Washington at key national security institutions, and frequently bring useful and actionable intelligence to the table. Ottawa cannot boast the same.
Additionally, there is much to admire about Australian officials’ ability to look at national security problems through an Australian lens. American officials typically appreciate the different perspectives that their Australian counterparts can offer, serving to challenge other countries’ viewpoints in Five Eyes meetings with a unique voice at the table.
Australia has also developed a more mature intelligence and national security culture, one that is firmly integrated with the policy world and has an appetite for risk-taking. To that end, the country has overhauled its legislative framework and national security architecture to meet evolving threats, and there is also a greater willingness to critically assess strategy and priorities through “white papers,” research reports that then help inform the government’s policy-making process.
Canada, on the other hand, often performs weakly in these areas. Ottawa devotes fewer resources toward cultivating relationships with its most important security partners. Indeed, there seems to be a belief that our proximity to the United States in particular means that our relationship can sometimes be taken for granted.
Moreover, Canadian officials are more reluctant than their Australian counterparts to bring a specifically Canadian voice to the table. Too often, we prefer to listen than to diverge from our allies’ assessments. This has given rise to the belief – one that is increasingly pervasive in Washington – that Canada is a free rider: that it takes much more than it gives from its security and intelligence partnerships.
In this way, an underlying theme in our research is clear: Canadians could and should learn more lessons from their Australian counterparts when it comes to intelligence co-operation.
Of course, there are important geopolitical reasons for these differences. The Australians have been forced to develop an intelligence culture and engagement policy because they live in a more challenging threat environment. Canada, on the other hand, has the luxury of being in a relatively safe international neighbourhood. The AUKUS pact is really more of a nuclear submarine deal wrapped in language about strategic technology co-operation, and because of our general sense of safety, Canadians would not likely support Ottawa spending billions of dollars on the transaction at the heart of it all. It is not clear that Canada would even want to join a partnership involving nuclear technologies, which has implications for proliferation. The deal would have also represented a shift from how it has traditionally engaged in the Indo-Pacific region since the ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula.
But Canada’s relatively benign threat environment is deteriorating, as threats are becoming more diffuse and transnational; recent events such as major ransomware and hacking incidents targeting critical infrastructure, and increasing reports of foreign interference targeting Canadians, provide yet another indication that the country should take national security more seriously. While no one should doubt that there remains excellent intelligence co-operation between Canada and its Five Eyes partners, the country’s neglect of all things intelligence and national security – as illustrated by the issues’ complete absence from the electoral campaign – is increasingly unsustainable.
In this context, there are clear takeaways from the establishment of the AUKUS partnership that the next government should take note of. Canadian officials need to engage their counterparts on a more sustained basis. And when they meet, they should have something to say that more clearly reflects Canada’s interests; allies and partners will find engagement with Canadians more beneficial if we bring a unique, Canadianized perspective – which presupposes, of course, much more effort into defining those interests.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.