Vincent Rigby is a visiting professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and a former national-security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Joe Biden will make his first trip to Ottawa as U.S. President on Thursday, and the Prime Minister’s Office is reportedly putting the economy, migration, climate change and other bilateral issues at the top of the agenda. But Mr. Biden is certain to have his eyes elsewhere: on the security file.
Rising Chinese assertiveness, continuing Russian aggression, and worrying behaviour by North Korea and Iran have brought hostile states into sharp focus for Washington. The U.S. intelligence community recently warned that great-power competition will shape the global order for decades to come. In this more contested and volatile world, the U.S. is looking to allies for support.
Many are responding to Washington’s call. Britain, for instance, has promised to increase its defence budget by £11-billion (around $18-billion) over five years. Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Japan will double its defence budget from 1 per cent to 2 per cent of GDP.
Canada has struggled to match these steps, and the U.S. has noticed. Canada was barely mentioned in the recent National Security Strategy, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent when Mr. Biden met his British and Australian counterparts last week to discuss China. Mr. Biden will be polite, at least in public, but the President may have grown skeptical, and may deliver a firm message in private.
It will be up to Mr. Trudeau to reassure Mr. Biden that Canada takes security seriously – not because Canada should blindly follow the U.S.’s lead, but because it is in our national interest to work with allies in promoting security at home and abroad. The extent to which the Prime Minister can demonstrate that Canada will respond vigorously to evolving threats will go a long way toward determining whether the U.S. takes its neighbour seriously.
In the absence of a comprehensive national-security strategy, this won’t be easy. But the Prime Minister can start by telling the President that Canada will address three areas of concern to Washington and other allies.
First, Mr. Trudeau should promise that Canada will get its house in order concerning hostile state activities. Mr. Biden will undoubtedly raise the recent furor over Chinese foreign-interference activities, and Mr. Trudeau should inform him that Canada will develop a coherent domestic strategy to counter foreign interference but also cyberattacks, intellectual-property theft, investments in strategic economic sectors and espionage. Immediate measures, such as creating a foreign-agents registry or implementing the recent Critical Minerals Strategy, would send a signal that Ottawa understands the gravity of the menaces we face.
Second, the Prime Minister must reassure the President that Canada will work with the U.S. in defending North America, particularly in the Arctic, where Moscow is strengthening its military capabilities and Beijing has proven to be increasingly ambitious. NORAD’s North Warning System is woefully out of date, relying on 50-year-old technology to defend against advanced cruise and hypersonic missiles. The Canadian government has announced that it will invest $5-billion in NORAD, but it is unclear if this is the entire bill, and how quickly this upgrade will proceed. The U.S. has made NORAD modernization a priority; it will expect Canada to do the same. Canada must promise to commit the resources to make it happen, and fast.
Third, Mr. Trudeau should advise Mr. Biden that Canada will be prepared if international security further deteriorates. Canada has provided more than $1-billion in military aid to Ukraine, but this will not be enough. The U.S. and NATO will expect Canada to do much more if the conflict escalates. Likewise, Canada’s recent Indo-Pacific Strategy finally identified China as a “disruptive global power” but the government’s associated security measures are modest. Will the Canadian Armed Forces be able to respond to a new crisis in Europe or the Pacific? Last year, General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, declared that “the military we have today is not the one we need for the future.” Canadians have been waiting patiently for a long-overdue defence update. The Prime Minister should assure the President that this update is imminent, and that the government will provide the military with the necessary resources to operate in an increasingly dangerous world.
The global landscape is more treacherous and unpredictable than at any time since the Second World War. Canada, as a member of NATO, the G7, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership and NORAD, cannot stand idly by. What better opportunity than a visit by the U.S. President to demonstrate that Canada will do its part?
Recent objects detected in the skies over North America, including an alleged Chinese spy balloon, have put the North American Aerospace Defense Command in the spotlight. See how Canada is integral to NORAD's mission to monitor and secure the skies from current and future threats.
The Globe and Mail