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National Security and Government Responsibility: Towards a Comprehensive National Security Strategy

By May 12, 2016 No Comments

(Originally posted May 11, 2016 on the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Re-printed with permission.)

In a new CDA Institute Analysis, Don Macnamara looks at what the new government should keep in mind and what it should avoid as it proceeds with the defence policy review. The following is an excerpt of the Analysis.

rsz macnamara analysis may 2016cover

The government’s stated intention to undertake a comprehensive defence policy review over the next year, including public consultation, is encouraging. They would do well to remember that the first and most important obligation of government is the security of the country, its sovereignty, and the safety and well-​being of its citizens – a fact that political leaders, bureaucrats, and citizens alike must remember, even if that seems particular challenging in Canada.

On that point, the government would benefit from the development of a comprehensive national security strategy – one that would comprise not only individual policies but also integrate major areas to permit a real ‘whole-​of-​government’ approach to national security, not just defence.

A consensus of what, precisely, constitutes our vital national interests would permit a rational and logical analysis of issues and trends related to the consequences of action or inaction, and the identification of policy responses appropriate to prevent or mitigate their impact, ultimately leading to integrated policy formulation. The need for such a strategy should be evident. Our contemporary world is full of complex events, issues, trends, risks, and threats that can, and do, affect Canada’s national interests either directly or indirectly, and not simply from a defence perspective.

This analysis is intended provide a relatively simple explanation of a logical and rational approach to a comprehensive national security strategy. The development of such a strategy may not be easy. But that should be pursued through a logical and systematic approach; a road map for those who may be charged with the responsibility to develop it.

Strategic Planning and a Comprehensive National Security Strategy

Systematic ‘strategic planning’ was an activity developed in military operations research communities during the late1970s. In their book Strategic Planning and Forecasting, William Ascher and William Overholt proposed a strategic planning model that simplified the many components of other methods so that understanding of the steps and process was significantly improved.

An adaptation of their Strategic Planning Model has been used in teaching the approach and processes since that time. In effect, it follows a simple formula: INTERESTS (values, objectives)/​ENVIRONMENT (political, economic, cultural, security, technological) = STRATEGY (policies: foreign, security, economic, science, social). A similar approach (see Figure 1) was developed as a collaborative effort between Brigadier-​General Dr. George Bell (Ret’d) and this author. It was used as the foundation for the curriculum at the National Defence College of Canada and has been taught as a model to formulate a National Security Strategy since 1982.

A “comprehensive national security strategy” may in turn be defined as a set of ‘whole of government’ integrated policies – foreign, defence, economic, technological and socio-​cultural – that articulate the ways and means by which Canada’s national interests can be protected, promoted and preserved. Events, trends, and threats can negatively impact those interests in a “globalized” world. If the international system is conceived as a system of systems, then a change or activity in any one system (or even a component of one) can affect all other components – each country and each factor.

Using ‘national interests’ as the means to identify or test the effects can lead to a rational process and ultimately relevant and responsive set of policies. Key questions that must be asked include: What are Canada’s interests – our values and goals? What issues, risks or threats are developing in our domestic and international environments? What impact may they have on our interests? What are the ways we can protect and advance our interests? What are the available means – resources and constraints? What is the strategy – policies and plans?

These questions provide a guide that would permit a tasked committee or study group to pursue appropriate policies, although it is beyond the scope of this paper to address each in detail.

Vital Interests, Values, and Goals

Canada’s ‘national interests’ is a term misused all too frequently by politicians to emphasize or justify a Canadian activity or response to a situation. Seldom, if ever, are the specific interests identified.

In 1848, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, in an address to the House of Commons, offered perhaps the most widely quoted statement on this subject: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and these interests it is our duty to follow.” More recently, American political science scholar Elmer Plischke devoted a full chapter of his 1988 book Foreign Relations – Analysis of its Anatomy to discussing the ‘national interest’ concept, its use and abuse. His lengthy definition may be paraphrased as:

National interests are those fundamental determinants, intrinsic needs, operational criteria or ultimate standards in accordance with which a nation frames its national purposes and goals.

Noteworthy is Plischke’s characterization of Donald Nuechterlein’s development of the use of national interests as a tool for both analysis and policy development. In his 1979 book National Interests and Presidential Leadership, Nuechterlien defined the term ‘national interests’ as “the perceived needs and desires of one sovereign state in relation to the sovereign states comprising its external environment,” thereby differentiating it from the ‘public interest’ which refers to dealing with the internal domestic environment. He further identified the four basic national interests that should underpin all states’ foreign and security policies: Defence, Economic, World Order, and Ideological.

National interests are, essentially, a combination of the fundamental values of a nation combined with the fundamental interests (or goals) to be achieved and maintained. Rather than conceptually separate, a country’s fundamental values will in reality both inform and form its national interests. For Canada (and most democracies), our societal values are: Democracy – a freely, elected and representative government, leading to the rule of law; Individual Freedom – to pursue one’s interests without interfering with the rights of others; Human Rights and Social Justice – valuing the individual human life.

Click here to read the entire CDA Institute analysis.