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We’re entering the age of permanent crisis we aren’t equipped for: Canada Undefended

Posted By March 26, 2024 No Comments

Robert Kaplan talks about how the world is becoming more dangerous, where the next war might be and the difficult choices to be faced

Canada has only four Victoria-class submarines, purchased second-hand from Britain in 1998, at a cost of $750 million. Victoria-class submarines HMCS Chicoutimi, HMCS Windsor and HMCS Corner Brook rest at berth in Halifax in 2005. PHOTO BY ANDREW VAUGHAN /Canadian Press

(Written by Michael Higgins. Originally published here in the National Post, republished with permission.)

Canada’s military is short 16,000 troops, its branches are operating below readiness thresholds half the time and its budget is being cut as wars erupt worldwide. In this series, National Post examines the dangers of Undefended Canada, and how to regain our security.

The world is entering an age of tragedy, a cascading series of wars and conflict, an era of permanent crisis, warns Robert Kaplan, the veteran foreign correspondent and author.

Political leaders will be faced, not with an easy choice between good and evil, but between what is acceptable, what can be achieved, and whether one alternative is less evil than another, he says.

Canada will not escape the hostilities on the horizon. Its Pacific Ocean border with its western outlook may witness the next great global conflict. And, as security analysts have pointed out, Canada, with an under-resourced military, aging equipment — especially a fleet of four submarines that is rarely on the water, still less below it — is ill-prepared to face the oncoming tide of tragedy.

In a wide-ranging interview with National Post for the Canada Undefended series, Kaplan talked about how the world is becoming more dangerous, where the next war might be, the heavy burden of political leadership, the difficult choices to be faced, and how adopting a “tragic” mindset might make the world a less treacherous place.

If anyone is qualified to see the dangerous straits ahead, it is Kaplan, a man who has spent more than three decades of his life covering wars, revolutions, failed states, and dictatorships from over 100 countries. He has served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, was a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, was twice named one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine and has written 22 books on foreign affairs and travel.

He also has his demons.

His 1993 book Balkan Ghosts, depressed Bill Clinton over the centuries of seemingly unavoidable strife in the Balkans. The then U.S. president was subsequently accused of being too reluctant to intervene in time to stop the brutal ethnic cleansing following the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

“This led not so much to guilt on my part, as my motives had been good, but to lifelong remorse,” Kaplan wrote in The Tragic Mind, a book published last year.

After 9/11, Kaplan supported the Iraq War, but while embedded with U.S. Marines at the First Battle of Fallujah in April 2004, he came to realize he had made a terrible mistake. He suffered from clinical depression for years afterwards.

For Kaplan, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the bloody turmoil that followed reminded him of a saying by the medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali: One year of anarchy is worse than 100 years of tyranny.

Are we entering an age of tragedy?

“One could argue all ages are ages of tragedy, but I think this is especially the case now,” Kaplan said in an interview with National Post. “And that’s because we were told that war was something of the past, a great-power war would never happen again. And we were told that the Middle East was more stable than it had been in decades.

“All of these things have been shattered.

“We were told that there would be technological fixes to any environmental problem, and we’re discovering that such fixes may come about, but usually too late to affect the outcome — at least before many people suffer.”

An increasing world population on a finite earth, has been adding to global woes, such as resource scarcity and great power rivalry, he said. There could be 11 billion people on the planet before the population levels off, with many of those people in urbanized settings.

“And most of those urbanized settings will be in what we consider slums in the developing world. Not in high-end, glass-office towers like Toronto and Vancouver,” said Kaplan.

“It’s going to be an age of tragic choices, of constant conflict, one thing after another. A kind of permanent crisis.”

In some respects, the world is also shrinking. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans had been gigantic natural barriers that offered Canada and the United States a protective buffer from conflict.

“We saw a bit of it in Pearl Harbor. We saw more of it in 9/11,” said Kaplan, of how the seas were offering less protection.

Canada is also seeing it in the Arctic where its sovereignty could be challenged by Russia and China. China, particularly, wants to create a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic.

Last year, Canada’s top soldier, Gen. Wayne Eyre, the chief of the defence staff, told the House of Commons defence committee that protecting the North meant modernizing the NORAD defence system, building a network of underwater surveillance sensors and increasing transport capacity to be able to move troops into the region if needed.

The Liberals had promised $4.9 billion over six years to improve continental defence, but it is not clear how that could be affected by the news in September that the Defence Department was looking to cut $1 billion from its budget.

Kaplan said he believed more military spending would be a necessity despite significantly mounting debts in Canada and the U.S.

“I see no other option,” said Kaplan about spending more money on the military. “If you take into account the amount of ammunition that has to be sent to Ukraine, to Israel and yet also to keep up with China.”

A key area for China was building nuclear submarines, he said.

“China is coming equal (with) and eventually may surpass the U.S. in terms of nuclear submarine production and the future of naval conflict is underwater. The submarines are the key elements here because it becomes too easy for missiles to hit surface warships. So, it’s driving future strategists to contemplate undersea warfare more and more.

“The Chinese always have their eye on the future and have patience for the future and have been investing heavily, and in proportional terms, more than on anything, on nuclear-powered submarines.”

Kaplan’s views are in stark contrast to Canadian intentions.

Canada has no plans to build nuclear submarines, and did not join an alliance between the U.S., U.K., and Australia (AUKUS) arranged for that purpose.

Canada has only four Victoria-class submarines purchased second-hand from Britain in 1998 at a cost of $750 million. They have been plagued with problems and rarely go out on patrol. Documents obtained by National Post in November revealed that in the last four years only two of the subs went to sea for a total of 214 days.

The Royal Canadian Navy is hoping to buy 12 new submarines at a cost of $60 billion, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Having a dozen submarines would allow for six subs each operating in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

However, the Pacific is the area of most concern, says Kaplan.

“We have to consider the Pacific Rim, Taiwan, China,” said Kaplan. “Neither side wants a military conflict, but often in history, even though neither side wants one, one happens anyway because of accident or incident, or one side cannot back down and miscalculates what the other side is doing.

“A high-end military conflict, even of short duration, in the Taiwan Strait, in the South or East China seas, will have a dramatic negative effect on financial markets, on supply chains, in addition to the loss of life and destruction.”

Taiwan makes about 90 per cent of the world’s semiconductor chips, used in everything computerized, from satellites to washing machines. Disrupting that supply with a war will have a devastating effect on the world’s economy.

“Canadians are increasingly clear-eyed about China’s intention to control supply chains, and the increasingly isolationist stance of the U.S.,” said a report from Canada’s Semiconductor Council in 2021. The report called for Canada to urgently secure supply chains and develop a “strong and resilient” chip industry at home.

Kaplan said the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza are attracting a lot of attention, yet “the Pacific Rim is of such importance that it is never knocked out of the news, no matter what is happening elsewhere.”

Political leaders would soon be faced with hard, and not very clear, choices, said Kaplan.

“To divide the world between good and evil is too easy. That’s not what leaders face. What leaders face is narrow choices, very binary, narrow choices. Should I do this? Should I do that? With no guarantee that it’s going to work out,” he said, “But you have to act one way or the other, and that’s the ultimate tragedy of leadership.”

Sometimes the choice will be deciding between the lesser of two evils.

“Action by definition lacks the subtlety of intellectual argument,” Kaplan wrote in The Tragic Mind. “And while the leader will be judged in hindsight, at the moment he acts he knows only the facts as they are available to him. While the evidence will be at best partial, the decisions that arise from it are irrevocable.”

Today, Kaplan points to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard choices after Hamas tortured, raped and killed 1,200 men, women and children, in the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

After the attacks, Israeli citizens demanded the government act to deter more assaults.

“The prime minister has no choice but to restore deterrence. And what that entails, given the nature of the adversary, is killing a lot of civilians. It’s an impossible choice, an impossible decision,” said Kaplan. “What’s being played out is terrible, but it’s an example of the lesser of all other evils from the point of view of the Israeli citizen or voter.”

In The Tragic Mind, Kaplan advised political leaders to develop “anxious foresight,” to be aware of the narrow choices available, and be realistic about the dangerous world ahead.

He cautioned that lessons learned in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may not hold true in the future, and warned ominously that the age of tragedy could even include a conflict encompassing many nations.

“Simply because we can no longer literally imagine unrestrained war between the great powers — as the last one ended over three-quarters of a century ago — does not mean that it cannot happen,” he wrote.

National Post

Canada Undefended: Read the rest of the series.