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Graeme Thompson: Canadians no longer take geopolitics seriously—and our neglect is going to cost us

Commentary

Most people who bother with the matter at all, to paraphrase George Orwell, would admit that Canadian foreign policy is in a bad way. More than any time in living memory, Ottawa looks completely lost in the world. Its foreign initiatives are disjointed and driven by domestic politics, its adversaries view it as petulant and weak, and, perhaps worst of all, its allies and partners are losing confidence in its capabilities and commitments. The global order is changing rapidly, and Canada seems unwilling or unable to adapt.     

Specific policy proposals—for instance, that Canada should finally reach NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defence spending target—skate around the real issue: Ottawa’s seemingly congenital inability to set international priorities and follow through on them. Indeed, while diplomatic and military resources are valuable, policymakers can only determine priorities, navigate trade-offs, and decide which tools to deploy and when, but only if they are equipped by political leaders with clear strategic objectives.    

That is how strategy works. And strategic thinking, in turn, requires a realistic assessment of a country’s geopolitical circumstances and national interests. Canada’s profound foreign policy malaise flows, in large part, from its failure to think and act strategically—a consequence of not taking geopolitics seriously. That’s a luxury that Canadians can sadly no longer afford.  

For most of Canada’s history, its lack of strategic culture hardly mattered. In fact, it reflected an extraordinarily favourable geopolitical neighbourhood. Only a country as safe as Canada—surrounded by three oceans and a vast Arctic territory, bordered by an economically dynamic and democratic neighbour, and protected by and allied with the world’s leading military powers—could afford to neglect geopolitics. First as part of the British Empire and then under the protective umbrella of the United States, Canada took its national security for granted. Until crises roused it to action, Ottawa could engage with the world largely on its own terms. 

But those days are over, and Canada is struggling to adapt to a radically altered geopolitical environment.  

First, the international system is being rapidly reshaped—not only by the deepening rivalry between the United States and China, but also by the rogue behaviour of Russia and the rise of regional powers like Brazil, India, and Saudi Arabia, among others, whose economic and strategic weight will only grow over the coming decades. Put simply, international institutions and long-standing diplomatic habits no longer reflect the underlying balance of global power. Geopolitical instability is likely to worsen as great and regional powers jockey for position in an emerging multipolar world order.   

Second, and relatedly, Canada’s closest ally and trading partner, the United States, is no longer the undisputed global leader it was during the “unipolar moment” that followed the Cold War. Although the U.S. will remain by far Canada’s most important bilateral relationship, Ottawa needs to prepare for a more divided and unpredictable neighbour to the south, regardless of who wins this year’s presidential election. Canada’s measly defence spending (just 1.3 percent of GDP in 2022, making it one of the lowest in NATO) will attract increasing negative attention in a Washington focused on strategic competition with China, Russia, and Iran. Future U.S. administrations will be far less polite about subsidizing Canadian national security with American taxpayer dollars.  

Third, the great distances and rugged terrain that once insulated Canada from the world are no longer such formidable barriers. Rapid technological advancements—hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, and capabilities in the linked domains of cyber and outer space—are revolutionizing the frontiers of national security. Meanwhile, climate change is melting sea ice and fuelling the rapid transition to clean energy technologies—opening the Arctic to shipping, stoking geopolitical rivalries in the region and boosting demand for Canadian critical minerals and other natural resources.  

In principle, there is no reason why Canada cannot thrive in this new world, given its many comparative advantages. But parochialism and inertia—a narrowly domestic political focus combined with unthinking and outdated foreign policy habits—are holding Ottawa back from reorienting and revitalizing its international engagement. With the right leadership, however, Ottawa could embrace a more strategic approach to the world, starting with three fundamental changes that together would constitute a foreign policy “Big Bang.”   

First, Canada needs a foreign and security policy review. The last official update of Canadian foreign policy was released in 2005, and Ottawa hasn’t published a national security strategy since 2004. Think about how much the world has changed in twenty years, since the aftermath of 11 September 2001. Without an updated, overarching framework that articulates political objectives, matches resources to priorities, and survives changes in government, Canadian policymakers are flying blind.  

Piecemeal documents, like the new Indo-Pacific Strategy, are positive steps. But they can’t answer the core strategic question that needs answering: should Ottawa have a truly global policy or one targeted at specific issues or regions? If the former, then diplomatic and military resources must be adequately funded to support it. If the latter, difficult decisions need to be made about Canada’s global footprint. The United Kingdom’s recent Integrated Review, published in 2021 and refreshed in 2023, could serve as an example for a whole-of-government Canadian strategic policy.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to the podium for a news conference at the Canadian Permanent Mission, in New York, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Second, although it will take time and commitment, Canada’s national security apparatus needs far-reaching reforms. Recent efforts to spur modernization within the foreign service and Global Affairs Canada more broadly should be commended, supported, and continued.Full disclosure: I served on the independent, external advisory council for the department’s “Future of Diplomacy” initiative Yet revelations over the handling of alleged foreign interference, wasteful defence procurement sagas, and cratering morale in the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces are indicative of institutions unfit for purpose. This demands attention in the national interest, not partisan point scoring.  

Third, Canada should cultivate a deeper and broader foreign policy ecosystem to better utilize its human capital, encompassing academic institutions, think tanks, and Ottawa’s policy community. Too often, Canadians with relevant expertise must look elsewhere (usually the U.S. or U.K.) for careers, and too few specialized university programs—mostly in Ontario and Quebec—send graduates into the public service, reinforcing Ottawa’s narrow Laurentian perspective and limiting its intellectual diversity.

Civil servants, moreover, need opportunities to escape the Ottawa bubble; more external secondments could help refresh their knowledge through policy-relevant research, which would lead to new ideas percolating back into government. And Canada’s multiethnic population means that there are no “far away countries of which we know little”—a potentially huge but still largely untapped advantage in the emerging international order. In short, Canada can no longer afford to punch below its potential in developing and deploying foreign policy talent. 

Canadians expect that their leaders should sit at the top tables of global diplomacy. But that is not a God-given right. Geopolitical conditions are changing, and Canada has developed a reputation for failing to put its money where its mouth is—hence growing marginalization in global forums and exclusion from new U.S.-led groups like AUKUS and the Quad. The choice for Canada is stark. Either Ottawa needs to begin to think and act strategically—articulating objectives, deciding on priorities, and funding them appropriately—or it should lower its expectations and adjust to a much-reduced role in the world.    

Michael Kempa: Crime is surging and Canadians are being left with one message: You’re on your own

Commentary

When it comes to skyrocketing auto theft across Canada—double-digit percentage increases more frequently tied to carjackings and breaking into homes in search of keys—recent frank personal safety advice from the Toronto Police Service has sent a clear and unfortunate message to Canadians: You are on your own.

Last week, statements made by Toronto police constable Marco Ricciardi at an Etobicoke public safety meeting earlier in February went viral, and for good reason. Ricciardi warned that car theft is now so aggressive and so brazen, that residents would be wise to leave their key fobs close to their front doors. Why you might ask? To prevent car thieves from entering deeply enough into homes that violent confrontations with owners would become more likely. These thieves are armed with “real” and “loaded” guns, the constable Ricciardi ominously intoned.

Suggesting that citizens simply give up and make it easier for car thieves to steal their property reads like an admission that the police have lost control over a dangerous and costly problem. Auto thefts are exploding across Canada, with Ontario in particular becoming a “candy store” fueling a rail pipeline that runs to the Montréal ports and global markets directed by organized crime.

In Toronto, vehicle theft is up 150 percent over the past six years, with insurance associations listing it as over a 1.2 billion dollar problem. The city’s police chief recently stated that there were over 12,000 vehicles stolen in 2023—a 24 percent increase in a single year and a 300 percent increase since 2015. A vehicle is now stolen approximately every 40 minutes in Canada’s most populous city.

It is not reasonable to tell citizens to fend for themselves against such sophisticated and motivated adversaries.

Organized crime expands its tentacles into all opportunities for extraordinary profit. The pandemic has created many such exploitable distortions, including human trafficking, trading in counterfeit vaccines, and coordinated shoplifting.  In the case of auto theft, prices of newer used vehicles have been driven sky-high due to the scarce availability of new inventory and supply chain disruptions for microchips, which slows down production.

With a lucrative market at their feet, organized criminals have exploited loopholes in Canadian law to run circles around police officers.

The first involves simply taking advantage of jurisdictional ambiguities and the inertia that results when multiple agencies involved in combating auto theft bump up against one another. 

When a car is lifted from an innocent person’s driveway, it is often then parked for a day or two in a public place and monitored by thieves at a distance to determine whether the vehicle is being electronically tracked. This is most often done by private companies whose owners contract for these services. If these companies are actually able to locate the stolen vehicle, they typically mobilize police. However, if there are no suspects on the scene, these officers treat the theft as a low-priority call. Remember they also have assaults, break-and-enters, and domestic violence to deal with.

Often, thieves will then move that untended vehicle by train, which is under the separate jurisdiction of railway police.

It could then arrive at  Montreal shipping ports, under the watchful gaze of the Canada Border Services Agency. Keep in mind, on a typical day, there are mere single-digit CBSA agents available to monitor thousands of shipping containers at a major port. Even if police know a vehicle is in a particular port yard, it becomes a needle in a haystack. There is but a minute number of border agents literally working against the shipping clock to find it. Meanwhile, regular police are often left waiting on judicial warrants to lend assistance.

The second loophole criminals regularly take advantage of is recruiting legal minors (often members of street gangs) to conduct commissioned theft. The entire thrust of Canada’s youth justice system is to avoid incarcerating young people in secure facilities in favour of encouraging their rehabilitation within—and reintegration into—the community. In other words, young car thieves stand to earn healthy payments from organized crime syndicates while risking little custody time.

When the thieves are adults, delays pending trial mean suspects are likely to be released on bail for months on end with a level of supervision stretched thin to the point of near nonexistence. Canada’s bail system over the last three decades has become extraordinarily risk-averse, to the point that the great majority of people across the country currently held in provincial prisons—upwards of 80 percent in Ontario—are awaiting trial. This leaves little room to hold many further suspects on remand.

If we are failing to prevent the high volume of crime many argue is committed by a small number of repeat offenders, it follows that we must be holding far too many of the wrong types of accused offenders. Given that car theft is increasingly a repeat offence tied to home invasion and violence, we need to make some remand space for these accused in our prisons by returning to our historical practice of releasing less risky offenders on bail. Or we could entirely divert less serious cases to alternative measures, including restorative justice.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Toronto Chief of Police Myron Demkiw before the National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft, Thursday, February 8, 2024, in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Some promising moves have been made. However, because they are piecemeal, they fail to address the capacity of the range of security and criminal justice agencies needed to work together. The Trudeau government recently made car theft the focal point of its winter retreat, signalling that harsher penalties are coming in the Criminal Code. They also promised to make hundreds of millions of dollars available to provinces to support combating the problem (along with gun and gang violence). In Ontario, the Ford government has supported the efforts of police organizations to create special task forces and partnerships. There have been reports of some successes.

Bolder action involving evidence-driven decisions about which crimes should be prioritised for processing through a prosecution and corrections system with a finite capacity would be reassuring to citizens 

Public education about the sophistication of organized crime would be beneficial. People need to know that this spike in auto theft may be a shorter-term problem, requiring temporarily focused policing and policy responses, until the market for newer model used cars begins to normalise.

Giving citizens the idea they are on their own, however, is a dangerous message that Canadians are getting used to hearing in an increasingly disorderly post-pandemic world. Economic, ecological, and geopolitical turmoil have fuelled extraordinary opportunities for organized crime to make profits and for hostile ideological opponent states and other groups to fan instability and fear in Western democracies. To the public’s eye, the police seem incapable of managing the fallout, whether it is addressing opportunistic spikes in property crime, increasingly well-resourced and confrontational mass protests, or corruption where domestic political representatives are compromised by foreign interference. This then fuels a resigned public acceptance of an increasingly feudal world order, where frightened citizens bunker down to ride out the seemingly endless uncertainty. 

The dark but inevitable endpoint of downloading responsibility for crime prevention and personal safety upon citizens can be seen in places like South Africa and Brazil. In Canada, homeowners are now being given door stops by police to prevent door kick break-ins and are being told it’s on them to invest in alarm systems and security cameras. In South Africa and Brazil, residents with any resources to protect themselves now live in homes hidden behind high walls topped with razor wire, equipped with panic buttons and guarded by heavily armed private security meant to deter home invaders.

Canada must reverse this dark trend. We need to give people hope that the state has what it takes to secure our more courageous forays into open public and commercial life. It all starts with effective policing and community safety.