Now I am Panicking (a bit): The death of Soleimani and what it means for Canada
By H. Christian Breede, Assistant Director at the CIDP and Contact Report Editor-in-Chief
The US strike on the Baghdad International Airport that targeted and killed one of Iran’s most senior officials — Qassem Soleimani — has sent shockwaves around the world. Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece on the impending Trump inauguration for the Australian International Affairs Association. Leaning on a 2013 article by Robert Jervis that I had used for years in my foreign policy classes, I was making the point that the checks and balances of the institutions that surround the office of the President would constrain Trump. This was Jervis’ point, that leaders — by and large — don’t matter. When first written, I found the article disheartening, now I lean on it for comfort. Recent events however, are giving me pause. What makes me nervous is not just the potential international fallout or the risk of escalation. These are real, and in the short time since Soleimani’s killing, have been spoken about already. However — my nervousness comes from the tactical as well as strategic implications for Canada: these have received relatively less attention.
Tactically, as allies of the United States, the attack places Canada in the cross-hairs of a potential Iranian retaliation. As Michel Juneau recently pointed out, Iranian retaliation will likely come in the form of an indirect or asymmetric attack on American allies. A direct military response is unlikely. As a result of this, the Department of National Defence recently announced that Canadian soldiers deployed in the region would suspend operations and focus on “force protection measures.” This decision recognizes the added uncertainty brought about by this high-level targeted killing. Sadly, imagination is likely the only limit in terms of what a potential response may look like. While a very real concern, it is essentially a tactical one. There is a larger, strategic issue that these recent events highlight.
The strategic implications are more complex and in need of a bit of background. Since the end of the Second World War, a key dimension of Canada’s foreign policy strategy was to be seen on the world stage as a reliable ally. In recent decades, further focus was placed on Canada’s relationship of reliability with the United States in particular. This strategy took us to Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, and even back to Europe. While not without cost, this strategy also ensured that Canada would be able to have its own interests either intersect with those of the United States, or secure certain concessions when they diverged. This however, was predicated on an assumption that may no longer hold: that the United States would in turn act as a reliable ally to Canada. From renegotiating continental trade to immigration policy, recent actions by the United States have started to call this assumption into question. This is not to argue that Canada should turn away from the US, rather it should simply not make any assumptions in terms of the alignment of interests. Jervis’ argument from 2013 on the constraining influence of institutions upon executive power is predicated on the idea that institutions function. Staffing, funding, and appointment shortfalls have strained the various institution’s ability to constrain executive power. While not unique to this current presidency, the last three years have seen unprecedented tests and as a result, some cause for Canada to question the assumptions that have undergirded our foreign policy over the past few decades. So what does questioning these assumptions look like? What does this mean?
Put simply, the events surrounding the American actions against Iran suggest Canada needs to start thinking of a grand strategy beyond simply that of a reliable ally. This means that we all need to start thinking in innovative ways about what Canada wants. Where do we — as a diverse country that spans three oceans with a rich history and immense financial, physical, and human capital — want to be when we look back on 2020? This means our elected officials need to start articulating these options in a positive and inspiring way. It means that those of us who engage in public discourse need to start thinking through what and how Canada can play a positive role in the world and we need to do so in a systematic manner. It means we all need to engage and we all need to care about Canada’s place in the world. We need to demand more of our politics and ensure we — as citizens — are asking the important questions.
What might these questions be? A good place to start would be to ask whether we want to base our foreign policy around a set of values or a set of issues. The former, while potentially more consistent, may also prove costly. If the latter, which focuses on issues, may prove to be a cheaper option. However issues-based policy making also has the potential to be more selective if not inconsistent. Either way, a choice needs to be made: making a choice is the essence of strategy. We need to decide what we want and how much we are willing to pay for it; the assumption that Canada’s place in the world is secure is one we can no longer afford to make.