Gaining influence: Military role puts Canada back on the map

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen was born in Montreal and attended the Royal Military College in Kingston before enlisting in the Canadian army. Seven years later, he left Canada to join the British army where he felt he’d find more action and where he did find more action — enough to keep him there for 21 years, including a three-year stint with NATO in Brussels and, after leaving the army, one academic post. He then returned to Canada in 2003 and has worked as senior defence adviser to Defence Minister Peter MacKay for the past four years. He left that post this summer to restart his Ottawa-based consulting practice, RSC Strategic Connections. Over the years, he has advised many of the new European democracies on the development of national security and defence strategies. He recently sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, for a chat.

Diplomat magazine: You were working in the office of the minister of defence for nearly four years. Was there a typical day?
Richard Cohen: [laughs] Well, a typical day would be going into the office in the morning, looking at the press clippings and getting together with a small team to decide how we would react. We would look at coming events, and then deal with lots of issues every day including briefings with the minister. There was a great variety. When I first arrived, we’d inherited the [preliminary] work that Gordon O’Connor and his team had done on the Canada First Defence Strategy. Minister Peter MacKay took it on. He’d come straight from Foreign Affairs, not really having a huge background in defence. We worked on [the strategy] for at least a year and came up with what we eventually put out as the Canada First Defence Strategy. [It’s] a 20-year strategic plan that involves major equipment purchases, an improvement of readiness and an increase in the personnel strength in the armed forces. I think it’s a milestone in Canadian defence planning in that it looks so far out.

DM: Would you consider that one of your big accomplishments?
RC: Well, it was one of the early ones. I think everyone was very happy to come up with a long-term plan. It’s something that certainly in recent years had not been the case and it indicated a certain amount of stability and predictability, not only for the armed forces but also for government as a whole. It provides a commitment for the long term. It also does so for Canadian industry that supplies the armed forces.

DM: You must have traveled to Afghanistan. What’s your feeling about the future?
RC: Pundits have talked a lot about that. I think we’ve done a really good job there, given the complexity and the difficulty of the situation. And I must say, you hear about Canadian soldiers doing so well in Afghanistan, but when you go there and see them on the ground, you can’t help but be extremely impressed by their professionalism and their determination to get the job done. I’ve had a pretty broad military background, especially with the British armed forces. At one time, we kind of looked down our noses at the Canadian forces. We thought of them as peacekeepers and not much else. I was so impressed with Canadian soldiers on the ground — how they operated and how professional they were. That also carries through to Libya. The last time the air forces were engaged was in Kosovo and most of those [Canadian] pilots [now in Libya] were not involved in that. But they’ve kept up their expertise and that allowed them to deploy into the theatre and operate so effectively with allies from a cold start. I found that very impressive.
DM: What do you see for Afghanistan’s future?
RC: I think we’ve made good progress. Looking at the attacks in Kabul [where insurgents launched a coordinated attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters, killing seven Afghans], I think there will always be those attacks. But I think it looks as though we will be able to reduce our forces to the extent that the Afghans will be able to handle their security for themselves. I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of people wanted Canada to stay, and I was among them, but the prime minister made a promise and he kept it.

DM: You mentioned the NATO engagement in Libya. How do you see that ending?
RC: I’m not so optimistic about Libya. I think it could go either way. It could go the way we’d like to see it — it could evolve into a moderate state with some semblance of democracy or it could go the other way and become a real problem, like Iran has become. It’s hard to know.
I think Canada made a relatively painless investment in Libya. It allowed us to take the lead. Our aircraft and our ships and so on have made a big contribution at relatively small cost in terms of lives and money. It really put us at the forefront of that group of nations that are willing to stand up and do something. It’s added to our international credibility.
Whether you like it or not, your credibility on the international scene is a function of your ability, in extremis, to exercise some hard power. And that’s what Canada has lacked for a long time. This is what we’ve re-established now and are in the process of building up.
Whichever way it goes, in Canada, we’ve done ourselves a service by being in the forefront. It could become a long-term headache but unless we try, we’ll never find out.
It’s the same with Afghanistan. My philosophy is that sometimes it’s not possible to win but being there, and shouldering the burden with your allies, you still come out of it with a lot of credit. You enhance your reputation and your international influence. It’s not always about winning and losing. We’re playing the game in big ways and it has a huge influence on our relationship with the U.S. especially which is, of course, one of the keystones of our foreign and economic and every other policy.

At an event marking the return of HMCS Charlottetown to the port of Halifax after a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, the Maritime Libya Association’s Fathi Ghanai tells Defence Minister Peter MacKay about the thanks he’s receiving from Libyans for Canada’s contributions in their country.

At an event marking the return of HMCS Charlottetown to the port of Halifax after a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, the Maritime Libya Association’s Fathi Ghanai tells Defence Minister Peter MacKay about the thanks he’s receiving from Libyans for Canada’s contributions in their country.

DM: Speaking of which, Canada and the U.S. have announced a joint action plan on perimeter security. What are your thoughts on that?
RC: I worked mainly on the defence side but defence and security are closely linked. In principle, I think it’s an excellent idea. We’ve got to do something to assure the Americans that their border with us is not a source of insecurity. If they have any concerns, it’ll make trade more difficult which will ultimately affect jobs in Canada.
The perimeter security arrangement is excellent because it means we put a hard shell around the U.S. and Canada and then anything within that can move much more freely. We’ll never have a completely free border but at least it won’t have the security impediments that have been slowing down trade. It has its downsides. Some argue it means a loss of sovereignty but I think the advantages far outweigh the perceived disadvantages.

DM: When it comes to defending the North, what should Canada’s policy be?
RC: This government has been pretty practical. In defence, I think we plan to do more or less what is required. I don’t think the North will open up as fast as people think but I may be wrong. If it does, then perhaps we’ve got to take other measures on the search-and-rescue side. At the moment there are few incidents that can’t be handled on the local level. I think it’s not really practical [to do more]. We can’t afford the resources of air bases and so on for the eventuality that something might happen once a year. It’s a bit of a hard-headed way of looking at things but I think we’ve got to trim our ambition to our resources and the money available.

DM: Does China play into our policy?
RC: China plays into everything. Other countries eye the North as a transit route and also possibly [as a chance] to exploit some of the resources that might be up there. A lot of those resources that have been already identified, oil and gas in particular, are situated within national boundaries. So there’s not a lot of dispute about the known resources. It’s a bit of a myth that there are known resources that are in play. There may be [other resources] but I don’t think anyone’s identified them. So it’s really about transit. We have this agreement with the U.S. and other countries about whether the Northwest Passage — and there are several, not just one — whether they are international waterways or Canadian sovereign territory. This will be resolved in negotiations. It’s a difficult issue but it’s not one that’s going to lead to any real confrontation.

DM: In terms of Canada’s place in the world, do you feel our recent military engagements have improved things?
RC: In the eyes of the United States, I think we’ve rehabilitated ourselves in a partnership which has suffered because of our lack of willingness and ability to participate in some of the more robust operations the U.S. was involved in. That is our most important relationship. Our engagement in Afghanistan, reinforced by what we’ve done in Libya, has had a ripple effect across the whole of our relations with the United States. Iraq was a low point and Afghanistan has erased all those bad feelings. Minister MacKay and Secretary Robert Gates had a very close friendship that allowed all kinds of things to happen behind the scenes in terms of procurement. That would never have happened without our active role there. I have friends staying [with us] from the United States who don’t know very much about Canada. One chap is a former CEO of a big company. He said, ‘All I know about Canada is that you’ve got soldiers fighting alongside us in Afghanistan and we really feel good about that.’

DM: Robust operations versus peacekeeping — where do you stand on that?
RC: I left the Canadian forces in 1973 because I felt it wasn’t doing the kinds of things that I personally, as a young fellow, wanted to do. Had I been growing up in the Canadian military today, I would have stayed because we’re doing just the kind of things that I think people who join the military want to do. I think we’ve come to a realization that, for better or for worse, we’ve moved beyond the stage of peacekeeping.

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