The Return of the Bi-Polar World
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 5)

Crimea is now Russian and will be for the foreseeable future. Unrest in eastern Ukraine and continued disunity seems assured. Russia, armed with the third largest defence budget in the world and the eighth largest economy, has now seized territory in two former Soviet republics. It is clear that no outside actor is able to – either unilaterally or in concert with one another – pull Ukraine from Russian influence. Quite simply, what the Crimean conquest shows is that the West is unable to act in Russia’s backyard. This is troubling.

For all the gesticulations, rhetoric, and energy coming out of Russia, theirs is an effort to convince its people that it remains a great power in a multi-polar world. The fact is, however, Russia is no longer a great power – though its Cold War armaments and renewed focus on the Arctic certainly make it a difficult, and dangerous, player in geopolitics. Knowing that Canada need not take the lead in Ukraine, and that strong rhetoric will resonate well among Ukrainian-Canadians, our political leaders strongly condemn Russian actions. They have yet to back up that rhetoric. Of late, it’s hardly been needed.

Though we continue to pay some attention to activities in Ukraine, for most of the Canadian population and politicians, the focus is now clearly on “Islamic State” and Canadian military activities in Iraq. The deployment of Canadian aircraft to the area as part of a coalition seeking to destroy ISIL jihadists will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Hopefully it will not cost Canadian lives. This is not to say that the mission won’t be worthwhile or that it is not in keeping with proud Canadian traditions of focused interventions.

Unlike Russia, China is a serious economic and geopolitical competitor to the United States. While we in the West fret about the fate of Ukraine and Iraq, China continues to assert its weight in international fora and the Asian-Pacific. It is laying claim to vast swaths of the South China Sea, bitterly fighting with Japan over an outcrop of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea and engaging in a tense diplomatic dance with the U.S. in the larger Asia Pacific area.

China is now a great power in an increasingly bi-polar world. It is the second largest economy in the world, and seems to have a viable governance structure. While democratic nations continue to grapple with slowing growth and paralyzing debts, China has become the third largest contributor of foreign direct investment in the world.

The rise of China and the renewed assertiveness and activism in Russia may not seem related, but both are poking and prodding the peripheries of U.S. hegemonic reach. China and Russia are challenging U.S. supremacy in their respective backyards, increasingly promoting their interests more aggressively in international forums and thereby developing wider spheres of influence. Concurrently, America is suffering from imperial overstretch following military missions of the past 15 years. In the post-Afghanistan, post-Saddam, fiscally challenged period of restraint for the United States and allies, Ukraine, Crimea and uninhabited rocks halfway around the world are deemed to not be worth additional blood and treasure. Canada feels the same.

What emerges is a bi-polar world where superpowers compete to protect their interests. There is little doubt that, for decades to come, the United States will continue as the predominant economic and military leader in global affairs. However, its interests will be increasingly balanced in the formerly Soviet region by an overly assertive Russia in the short term as well as elsewhere via an ever stronger China in the medium-to-longer term. Though Russia will never again be a competing hegemon to the United States, it will nonetheless embarrass America by flaunting international law and established diplomatic norms and values before exhausting it’s economic foundations – as it has time and time again throughout history.

While developing its ability to project power internationally, China’s continued rise inevitably challenges American allies in the Asia-Pacific and beyond – and loosely brings democratic and socialist models of governance into play. We are used to an American quasi-hegemony in global affairs, shared for a time with the USSR until the collapse of that particular communist model.

Examining Success
With China rising, how does Canada best situate itself for economic and military success? Clearly, America has served as a benevolent steward in patrolling our trade routes, defending our continent and purchasing our goods. We know the U.S. is, and will remain, the global economic driver and predominant military force for decades to come. The robust, dynamic and versatile American economic system has certainly been the engine that has allowed Canadian prosperity to flourish. Few would argue that American values and democratic traditions provide leadership in a fragile and uncertain world. Canada then, has an easy choice in following the American lead internationally. Certainly this was the case in Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, Bosnia and Korea. And is now the case in Iraq.

But what guides Canadian intervention? Why are we involved in Iraq in 2014 but took a pass in 2003? Why Iraq instead of Sudan or Yemen? And what happens if our allies in Asia are threatened by China?

For Canada to truly be a trusted partner internationally, we need to expedite the renewal of the Canada First Defence Strategy to clearly explain our vision and commitment to protecting our interests abroad.

We need to clearly signal – to allies and foes – what Canada and the Canadian Armed Forces will contribute to international security. And we need to be consistent in fulfilling that commitment.

For instance, the U.S. 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review lists three pillars guiding its defence strategy: Protect the homeland; Build security globally; and Project power and win decisively. The document identifies how and why it will execute those pillars.

Likewise, the United Kingdom’s Strategic Defence and Security Review states it will “reduce the likelihood of risks affecting the UK or our interests overseas, and applying our instruments of power and influence to shape the global environment and tackle potential risks at source.” The document also provides a prioritized list of potential threats to act upon.

At present, Canada has no such guiding framework, and this lack of maturity is a source of frustration to our partners, most especially the United States. Imagine their frustration when Canada signals its intent to join Ballistic Missile Defence and then takes political cover prior to an election. Or, Canada’s decision to include NATO’s Aerial Ground Surveillance in the government’s deficit reduction plans. Or, Canada’s military humanitarian efforts in Haiti contrasting our tepid responses in Africa.

This propensity not to state a commitment allows the government to change its mind with the winds. Witness recent debates on the deployment of military personnel to the Middle East to conduct aerial combat operations. Numerous Parliamentarians from all sides of the political spectrum disappointed Canadians with their lack of civility as well as their lack of understanding of the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada’s place in the world.

The world is changing. It is more dangerous and more unpredictable – making political actions (and inaction) more consequential. Our partners are having to shift their strategic objectives and are informing one another how they are doing so. As we begin to recognize the dynamics of this bi-polar world, it’s time that Canada grows up and does the same.

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