4. Global context

Key trends

Canada has a long-standing, honourable tradition of robust engagement in support of global stability, peace and prosperity. We are uniquely positioned now to further this role. Arguably, our engagement has never been more necessary, or valued by our international allies and partners.

We live in a time when economic growth has lifted billions from poverty. But fragile and conflict-affected states have been excluded from many of these gains. Economic inequality is rising, worldwide. This has brought with it rising instability.

Canada is not immune from these concerns, and we must be part of the solution – a force for security, stability, prosperity and social justice in the world.

Violent extremism is a global scourge that, left unchecked, can undermine civil society and destabilize entire regions. It must be steadfastly opposed through concerted action spanning intelligence, counter-radicalization, development, and the use of hard power. In the face of hateful ideologies and attacks on our values and way of life, Canada will respond with unwavering strength.

Social media and smart technology have transformed every aspect of daily life, conferring great benefits on the people it connects, worldwide. But much greater access to communications technology has simultaneously fostered new vulnerabilities, which we are called to address.

When large populations flee their homes in a desperate search for a better life, mass migration can undermine states and lead to humanitarian emergencies. But when managed properly, emigration and immigration are forces for diversity, for economic growth and vitality in the host countries. We Canadians know this first-hand.

Climate change threatens to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of millions around the world. It also presents us with an urgent call to innovate, to foster collective action, to work hand-in-hand with like-minded partners around the world to meet this threat and eat it, rather than stand passively by.

In short, Canada – by virtue of our geography, our history, our diversity and our natural wealth – is called to leadership. We have the capacity to help those who live under the threat of violence, or have been consigned to protracted refugee status. We can reach out to those who suffer from weak governance. We can be a force for stability in the world.

And that is why Canada’s ability to field a highly trained, professional, well-equipped military is so vital. Meeting these enormous collective challenges requires coordinated action across the whole-of-government – military capabilities working hand in hand with diplomacy and development. The right hand supports the left – and vice-versa.

We have often heard the world needs more Canada. This policy puts us in a position to make this a reality.

Within this broader context, three key security trends will continue to shape events: the evolving balance of power, the changing nature of conflict, and the rapid evolution of technology.

Evolving balance of power

Trends in global economic development are shifting the relative power of states, from the West to the East, and – to a lesser extent – from the North to the South, creating a more diffuse environment in which an increasing number of state and non-state actors exercise influence. This shift supports positive global change, such as the alleviation of poverty, and the democratization and empowerment that often accompany economic development. However, this shift has also been accompanied by weak governance and increasing uncertainty. In this era of growing multi-polarity, the United States is still unquestionably the only superpower. China is a rising economic power with an increasing ability to project influence globally. Russia has proven its willingness to test the international security environment. A degree of major power competition has returned to the international system.

There are also a number of rising regional powers that are gaining greater influence in international affairs, particularly as economies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa continue to grow at a relatively rapid pace. Canada has a strong interest in supporting the international system it helped to build, including by fostering new partnerships, engaging with emerging powers and promoting peace around the globe.

State competition

As a trading nation and influential member of the G7, G20, NATO and United Nations, Canada benefits from global stability underpinned by a rules-based international order. Recent years have witnessed several challenges. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea is an example that has carried grave consequences. Activities in the South China Sea highlight the need for all states in the region to peacefully manage and resolve disputes in accordance with international law, and avoid coercion and other actions that could escalate tension.

The re-emergence of major power competition has reminded Canada and its allies of the importance of deterrence. At its core, deterrence is about discouraging a potential adversary from doing something harmful before they do it. A credible military deterrent serves as a diplomatic tool to help prevent conflict and should be accompanied by dialogue. NATO Allies and other like-minded states have been re-examining how to deter a wide spectrum of challenges to the international order by maintaining advanced conventional military capabilities that could be used in the event of a conflict with a “near-peer.” Deterrence has traditionally focused on conventional and nuclear capabilities, but the concept is also increasingly relevant to the space and cyber domains.

The re-emergence of deterrence

Changes in the international environment demand a new understanding of how and when to lawfully use or threaten to use military force in support of diplomatic engagement to manage and shape conflict and international relations.

The return of major power rivalry, new threats from non-state actors, and challenges in the space and cyber domains have returned deterrence to the centre of defence thinking.

Canada benefits from the deterrent effect provided by its alliances (e.g., NATO and NORAD), and takes seriously its responsibility to contribute to efforts to deter aggression by potential adversaries in all domains.

A changing Arctic

The Arctic region represents an important international crossroads where issues of climate change, international trade, and global security meet. Eight states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – have territory north of 60°, while five of these states border the Arctic Ocean. Arctic states have long cooperated on economic, environmental, and safety issues, particularly through the Arctic Council, the premier body for cooperation in the region. All Arctic states have an enduring interest in continuing this productive collaboration.

Climate change, combined with advancements in technology, is leading to an increasingly accessible Arctic. A decade ago, few states or firms had the ability to operate in the Arctic. Today, state and commercial actors from around the world seek to share in the longer term benefits of an accessible Arctic. Over time, this interest is expected to generate a corresponding rise in commercial interest, research and tourism in and around Canada’s northern territory. This rise in activity will also bring increased safety and security demands related to search and rescue and natural or man-made disasters to which Canada must be ready to respond.

Influence of non-state actors

The evolving balance of power has created a more diffuse environment in which an increasing number of actors can exercise varying degrees of influence. While states will remain the most important entities on the global landscape, a diverse range of non-state actors add complexity to the operating environment and can change the scope and nature of military operations.

Many of these non-state actors, such as non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, responsible corporations, cities, and religious communities play positive roles that promote peace and address the needs of vulnerable populations. These actors have helped to address global health crises, support implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals to increase vaccinations against preventable disease and empower women and girls. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a good example of the progress that can be made when states and non-state actors unite in common purpose. States must learn to better partner with and leverage the benefits these entities can bring to international affairs.

Other non-state actors have a destructive influence. Terrorist and violent extremist organizations, organized crime cartels and hacker groups exhibit behaviour that cannot be easily addressed through the frameworks and mechanisms that govern state-to-state interaction. Adding to the more complex security environment, terrorist and extremist organizations in some regions of the world have been able to embed themselves in local communities, blurring the lines between the organizations and the civilian population. In some cases, those organizations are viewed by locals as more legitimate than the state, thus further complicating and impeding state authority. This dynamic demands that states seek new ways of addressing borderless threats and mitigating their negative effects.

Global governance

As the relative power of states shifts and new voices gain importance, existing international institutions need to adapt to new realities. The efficacy of the international system rests largely on active engagement by all states. Ensuring cohesion and maintaining accountability will be vitally important as new groupings are integrated into the international system. It is in Canada’s interest that existing global governance mechanisms, including multilateral organizations and negotiation processes, work well, remain flexible and adapt to accommodate new perspectives.

Global governance is undermined when rules are ignored or norms flouted. North Korea’s ongoing efforts to advance its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, including two nuclear tests in 2016 and numerous ballistic missile tests, show clear disregard for multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, and further demonstrate that North Korea poses a serious and increasing threat to both regional stability and international peace and security. Syria’s abhorrent use of weapons of mass destruction against innocent civilians – in strict violation of international law and universally accepted values – remains of grave concern.

The changing nature of conflict

The characteristics of conflict have changed significantly over the last 10 years – from the underlying causes to the actors involved and their methods of warfare. During this period, both state and non-state actors have shown greater willingness to use violence to achieve political ends, taking a particular toll on civilians. The Middle East is currently the most violent region in the world, primarily as a result of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The thousands of deaths from the conflict in Ukraine mean that organized violence has returned to Europe. While many African states have made impressive progress, others continue to struggle with conflict and fragility. Demands on United Nations peace operations have reached historic highs.

Growing complexity

A variety of interrelated conditions can trigger or influence conflicts in unexpected ways. Economic inequality, for example, can create social unrest with potentially significant consequences, including in the West. Large populations of unemployed youth in particular have been at the root of instability historically and in today’s environment they can provide fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremists. Demographic change overall can have destabilizing effects. Population growth, particularly when combined with large-scale transition from rural to urban living, continues to add strain on the world’s cities and increases competition for resources.

The number of migrants worldwide fleeing economic, environmental, or conflict-related causes has reached its highest levels since the Second World War. Such rapid and forced displacement can strain institutions and test the resilience of host populations. These factors also tend to exacerbate the negative consequences of inequality and marginalization.

In addition to these underlying root causes of conflict, the effects of climate change can aggravate existing vulnerabilities, such as weak governance, and exacerbate sources of tension, such as resource scarcity. The effects of climate change must therefore be considered through a security lens.

Climate change has emerged as a security challenge that knows no borders.

The increased frequency, severity and magnitude of extreme weather events all over the world – one of the most immediate and visible results of climate change – will likely continue to generate humanitarian crises.

The effects of climate change can also aggravate existing vulnerabilities, such as weak governance, and increase resource scarcity, which in turn heightenstensions and forces migrations.

In Canada, climate change is transforming the Northern landscape, bringing an evolving set of safety and security challenges, from greater demand for search and rescue to increased international attention and military activity.

The grey zone and hybrid warfare

State and non-state actors are increasingly pursuing their agendas using hybrid methods in the “grey zone” that exists just below the threshold of armed conflict. Hybrid methods involve the coordinated application of diplomatic, informational, cyber, military and economic instruments to achieve strategic or operational objectives. They often rely on the deliberate spread of misinformation to sow confusion and discord in the international community, create ambiguity and maintain deniability. The use of hybrid methods increases the potential for misperception and miscalculation. Hybrid methods are frequently used to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of a national government or international alliance. By staying in the fog of the grey zone, states can influence events in their favour without triggering outright armed conflict. The use of hybrid methods presents challenges in terms of detection, attribution and response for Canada and its allies, including the understanding and application of NATO’s Article 5.

Linkages between inter- and intra-state conflict

The distinction between inter-and intra-state conflict is becoming less relevant in terms of intensity. Intra-state conflicts are increasingly playing out in high threat, high intensity environments with well-armed, organized groups. With states using proxies to commit violence on their behalf, there has been a rise in the last five years in the number of active intra-state conflicts with external troop involvement. The conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and eastern Ukraine involve state-backed militias acting either as reinforcements to conventional forces or as a method of employing force with deniability. These conflicts demonstrate how the injection of state-backed resources can increase the complexity and intensity of intra-state conflicts.

Global terrorism

Terrorism is not a new threat, but it has evolved significantly and presents a challenge that cannot be met through military means alone. The global death toll from terrorism has more than doubled in the last 20 years, demonstrating the willingness of non-state actors to employ violence in the pursuit of their objectives. While this trend reflects chronic violence largely concentrated in the Middle East and parts of Africa, events in the past year show that terrorist groups are extending their reach, sponsoring or inspiring attacks in major European and North American centres. Terrorist and violent extremist organizations, notably al-Qaida and Daesh, are also intent on targeting Western interests through terrorist attacks and kidnappings.

Successfully disrupting terrorist networks requires a multi-faceted approach, including efforts to stop the flow of terrorist financing and counter the communication strategies employed by violent extremists. The potential of terrorist groups to spread into ungoverned spaces and exploit information technology to form alliances and far-flung trans-regional networks also poses a security challenge. Countries, like Canada, that are committed to combating terrorism will require sound intelligence on potential threats. Traditional concepts of deterrence may also not apply to non-state actors who calculate risks and rewards in radically different ways and do not ascribe to the universal values enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

At home, Canada remains the target of direct threats by groups such as Daesh and al-Qaida, and by a small number of individuals inspired by the violent extremist ideologies of these groups. Some have engaged in terrorism-related activities such as promoting violence online, radicalizing peers, recruiting and fundraising. Others may consider travelling abroad to join a terrorist group or conduct an attack themselves. As part of a broader strategy, counter-radicalization efforts and meaningful community outreach will be essential to diminish the appeal that violent extremist ideologies have for a small number of individuals.

Weapons proliferation

The risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-remains troubling. The proliferation of ballistic missile technology as a means to deliver these weapons is also a source of concern. The number of countries with access to ballistic missile technology, including some with the potential to reach North America or target Canadian and allied deployed forces, has increased and is expected to grow and become more sophisticated. North Korea’s frequent nuclear and missile tests underscore this point. Diplomatic efforts have successfully restrained Iran’s nuclear program through the joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but Iran also possesses a considerable number of short and medium-range ballistic missiles which can pose a significant threat. The unlawful use of chemical weapons against civilian and military populations is also a source of significant concern. The Joint Investigative Mechanism created by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has attributed the use of chlorine and sulphur mustard weapons in Syria to both non-state and state actors, including the Syrian Government. As well, North Korea continues to maintain a chemical and biological weapon program.

Finally, because of their low cost and accessibility, the majority of armed conflicts continue to be fought with small arms and light weapons. An estimated 300,000 to half a million deaths per year are caused by these weapons, upwards of 90 percent of victims of armed conflict. Over 1,000 companies from 100 countries produce some aspect of these arms and though most are transferred legally, the lack of regulation and controls in many regions where conflict is occurring has resulted in the development of illicit markets, making it challenging to stem their proliferation. Canada will reinforce its export controls and help strengthen international controls on conventional arms by joining the Arms Trade Treaty.

The changing nature of peace operations

The violence and instability created by fragile states and transnational threats have led to horrific human rights abuses and humanitarian tragedies. In this context, UN peace operations are an important tool for the international community to collectively promote peace and security, including by increasing efforts to prevent conflict in the first place and by helping countries emerging from conflict achieve enduring peace.

The evolution of UN peace operations over the last three decades reflects the changing nature of the conflicts to which these operations respond. The majority of UN missions are being deployed into complex political and security environments. They operate in difficult conditions and with robust, multi-dimensional mandates. Indeed, two-thirds of peacekeepers now operate in active conflict zones. As such, peace operations are now regularly tasked with using force to protect populations at risk and helping to bring about the conditions necessary for ending conflict.

Operating in this context has brought new challenges. UN missions too often lack the means required to deliver on their mandates. Canada is well-placed to help fill these gaps. Our specialized capabilities and expertise can play a critical role in strengthening the effectiveness of missions on the ground, supporting peace processes and post-conflict peacebuilding, and improving the training available to other contributing countries. Canada can also help improve the overall management of peace operations by enhancing the UN’s capacity to provide senior leadership and direction from headquarters.

UN peace operations also advance Canadian values and interests. They play a critical role in advancing democracy, upholding human rights, and delivering support to the vulnerable and marginalized communities that need it most. As part of a feminist approach to international policy, Canada is committed to working with the UN to end conflict-related sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. This includes advancing the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and ensuring UN peacekeepers are held accountable for meeting the highest standards of conduct.

Rapid evolution of technology

The information revolution is one of the key drivers of many of the most exciting opportunities in the world. Modern militaries rely on networks and data to plan and carry out missions. Much of what gives Western forces their technological and tactical advantage stems from space-enabled systems, and agile information management and technology tools to aggregate and manipulate large quantities of data.

Technological developments point to a future of defence that is expected to be vastly different than today, with a greater emphasis on information technologies, data analytics, deep learning, autonomous systems, advancements in the electromagnetic and cyber domains, as well as a range of transformative technologies, from quantum computing to synthetic biology. Any number of these advances has the potential to change the fundamental nature of military operations. The rapid pace of technological change will also require that domestic and international legal and governance systems adapt in an effective and timely manner.

Canada is committed to employing new technological capabilities in a manner that rigorously respects all applicable domestic and international law, is subject to proven checks and balances, and ensures full oversight and accountability. As a country that has led several successful efforts to advance human rights and establish new international norms, Canada is also well-placed to advocate among international partners for the highest standards for the use of cyber, space, and remotely piloted systems.

The cyber domain

The internet was not originally designed with security in mind, but as an open system to allow for the rapid exchange of data. Technological advances have opened the cyber domain to a variety of state and non-state actors. Terrorist networks, for example, are already using cyberspace to support their recruitment, fundraising, and propaganda activities, and are simultaneously seeking to exploit Western dependence on cyber systems.

The most sophisticated cyber threats come from the intelligence and military services of foreign states. Technologically-advanced governments, their militaries, and private businesses are vulnerable to state-sponsored cyber espionage and disruptive cyber operations. This threat can be expected to grow in the coming years. Addressing the threat is complicated by the difficulties involved in identifying the source of cyber attacks with certainty and the jurisdictional challenges caused by the possible remoteness of cyber attacks.

In the military context, while the use of cyberspace has become crucial to operations, potential adversaries, including state proxies and non-state actors, are rapidly developing cyber means to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in the C4ISR systems (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) on which militaries depend, as well as other operational technologies, such as weapons systems.

The space domain

Satellites underpin an increasing range of daily activities, including by providing the “time stamp” function for ATMs and stock exchanges, coordinating air traffic control and “just in time” delivery of goods, and supporting the operation of cell phones and television. Space-based assets are critical for modern militaries. Satellites provide support across all operations – from humanitarian assistance and disaster response, to peace support, and combat. They are instrumental for navigation, communications and intelligence.

The evolving space environment is often characterized as being congested, competitive, and contested.

Increasing congestion means that the risk of collision between satellites and other orbiting spacecraft or debris continues to rise, as more objects are launched into orbit. Space is now congested to the point where orbital debris poses a real and increasing hazard to day-to-day operations in space, and this problem only stands to increase with the proliferation of micro and small satellites being launched by commercial space actors. The rigours of operating in the space environment present their own challenges, including harmful radiation and adverse space weather, which can degrade satellite functionality over time.

Outer space is increasingly competitive. In addition to the growing number of state-sponsored space programs, the commercial space industry has grown exponentially over the last several years. While this has contributed significantly to the congestion of outer space, it also presents exciting opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Finally, space is an increasingly contested environment. While Canada remains fully committed to the peaceful use of space, our assets have become potential targets, with some states developing a range of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) that could potentially threaten access to the space domain. Some countries already have an ability to temporarily disrupt space-based services, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) or satellite communications, and a smaller number have the ability – or have stated an interest in the ability – to cause more permanent effects, including the destruction of satellites. Space-related challenges are magnified by the fact that the international legal framework governing outer space continues to evolve in response to rapid developments. Canada can demonstrate leadership by promoting the military and civilian norms of responsible behaviour in space required to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.

Implications for Canada of a changing security environment

  • The global security environment transcends national borders, requiring Canada to help promote peace and stability abroad in order to maintain security at home.
  • In a global security environment defined by complexity and unpredictability, Canada requires an agile, well-educated, flexible, diverse, and combat-ready military capable of conducting a wide range of operations at home and internationally.
  • The interrelated nature of global security challenges puts a premium on deep knowledge and understanding. Using a range of analytical tools, Canada must develop sophisticated awareness of the information and operating environment and the human dimension of conflict to better predict and respond to crises.
  • To keep pace, Canada must develop advanced space and cyber capabilities, and expand cutting-edge research and development.
  • Canada must continue to be a responsible partner that adds value to traditional alliances, including NORAD, NATO, and the Five-Eyes community.
  • Canada must balance these fundamental relationships with the need to engage with emerging powers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Canada must address the threat stemming from terrorism and the actions of violent extremist organizations, including in ungoverned spaces.
  • Recognizing the devastating effects of climate change, Canada must bolster its ability to respond to severe weather events and other natural disasters, both at home and abroad.
  • Acknowledging rising international interest in the Arctic, Canada must enhance its ability to operate in the North and work closely with allies and partners.
  • Canada and the United States must work closely together on NORAD Modernization in order to defend North America.
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