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Cox: What will Trudeau's new National Security Council actually do? In a government lacking geopolitical acumen or vision, few details have been provided. James Cox Ottawa Citizen. Published Oct 04, 2023

On Sept. 27, without fanfare, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced changes to cabinet committees, one of which was the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC). This should have been a big deal, built on fulsome public information about the role, composition and structure of this centrally important body, but the announcement was reduced to an uninspiring debut, saying only that the NSC would be “a forum for strategic decision-making and for sharing analysis of intelligence in its strategic context.” We do not yet know what the NSC will actually do. The absence of substantial supporting information leaves the impression that the NSC is yet another facile reaction to silence adverse commentary.

We do know the NSC will be chaired by Trudeau. Members include the deputy prime minister and six principal ministers, including the ministers of National Defence and Public Safety. It will be helpful to include the minister of Public Health and the minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Imagine Canada is at war. This is the group that will lead us through the conflict.

There are at least three significant concerns.

First, introducing the new NSC as a “forum for strategic decision-making” is a decidedly specious description. It is weak and betrays the lack of intellectual effort that should have gone into developing a mandate charging the NSC with guiding the country’s national security effort. It’s like describing the NHL simply as a group that puts hockey teams on the ice. There is so much more that happens before, and so much to do after a team takes to the ice.

In taking a strategic decision, one might expect there is something big to decide upon, but this government’s lack of geopolitical acumen or vision has consistently placed it on a back foot in times of crisis, reacting only after things happen. As a result, what could have been a strategic decision is usually only a necessary tactical reaction. Without a prior, true national security policy, served by a viable national security grand strategy (neither of which exists), there can be no effective strategies in any field of national security and therefore no basis for a sound strategic decision.

Second, describing the NSC as a forum “for sharing analysis of intelligence in its strategic context” is another indication that government does not fully understand the intelligence function. Interestingly, there is no definition of intelligence in any Canadian legislation. The Communications Security Establishment Act attempts to define “foreign intelligence,” but it is a clearly insufficient and circular definition. Legislated security and intelligence review bodies have no definition of intelligence. On the other hand, the Privy Council Office, the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police all have clear, but different, definitions of intelligence.

The Canadian intelligence enterprise, writ large, lags behind our closest intelligence allies in analytical capacity, sophistication and simple horsepower, all of which is a consequence of government’s lack of understanding of the intelligence function as an important national, social good necessary for the preservation of a secure and prosperous Canada. The new NSC, as described, is unlikely to fix all that.

Third, we know nothing about the intelligence mechanism that will serve this new NSC, enabling government to act with advantage on the world stage. One hopes the NSC secretariat will include a robust strategic intelligence staff. Without one, the NSC will remain short-sighted, dealing with one short-term crisis after another, in a strategic vacuum created by the absence of a true national security policy and grand strategy.

Government needs to tell us more about what the new NSC will actually do, and how it will do it.

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