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The UK and Canada: National Security and collaboration in uncertain times

Article by Aaron Shull and Wesley Wark

December 16, 2020

The UK and Canada: National Security and collaboration in uncertain times

The contemporary world of international relations is marked by two major countervailing trends. First, is a number of complicated existential threats, like climate change and pandemics, which require earnest international coordination and collaboration to address. Second, is a trend in the opposite direction toward isolationism and nationalism, with the quintessential examples being Brexit and ‘America First’.


On top of these trend lines, with COVID-19, we have seen cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns launched by adversarial state actors; the domestic deployment of the Canadian and Australian militaries, among other national forces, to protect vulnerable populations; the disruption and vulnerability of just-in-time global supply chains; worrying domestic political tensions and fractures in many states; and an erosion of international cooperation. All of this is taking place amid ongoing tectonic geopolitical shifts, bookended by an overdue discussion about data, tracking, commercial surveillance and the attention economy.


Given this, there are two key and congruent lessons to be learned from COVID-19. First, is the urgent need to reconceptualise doctrines of national security. Second, is to develop a better appreciation of where alliances with likeminded states can be found in the tumultuous sea of global affairs.


A notable feature of existing national security doctrine is the willingness to identify pandemics as a national security threat, without building a sufficient response capability, and while largely decoupling this threat from a traditional understanding of the role and functions of security and intelligence systems. In our view, this needs to change, and change needs to be driven by exchanges among like-minded states and, ultimately, by public debate.


One important forum for discussions of a new approach to national security is the Five Eyes alliance (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the United States). The Five Eyes partnership has, over the past decade, expanded its scope beyond intelligence sharing to incorporate dialogue on key geopolitical and economic concerns. While it is a small and tight club of ‘Anglosphere’ states, it could serve as an important sounding board.


Within this context, it is important to note that the UK produced its first national security strategy in March 2008, which took a quite broad view of national security.[1] It set out a new understanding of national security for the UK, explained in this way:

“In the past, the state was the traditional focus of foreign, defence and security policies, and national security was understood as dealing with the protection of the state and its vital interests from attacks by other states. Over recent decades, our view of national security has broadened to include threats to individual citizens and to our way of life, as well as to the integrity and interests of the state. That is why this strategy deals with transnational crime, pandemics and flooding — not part of the traditional idea of national security, but clearly challenges that can affect large numbers of our citizens and which demand some of the same responses as more traditional security threats, including terrorism.”


This was a bold statement. It elevated the understanding of the threats posed by pandemics and climate change impacts to a high level and, just as important, argued that the approach to these non-traditional security threats contained many elements similar to those deployed against more traditional concerns, including terrorism. These elements included monitoring (intelligence collection) and risk assessment, the development of response capabilities and the inculcation of societal resilience. Subsequent iterations of the British national security strategy suggest the bold new outlook never fully took hold. The most recent update to the British national security strategy was produced in 2018.[2] Pandemics were included in a general category of national security threats, labelled “diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK.” Discussion of specific responses to pandemic threats was off-loaded to a separate biosecurity review, produced in July 2018.[3]


The UK Biological Security Strategy extolled the capabilities and systems available within the UK while calling for greater integration of effort, sustained attention to the threat and support for developing countries to help improve their capabilities. Disease outbreaks were identified as a major globalised threat to society while accidental release of a virus or deliberate biological attacks were seen as less likely (high impact but low probability). The UK strategy maintained a traditional distinction between the role of intelligence services in collecting information regarding deliberate threats (largely from malicious state actors), and the conduct of epidemiological intelligence by civilian public health authorities and experts in Britain and through international partnerships. The key role played by the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme was acknowledged alongside Britain’s financial contribution to it.[4] The WHO was described as having “a world leading surveillance and information network filtering 5000 disease signals a month looking for outbreaks of pandemic potential.”


It is safe to say that key assumptions built into the 2018 UK Biological Security Strategy, such as the distinction between state-sponsored biological threats and naturally occurring pandemics, and the singular reliance on the WHO for global surveillance, have been made dangerously obsolete by COVID-19. The creation of a new Joint Biosecurity Centre in May 2020 to act as an intelligence fusion and response mechanism is one early indicator of new thinking.[5]


Where does Canada fit? The answer is: on the margins. Canada has never produced an overarching biosecurity strategy, unlike Britain and the United States. Its one attempt at a national security strategy was produced 16 years ago and has been forgotten. The 2004 Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy deserved a better fate.[6] It might have served as a useful construct if it had been sustained and adapted to a changing national security environment. Its emphasis on an ‘all-hazards’ understanding of national security threats, its identification of intelligence as the country’s first line of defence against all manner of threats, its attention to public health threats in the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, and its call for closer integration of public health and national security were all important attributes. But this concept of national security withered away, to be replaced by more sectoral attention to individual threats posed by terrorism, cyberattacks and violent extremism.


A long-overdue reappraisal of Canadian strategic approaches to national security will have to emerge in a post-COVID-19 environment. The groundwork needs to be laid in a clear-eyed appraisal of the Canadian Government’s response to the pandemic and the nature of the role played by security and intelligence agencies, which has been largely obscured by doctrines of secrecy, failures of transparency and glib political messaging. Canada should not be content to continue to sit on the margins of strategic thinking about national security. As Canada revamps its own approach to national security, there are things it can learn from efforts by its Five Eyes partners – and the UK in particular.


There is also an opportunity to build on the long history between the UK and Canada, as both push into an increasingly uncertain and unstable world. At risk of stating the obvious, states do not have ‘friends’, they have interests. But, if they did – Canada and the UK would be the best of friends. They have a common language. A similar culture. Plus, a range of shared experiences.


However, more pointedly, they also have a number of comparable interests in the conduct of global affairs. Both Canada and the UK are too small to throw their weight around, like China and the United States. Both benefit from a stable rules-based global order and from certainty within international institutions (as much as that is possible). During this period of upheaval, it will be imperative for countries like the UK and Canada to work together to advance their mutual interests in a range of international fora, from the G20 to the ITU. After all, in tough times, it is nice to know who your friends are.


Aaron Shull is CIGI’s managing director and general counsel, acts as a strategic liaison between CIGI’s research initiatives and other departments while managing CIGI’s legal affairs and advising senior management on a range of legal, operational and policy matters. Aaron is an expert on cyber security issues. He coordinated the CIGI essay series Governing Cyberspace during a Crisis in Trust. Prior to joining CIGI, Aaron practised law for a number of organizations, focusing on international, regulatory and environmental law. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and was previously a staff editor for the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.


Wesley Wark is a CIGI senior fellow and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Public Management and Policy, where he teaches professional courses on security and intelligence topics. He recently retired from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, where he had taught since 1988. He served two terms on the prime minister of Canada’s Advisory Council on National Security (2005–2009) and on the Advisory Committee to the President of the Canada Border Services Agency from 2006 to 2010. More recently, he provided advice to the minister of public safety on national security legislation and policy. He has appeared on numerous occasions before parliamentary committees and comments regularly for the media on national security issues.


Image by FCDO under (CC).


[1] The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an interdependent world, Cabinet Office, March 2008,

[2] National Security Capability Review, HM Government, March 2018,

[3] UK Biological Security Strategy, HM Government, July 2018,

[4] WHO in emergencies, World Health Organization,

[5] Joint Biosecurity Centre,, May 2020,

[6] Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy, Public Safety Canada,

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