Canada shirks its military responsibility
There is something about war that forces countries to find their place in the world. Canada is no exception.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the horrific scenes of barbarism we all witness daily remind us that despite our relative isolation and good fortune, Canada has a role to play in defending democracy and of civilized life.
As a founding member of NATO and one of only two non-European countries in the 30-nation alliance — the other being the United States — Canada occupies a special position in the conflict, a position that we do not share with Japan, Australia, South Korea and other rich countries.
Yet when it comes to fulfilling those responsibilities, the war in Ukraine reveals a shameful fact: Canada has been slipping away for years, happy to cut back on defense spending, hoping no one will notice. .
This is part of Canada’s history of self-delusion. We see ourselves as the boy scouts of the world, championing democracy through good works and supporting multilateralism. But, in fact, Canada tends to be a frugal, inward-looking country well below its weight in world affairs.
The NATO guideline is that countries must spend 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. Only 10 countries actually meet this standard. Spending 3.52%, the US leads the pack, alongside Greece. We are not a superpower like our neighbor to the south, but Canada could make a reasonable effort. Instead, we are near the bottom: we spend only 1.39% of GDP, behind Italy. Only Slovenia, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg spend less.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is touring European capitals this week, equally admitted that we are not doing enough, saying “the world is changing rapidly”. He followed that up with a lukewarm pledge to increase defense spending. “We will continue to look at what more we can do.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war suddenly had Europeans worried about their own safety. Germany (which devotes 1.53% of its GDP to defence) has made a historic commitment to invest 100 billion euros in a special fund to modernize its army and to devote at least 2% of its GDP to defense by 2024. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says his government will “spend a lot of extra money on defence, and I think rightly so”.
Canada is lucky. We are far from the action in Ukraine, and nobody in Europe traditionally pays much attention to what we are doing. NATO members seem quite happy that we are leading the NATO battle group in Latvia with over 500 soldiers and supplying weapons to Ukraine. But we could do more.
Although we like to brag about our independence from the United States, we know that our geography means that we are safe under the Pentagon in the event of a serious threat from Russia or China. We talk a lot about Canadian sovereignty, but I wouldn’t count on our old CF-18s to do anything in extremis.
The last time Canada spent 2% of its GDP on defense was in 1987, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, it was double, or 4.19%.
Unfortunately, for decades, with the exception of the mission in Afghanistan, Canadian defense policy rarely seems to be focused on our sovereignty or our place in the world. It’s more about regional development (industrial spin-offs) and sending soldiers to help with pandemics and floods.
When the Harper government announced its shipbuilding strategy in 2012, it was to pour billions of dollars into Nova Scotia and British Columbia where the ships were going to be built, with Quebec crying foul because he wouldn’t get his share of the pork.
Canada’s real defense needs seemed secondary. It is now estimated that the Canadian combat ship program will cost $60 billion, in part because we had to build a shipbuilding industry from scratch. Buying existing ships from someone else would have been faster and more efficient, but there would be less money to distribute among grateful voters.
In addition, deferred spending, whether on ships or fighter jets, is an essential part of our approach to defence. They call it reprofiling. All Canadian governments do this. When Finance sits down to write a budget, if the government needs to cut billions in spending, it can always stretch out a major defense project for a few more years. Magic. The deficit for the current year is reduced.
What if we didn’t spend a lot on defense? you could say. It is because we are not a warlike nation. We are a country of peacekeepers and benefactors.
Think again. According to the United Nations, Canada had exactly 62 participants in UN peacekeeping operations as of December 31, just behind Sierra Leone. The great peacekeepers these days are countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, whose soldiers are cheaper to fund, but Canada remains particularly weak in this area. On the other hand, Ireland has 503 blue helmets.
However, there is an impressive sculpture dedicated to the Blue Helmets just outside the National Gallery of Canada, with a beautiful view of the Parliament. Everything is there to maintain the illusion.
And when it comes to international development assistance, we do even worse. The UN says countries should spend 0.7% of their gross national income on it. While Norway and Sweden spend more, Canada spends a pitiful 0.27%.
Both major parties are responsible for this mentality. The Harper government talked a lot about defence, bringing back old uniforms and old names for the navy and air force, but was stingy when it came to the army; spending fell to just 1% of GDP in 2014. As for the Liberals, they may talk a lot about helping the developing world, but they actually spend less on foreign aid than the Harper government.
This week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said all NATO members should do more, including Canada.
“I call on all allies to mobilize,” he said. “I welcome Prime Minister Trudeau’s message that, in light of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Canada will also assess the need to further increase defense spending.
Assessment is easy. In fact, deciding to spend the money and to call is completely different. It’s something we’ve avoided for too long.
MORE FREE MAN: Will Western unity be enough to stop the carnage in Ukraine?
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