I regularly listen to the Defence Deconstructed podcast, which regularly delves into a range of topics concerning the Canadian Armed Forces (the CAF).
Recently, I listened to a conversation that discussed the brutal Wall Street Journal opinion piece that took Canada to task for its anemic defence spending, which is approximately 1.3% of GDP. Inarguably, it was the single most damning piece of opinion regarding the sorry state of Canada’s defence capabilities in recent memory.
In listening to the conversation about the WSJ article on the podcast, I was thrown into a fit of rage as I listened to one of the academics hold water for the Trudeau Liberals and their paltry spending on defence. Okay, it wasn’t a fit of rage, but there was some serious gnashing of teeth.
Here was her argument. And it’s an argument the Liberals and their defenders employ all the time:
“Don’t measure the amount of spending, instead, measure the full value and contributions that Canada is delivering. Every time NATO has made the call, we’ve been there,” is the most frequent refrain. Another claim, “These commitments are outsized for what we’re spending and this is what gives us credibility. All of these cries for more spending are from people who haven’t been in Europe and talked to people on the ground. Europeans greatly appreciate our commitments.”
These delusions go on, but this sampling gives you the gist.
With all due respect, if the above points of view are being made, it is for the following reasons:
- The person doesn’t know what they’re talking about
- The person wants to curry or maintain favor with the party in power – the Liberals
- The person genuinely thinks that hard power and realism approaches to foreign policy are misguided and detrimental to a country’s national interest.
As I listened to the academic make her argument that Canada’s defence spending doesn’t need to change and in fact should be lauded, several rebuttals entered my mind. Of course, because the podcast in question is always a civil affair, no one made an effort to push back on the statements.
For what remains of this post, let me tell you all the reasons Canada’s current approach to defence spending is ill-informed and dangerous to the country’s national interest.
1) Seat At the Table:
Let’s start this section by talking about AUKUS. This is the recent agreement where Australia, the UK and the US agreed to a joint defence pact that revolved around the sharing of nuclear tech and the eventual purchase of some number of nuclear submarines for Australia. It is also a defence pact where the involved countries commit to stationing soldiers and weapons platforms in the Pacific. It is perhaps the most important defence treaty in the past fifty years.
And Canada wasn’t even considered for it. I’m not even sure we knew about the discussions.
To put this in perspective, in WW II we were an integral member of the Allies and were given one of the beaches for the Normandy invasion. We were a founding member of NATO. And of course, we are a member of the Five Eyes, the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agreement that also features Australia, the UK, and the US. At one time, it was inconceivable that our closest allies wouldn’t consult us or somehow bring us into this kind of agreement, even if it was never the case we were going to purchase nuclear subs.
It’s difficult to foresee what the next agreement or situation would be where Canada’s interests will be ignored but the precedent has now been set. Despite being unable to see into the future, I would note that the Wall Street Journal piece suggested that Canada should be removed from the G-7 if it isn’t going to pull its weight on the defence file.
Could Canada be kicked out of the G-7? It is unlikely, but anything is possible. Donald Trump was elected in 2016 and in 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine wholesale. A lot of smart people said both things wouldn’t or couldn’t happen.
Here’s another scenario. Let’s say Trump is re-elected in 2024 and he does decide to pull the US out of NATO and there’s a mad dash to reform the Alliance in the absence of its political linchpin. To what degree would Canada’s opinion matter in such a shakedown? The answer is our opinion and interests would mean almost nothing because in the past twenty years or so we’ve grossly short-changed what is the great centerpiece of Canadian foreign and defence policy.
Here’s the thing. When you invest in something over the long haul – be it a marriage, your retirement, or alliances with other countries, over time, these investments increase in value. But Canada is a short-sighted and selfish country, and as a result, our well of goodwill and political capital across the world when it comes to defence matters is thin gruel. The AUKUS agreement is but the most transparent outcome of this reality.
To end this section, I pose this question: think of all things Canada is kept out of that Canadians are not told about?
2) Canadian National Interest:
There are times when a country may wish to go it alone on an issue, or is prepared to put enough chips on the table to lead a group of other nations to accomplish something of importance in the foreign policy realm.
Outside of the Herculean effort to lead a multi-national brigade in Latvia, Canada is incapable of doing either of these two things, and as a result, we are prevented from doing things that might be in Canada’s interest. So, by default, Canada is required to support US interests, or do nothing. And even with Latvia, I would argue the only reason we’re taking this on is because of the opinion pounding we took just before our expansion in Latvia is announced. Colour me skeptical, but I think the chances were low that Canada would have doubled it’s contingent in the Baltics had it not been for the WSJ piece that came days before the commitment was announced. But even with this commitment, it’s going take us a full year to gather the resources to grow the force.
Just a reminder of what we’re eventually sending to Latvia: 2,200 soldiers.
Is this a big number? Let’s look at Canada as a country briefly. In 2023, and for the next several years, the following will be true:
- In 2023, it became a country of 40 million. It along with the United States is the only modern democracy that is growing population-wise. In 2031, it’s estimated Canada will have somewhere close to 50 million people.
- Conservatively, over the next twenty years, Canada could become the third or fourth largest economy in the world.
- Barring a cataclysm in the United States, Canada will remain the safest country in the world and will have access to near-unlimited amounts of natural resources. Should it make reasonable policy choices, Canada’s tax base will grow substantially over the next decade.
All of this to say that Canada is on track to become a dominant economic force in the world. Should Canada become an economic power as forecasted, without question, it must increase its role to support and ensure the economic and political system that serves Canada so well, persists. To leave this to other countries, some of whom are not anywhere near as capable and/or who do not have Canada’s national interest at the forefront of their thinking, is a missed opportunity and colossal leadership failure.
Let me be clear. From the Canadian perspective, it is beyond irresponsible to think that US and Canadian interests will always align. Further, with all that’s happening in the US, it is the height of stupidity to think there isn’t something like a 10 to 15% chance that something awful is going to prevent the US from being able to exercise international leadership. In many respects, the US is a ticking time bomb.
This being the case, Canada must make reasonable investments in its military so it can operate independently of the United States as it needs to. Regarding NATO, Canada should be able to support the alliance’s mission to contain Russia. But it should also be the case that Canada should be able to fully engage meaningfully in other situations where we have a vested interest. A robust military allows us to do that within the confines of the US hegemony, or on our own, or with a group of willing partners.
If Canada is to assume a more prominent leadership role in the world, it MUST be able affect hard power and it MUST be able to affect such hard power in circumstances that are clearly in its national interest. I say this will all due respect to our neighbors to the south: Canada is not the United States’ water boy. Within reason, one the field of play that is world, we make the plays we want to make when we want to make them.
3) National Unity and Pride:
Canadians rightly take pride in their military and the contributions the Canadian Armed Forces have made to the world in the past 120 years. For such a small country, at times, our contributions have been significant.
As Canada becomes increasingly modern and diverse, it is being strained politically. In 2023, Canada has never been so divided. How this division has been sown is another blog post; suffice it to say that polling and a brief examination of Canada’s political scene will tell you Canada as a country is in dire need of some type of unifying principle or force.
At one point, the Canadian Armed Forces was a national institution that brought Canadians together. And now, more than ever, Canada needs unifying symbols.
Justified or not, Canadians take great pride in its tradition of peacekeeping. And Canadians who know their history, are hugely proud of the country’s outsized contributions in WWI and WW II. More recently, Canadians supported the CAF in its years in Afghanistan and came together in support and sorrow as Canadian soldiers died during the ten or so years, Canada was engaged in that wretched conflict.
Militaries and defending a country’s national interests are a fundamental responsibility of government. When done well as is the case in the US, France or Great Britain, militaries can be powerful political vehicles with which to instill pride, foster national service, and perhaps most importantly, boost national unity. In light of the growing political divisions in Canada, all of these outcomes are things Canada needs more, not less of.
4) Making a Difference for Humanity:
This point might ring closely with the early section on Canada’s National Interest, but I want to assure you it’s different.
Having a well-funded military that allows Canada to pursue its own national interests apart from the US global framework is an important standalone point. This section addresses the notion that apart from national interest Canada has a moral obligation to engage in the world in robust ways that include its military.
Before I give you two examples to showcase this point, consider the following:
- Because of geography and its national economy Canada is one of a handful of countries in the world that had the potential to project hard power.
- Canada doesn’t have the political baggage that the United States does and in many situations, this differing status could allow Canada to play a different and meaningful role in world affairs.
- The Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that authoritarian regimes are still eminently capable of using military force to achieve political gains in international relations. If anything, the Russian invasion will only serve to encourage other similar types of military intervention.
- Political and military intervention, when done well, collaboratively, and for the right reasons, can have significant positive effects on a country’s political-social-economic outcomes.
Having set out these positions, let me give you two situations to consider when it comes to Canada making a difference in today’s world.
In 1994, during the Rwanda Civil War, something in the range of 500,000 to 620,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered during a period of 100 days. Some estimates put the number of those killed as high as 800,000. I won’t get into all of the details of why this terrible loss of human life happened and why the international community did nothing to stop it. What I will say is that if Canada did have a robust military (and it didn’t in 1994) it could have taken on a leadership role and acted to, if not stop the full genocide, reduce it significantly.
Is Rwanda in the Canadian national interest? I think most Canadians would tell you that it isn’t. But would intervening in this conflict be the right thing to do? I think an overwhelming number of Canadians would tell you that intervention should take place.
As mentioned above, Canada is one of a handful of countries that could relatively quickly send an intervention force halfway across the world if it properly funded its military. The Rwanda Genocide is a near-perfect example demonstrating why it is crucial for Canada to have a robust military. The United States had no interest in the conflict and did nothing. France, the former colonial master of Rwanda, was in some ways complicit regarding what happened in 1994. Britain, because of its historic colonial rivalry with France was unwilling to become involved. Canada, because of its unique history, could have played a crucial role in preventing one of history’s great tragedies. Instead, we did virtually nothing.
Today, Haiti is a disaster. It is corruption personified. It is run by gangs and its government is inept or incapable of making things better. Haiti needs the international community’s help. There are around 165,000 Canadians who are of Haitian descent. Canada has a longstanding and intimate relationship with the people of Haiti. For the past forty or so years, Canada has willingly plundered some of the best and brightest of Haiti, while for the most part, we’ve watched the country befoul itself from afar.
In 2023, the US government asked Canada to take on a leadership role in Haiti to help this country right itself but Canada refused. Why? Not because Canada isn’t interested in helping in Haiti but because Canada’s military is so woefully underfunded and decrepit, Canada couldn’t possibly make the type of commitment that would be needed to properly pull Haiti out of the quagmire that it is in. We’re committed to Latvia remember?
Should Canada get involved in Haiti? I’m not sure it’s as clear-cut as Rwanda. But, I will say this. There’s every chance that Haiti could devolve into an even worse disaster than it is now. If Canada is not prepared to do the hard work of helping Haiti figure itself out over a period of ten years or so, it should be ready on a moment’s notice to intervene in the country if it’s going to prevent the deaths of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Haitians. It owes the people of Haiti at least this much.
As it stands presently, Canada could not affect such a mission. What a shame that would be, and what a stain that would be on Canada as a country were some terribly tragedy to befall this country, which is so close to Canada in its geography and personal connections.
A Final Point:
I want to go back to the point that I started off this blog post with and that’s the academic’s point that Canada’s defence spending is perfectly fine at 1.3 percent of GDP and that Canadians would never support its government spending this amount of money on defence.
Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more.
In Canada, on the matter of defence, we have a complete absence of leadership from our political leaders. Basically, from Pierre Trudeau to our current PM (Justin Trudeau), we have had a series of leaders who have placed domestic political gain over Canada’s role in the world.
Canadians are a smart and serious people and if presented with a rationale that makes a compelling case for spending more money on the CAF, I firmly believe a majority of Canadians will support this policy position for as long as it takes for Canada to take its place among the serious nations of the world.
The demographic data of the next thirty years or so is clear. Canada, if run properly, has the potential to become a powerful country. The stark reality of history is that hard power is a necessary part of the leadership equation in international politics.
Because of the sophisticated equipment that is now used, militaries take years if not decades to build up. The time is upon Canada to invest in its military properly. If it fails to do so, it may squander the greatest opportunity that has ever befallen it: to truly become one of history’s great nations – a country that set the table for its citizens at home and a nation that truly made the world a better place on those occasions it could.
Ryan Flannagan is the author of Take Whiteman, A CANZUK at War novel. Visit Ryan’s website: www.raflannagan.ca to learn more about Ryan and his writing.