This post was originally published on October 14, 2016, on Lindley French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power:
“There are no limits to the mighty future of the majestic expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people”.
Winston S. Churchill
Canada is a great country with which I have a great affinity. However, its Ottawa Establishment suffers from the same affliction from which most Western elites suffer; talking grand talk whist walking little walks. This affliction is most un-Canadian as unlike its noisy neighbour to the south Canadians pride themselves on having their feet firmly on the ground. At the excellent 62nd General Assembly of the Atlantic Treaty Association organised by Hugh Segal and Julie Lindhout and their team at the NATO Association of Canada the grand talk, little walk affliction was sadly all too apparent. Whilst there was much talk of defending freedom and values, there was little willingness to pay for that defence. Sadly, strategic denial is all the rage here in Canada.
The most obvious denial concerns Russia. The Ottawa Government like many of their Western Europe counterparts suffer from a full-on dose of the “Putin could not really do that, could he?” syndrome. The assumption of the Canadian Government is that the self-declared enemy of the West would not dare risk a force-on-force confrontation with NATO by attacking/subverting the Baltic States. This is ‘hope-for-the best’ strategy-fying at its worst and ignores or simply reflects an ignorance of the scenarios the Kremlin are considering for a lightning land grab in the Baltics. Right now Russia has both capability and the opportunity to undertake such a strike and there is little the Alliance could do about it if Russia simply stopped at the Polish-Lithuanian border.
To be fair to Canada, Ottawa is sending some 450 troops to Latvia to establish an ‘enhanced forward presence’ in order to bolster NATO deterrence. Many NATO nations have declined to offer such assurance to its Baltic partners – France and Italy to the fore (or is that rear?). However, Canada at best can send only half a battlegroup because it armed forces are either insufficiently equipped or insufficient of deployable number to send more, better-armed troops.
Part of the reason for this is the current Canadian Government under Prime Minister Trudeau is locked in a strategic time-warp. Ever since Lester Pearson joined two other “wise men” sixty years ago to produce a report into the non-military aspects of NATO Canada has prided itself on its pioneering role in military support for soft power. It is a badge of honour for Canadians they they are one of the world’s great peacekeepers, and rightly so.
However, that was then and this is now. To hear Canadian after Canadian line-up to tell me how they are going to better perfect a peacekeeping art that belongs to another age smacked of a ‘stop the world we want to get off’ view of matters strategic. There is clearly little or no willingness on the part of official Canada to recognise that Canada is a three-ocean power all three of which are now contested in a new great power geopolitical age.
Canadian defence spending (or lack of it) revealed strategic hokum at its smelliest. Indeed, I was deeply impressed by the ingenious but utterly disingenuous ways senior Canadians seem to convince themselves Canada is spending enough money on defence when Canada plainly is not. One senior Canadian said that Canada spends better than other Alliance member-states – nonsense. Another Canadian told me that other states fiddle the books to get to the agreed 2024 NATO Defence Investment Pledge of 2% GDP on defence of which 20% of that is to be spent on new kit – sort of nonsense. There is a NATO mechanism for calculating defence expenditure which Canada simply chooses to ignore.
None of this bodes well for the Trudeau defence review. Indeed, it looks likely to be yet another of those politics dressed up as strategy reviews which implies an increase in defence expenditure when in fact defence cost inflation will see yet another real terms cut in Canadian defence expenditure. The most likely victim will be much-needed major procurement programmes. Result? If the balloon really goes up over the next decade the people who will bear the brunt of Ottawa’s defence out-of-touchness will be the superb but under-equipped ordinary airmen, seamen and soldiers of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Maybe these figures (based on SIPRI 2015 estimates) will wipe the smile of Prime Minister Trudeau’s face. Cut through the flannel and the fact is that Canada spends $478 per capita on defence. This compares with the US which spends $1859 per capita on defence, the UK $1066, France $977, and the Netherlands $759.
The worst failing implied in all of this is Canada thinks that defence expenditure is discretionary. Worse, that Canada can engage in geopolitics as Ottawa so chooses. This is nonsense. If there is one country that is totemic for globalisation it is Canada. One only has to see modern Canada to understand that. To think that Canada can opt-out of the really dark side of globalisation was perhaps the greatest conceit of all here. And yet that is precisely what rich Canada seems determined to do.
End the strategic denial and get strategic real Canada!
Julian Lindley-French is an internationally-recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author, Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, CGAI Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC