May 13, 2003


Joe K. of Winds of Change writes to ask a summary of my thoughts on Cdn. defence policy. That could take all year, so instead for now I'll just focus on one new contribution to the debate Joe's site links to: the Alliance Party defence platform.

Okay, well, any white paper that unironically calls itself "The New North: Strong and Free" is in a hole from the start. But it doesn't get a whole lot better. The bottom line is, of course, the funding model. The Alliance doesn't exactly spell it out, but do the math and you realize they are calling for an ultimate increase in the annual budget from the current $12 billion a year to $22 billion. This is, it has to be recognized, about as serious a proposition in Canadian politics as Dr. Evil demanding "one hundred BILLION dollars" from Tim Robbins' presidential character in Austin Powers 2. As Robbins replied, "that's like saying I want a gazillion bagillion dollars." So this is a fundamentally unserious paper from the start.

(The Alliance justifies this by noting, correctly, that Canada's economy is half the size of Britain's and just over half the size of France's, so we should spend half as much as they do. Of course, these are countries with nuclear deterrents, UN veto powers, and extensive ex-colonialist obligations, too... differences lost on the Alliance it seems. Better comparators for the "right" level of Canadian defence spending would be countries like Germany or Belgium, at 1.5% of GDP... equivalent to $15 billion in Canadian terms, or $3 billion more a year than we spend today. The Canadian public may well -- it's never really been tried -- be susceptible to an argument that being more pathetic militarily than Belgium is a bad place for us to be... but trying to bring us to a Big Five level of responsibility is a Quixotic windmill tilt, at best.)

So, what do we do with the gazillion bagillion dollars? Well, everything, it seems. The Alliance correctly ticks off everything that Canada would have to buy to be considered a serious "all-singing, all-dancing" contributor to the preservation of Western supremacy. Star Wars? Check. (Recommendation #1) A new airborne regiment and attack helicopters? Check. (#10). A mechanized brigade? Check. (#11). UAVs? Check. (#13). F-35 Joint Strike Fighters? Check. (#14) Stockpiles of precision weapons? Check. (#15). New transport aircraft? Check. (#16). New submarines (not those new ones, even newer ones.) Check. (#19 and 20). New logistics ships? Check. (#21). New destroyers? Check. (#22). New maritime helicopters? Check. (#23). Tripling the size of the army reserve? (HA! Check.) (#26). An aircraft carrier... (#24).

Okay, they lost me at the carrier, I have to confess. It's not that all these ideas aren't militarily sound (although the fact that new tanks didn't get in, while the entire air force and naval wishlists did, shows the relative lack of power of the army advocates in Ottawa at the moment). It's just that there's no sense of prioritization, or any recognition of what tasks and roles are more important. Of course, when you start with the assumption you're playing with a gazillion bagillion dollars, why even try to make the tough choices?

The main function of this new military is largely, the paper concedes, to impress the Americans. "There is now no more important Canadian policy interest for Canada than maintaining the ability to exercise effective influence in Washington so as to advance unique Canadian policy objectives. A sound and credible national defence is essential to being able to advance those interests effectively." The paper basically assumes the UN is a dead institution and NATO is moribund, and that all will exist in diplomatic terms in the foreseeable future is whatever ad hoc alliances the Americans choose to make for themselves.

Again, not unsound. But hardly a public rallying cry, either. Is making Washington like us a little more really worth another $10 billion a year to the electorate? When there's no visible downside to our not being friends with them? When the whole thrust of American foreign policy at the moment is to free itself of any entanglements with alliances? Certainly not... an equally logical response to the conditions the Alliance paper outlines would be to let defence die out as an interest pretty much altogether and put the money into healthcare. After all, it's not like the Americans need any help at the moment. Nor do they seem willing to make any firm commitments in return... we have all seen the short shrift given U.S. allies from Britain to Pakistan when it comes to something like reducing a punishing trade tariff. Since anteing up seems to have no effect on Washington's regard for them... there are no plans for any replacement body which Canada might want to seek a seat on, a United Democratic Nations, or what have you... there is, as far as one can see, no payoff for the investment. (A state visit? A trip to the ranch?) The Alliance is certainly hard-pressed to find one way that their supplicant policy would improve Canadian lives, and the voters will inevitably see through that.

The Alliance paper's inevitable response when it comes across this difficult question is, "There were Canadians at Vimy! There were Canadians at D-Day!" etc. Which is all well and good, but those wars weren't launched on to improve the standing of Canadians in the Pentagon or Whitehall. Canadians saw evils in the world that they wanted to fight, and launched armies to fight them. Without something in the wider world we feel a need to change, the natural historical tendency of Canadians, otherwise isolated from the rest of the world and its troubles, is to voluntarily disarm and just go on with our lives... from 1815 to 1855, for instance, there were no indigenous Canadian military forces whatever, not a soldier to be counted, and no one seemed to mind then, either. This paper, in its obsession over GDPs and relative submarine numbers, just doesn't see this. In its obsession on an appropriate level of spending, it's failed to define any overriding national cause worth spending it on.

The cause doesn't even have to be a great evil that must be fought, either... Canadians, accustomed to a certain residual frontierism, are natural adventurers, and with a natural urge to help their neighbours and share their vast wealth (true of both recent immigrants and earlier ones), have needed only the thinnest of pretexts to head off and muckle in somewhere. In the 19th century, French Canadians rallied around the Papal Armies in the Garibaldi Wars. In the 20th, we poured overseas to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Vietnam (Events all un-noted in the Alliance paper.) Part of Pearson's genius in the 1950s was to harness this apparently intrinsic Canadian high-spiritedness to a useful foreign policy objective (avoiding the potential NATO schism over Suez through the UNEF mission).

The Alliance paper assumes that world Pearson knew is dead, perhaps rightly. But they're never going to replace that in taxpayers' or even soldiers' minds, with a dream of being liked by the Americans as our new major objective in life. We've got better things to do with our lives and our money. Their foreign policy vision needs to drive the defence one. Having none to speak of, their defence plan was essentially a dead letter when it was written.

Posted by BruceR at 11:46 AM