Canada’s Shifting Strategic Circumstances
Notwithstanding its huge size and relatively small population, through most its history as a statal entity, Canada has lived a charmed strategic existence.
As every Canadian schoolchild should know, the country is the second biggest by territory and has the longest shoreline of all the world’s states. Notwithstanding this, Canada has not had to contend with a serious threat on its territory since the confederation decade of the 1860s.
There are several factors that explain the country’s strategically exceptional situation.
First, and most obviously, Canada has long been blessed by a benign geopolitical environment. The country’s only land border is with the United States, until 9/11 celebrated by both countries as an unarmed divide. The two North American states have enjoyed one of the most peaceful and productive bilateral relationships of any tandem in the international community in the modern age.
Beyond that, Canada is sheltered by three of the world’s greatest seas. Potential predators have had to contend with great distances and daunting physical obstacles to be able to challenge Canada militarily. Until very recently, the Arctic has only been passable with icebreakers.
Canada’s geography has also signified that the country has not had to deal with influxes of unregulated migration as have typically states in Africa, Asia and Europe. Nor has it had to think its way through the complexities of immigration from the south that have tended to dominate the US political discourse in recent decades.
And third, Canada has embedded its foreign and security policy in a web of regional and international security institutions – NATO, NORAD, UN, OSCE – as well as many other bodies with an economic and commercial calling without a specific security role – OECD, WB, IMF, G7, G20, Nordic Council – but whose activities have been equally important for Canada’s overall safety and well-being.
As a member of these organizations, Canada has been an active, and for the most part, an effective player on the international scene. In turn, this has effectively shored up its economic, political and strategic security. And Canada has been able to do so at a more than reasonable cost. This has freed resources for other ambitions.
The United States has also relied on this international network for much of its foreign policy-making around the globe. But in contradistinction to the US, Canada has harboured few of America’s geostrategic responsibilities, let alone aspirations. As a state with only half a percent of the global population and only some 2.5% of its GDP, this has made good sense – and for the most part, it has served Canadians well.
Canada’s unique geographical and geopolitical situation has allowed successive governments to keep the country’s defence spending low. This is currently around 1% of GDP, half of what NATO agreed in 2014 would be its target for the next decade. Canada is now set to increase its defence spending only to 1.4% by 2024-2025.
Canada was not always at the back of the pack. For example, At the end of World War II, the country had the world’s fourth largest air force and its fifth largest navy. In the Korean War of 1950-53, Canada fielded the third largest allied force overall. At these junctures, Canada’s economy was, of course, significantly smaller than it is today.
Now, however, Canada is a poster-boy case of a country that has not taken its national security seriously. With the end of the Cold War, Canada significantly cut back on its defence spending. This was an understandable response to the sea change that occurred in the East-West relationship. Many of its NATO Allies reacted similarly. But as the geostrategic environment has become increasingly more problematical, and there have been increasing signs of a possible return to large-scale inter-state conflict, Canada has been slow to reverse gears.
To an extent, this has been possible because of the comparatively much greater resources that its neighbour to the south has devoted to defence. The contrast is more than striking. As William Watson explained in a recent piece in the National Post, while Canada has one-ninth of the population of the US, its defence spending is one-fortieth of that of the United States.
Defence spending levels are anything but everything. As I argued in an earlier blog, the capacity that results from defence spending is the key issue. The United States has serially misused its huge military capacity on security challenges that would have better been addressed by non-military means or on prosecuting wars that did not have to be fought. While very lucrative for the American military-industrial complex, this has been poisonous for its democracy. The misuse of state resources abroad has been one of the reasons for Trump’s autocratic rise.
All that said, the US-Canada defence-spending ratio is not a sustainable imbalance, no matter who is in power in Washington – nor for that matter in Ottawa.
The factors that have been responsible for Canada’s charmed strategic situation – its sheltered geography, its benevolent relationship with its neighbour to the south, the web of international organizations that it has traditionally relied upon – are all now in flux. Canada’s geopolitical environment is undergoing a paradigm shift. Its security elite, not to mention the population at large, have not begun to take this into account. It is high time that they did.