It is reported that on June 19 U.S. President Donald Trump sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin calling on allies, including Canada, to increase defence spending on NATO. President Trump is quoted as saying that “The United States is increasingly unwilling to ignore this Alliance’s failure to meet shared security challenges.”
President Trump’s letter comes at a time of increased trade tensions between Canada and the United States. The president’s administration imposed stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports which Washington has said, “are necessary because of national security concerns”– an argument Canadian officials have said is "insulting" and “absurd.”
The application of tariffs based on ‘national security concerns’ has been greeted with surprise in Canada. It should not. Although it may well be true that these tariffs are motivated more by concerns over bi-national and international trade then they are genuinely motivated by so called ‘security concerns’ it should not come as a surprise that the U.S. would put its own interests first.
As Ed Whitcomb pointed out in the Globe and Mail the United States followed, almost literally for centuries, isolationist policies. It could even be said that the current fashion for multilateralism in that country is the aberration, not the norm. As he points out, “The U.S. is moving back to its traditional preference for bilateralism and isolation and no amount of lecturing on the advantages of multilateralism will change the minds of those who think that way.”
In point of fact, as Canada has discovered in the past, all countries, no matter how close the relationship, put their own interests first. In 1903 the Alaska boundary dispute took place between Canada and the United States over the boundary of southeastern Alaska and the coast of British Columbia. The dispute was referred to an international tribunal, whose members included three, two Canadians and Lord Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice of England.
To the surprise of many, Alverstone supported the American position against that of the Canadian delegation. It appeared to Canadians that the British felt that their new policies of what came to be known as rapprochement with the United States counted for more than Canadian interests. Although Canadian representatives refused to sign the final decision this act of protest did not prevent the decision from taking effect, since the question had been put to binding arbitration.
One unforeseen outcome of this decision was a growing Canadian desire for full control over their foreign policy. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier emphasized that Canada's lack of treaty-making power made it difficult to maintain its rights internationally and the dispute, as well as fueling anti-British sympathy, supported Ottawa’s case for increasing independence from London, especially in the years following the First World War.
In our current situation both Matt Gurney writing for Global News and Ted Campbell on his website have made the point that if a nation wishes to be truly sovereign then it needs to have independent foreign and defence policies backed up by spending adequate to realise those policies. Gurney in particular laments what he perceives as the Canadian tendency to assume that in the final analysis we can always count on the U.S. to protect us. As history has shown us, this is a false belief.
In the past Canada has effectively used military spending to achieve political/trade goals. Writing in The Canadian Military Journal Frank Maas pointed out that: “After a lengthy review of foreign and defence policy in 1968 and 1969, the Trudeau government announced plans to reduce 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in Europe by half and replace its Centurion tanks with a lighter vehicle. This angered Canada’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, but they could not convince Trudeau to reverse course, and the plan was confirmed in the 1971 defence white paper, Defence in the 70s.
The following year, the government announced plans to develop trade links with Western Europe and Japan, the “Third Option,” to reduce dependency upon the United States.
Attempts to foster a contractual link with the European Economic Community began in 1973 and it quickly became apparent that the Europeans were resentful of the reduction of the brigade in 1969, and pressed Canada to beef up its defences in Europe. An intensive review of Canada’s armed forces, the Defence Structure Review, began in 1974, and NATO allies, particularly West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, prevailed upon Canada’s diplomats, soldiers, and Trudeau himself to reverse the 1969 decision and keep tanks in Europe. The suggestion was that if Canada wanted trade with Europe, it would have to help defend Europe.”
The end result was that the cabinet directed the Armed Forces to purchase 128 German built Leopard 1 tanks. Compared to most procurement projects the speed of the program was spectacular. Cabinet directed the army to purchase new tanks in November 1975, approved a deal in May 1976, and the government signed a contract in October 1976. By 1979, the army received 128 modern tanks, on time and under budget.
This was a case in which Canada used a directed military procurement to achieve political and trade goals.
The time has come for Canada to consider similar actions with respect to our ongoing disputes with the United States. Canada does need to spend more on defence, if for no other reason than to increase our own capacity to maintain an independent foreign and defence policy. At the same time we need to send a message to our U.S. allies that actions have consequences and that there are costs associated with forgoing traditional methods of diplomacy in favour of bullying tweets and gratuitous insults.
Canada cannot win a trade war with the United States, we should not even try. As Conrad Black has pointed out, “Behind the peeling façades of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney, America is a monster, and not always an amiable one… Canadian policy-makers must understand that they are playing for almost mortal stakes with potentially dangerous protagonists who have no sense of fair play and no interest in what Canada thinks of them.”
That does not mean that there are not actions that Canada can take.
Cabinet should immediately direct the Armed Forces to procure a minimum of 88 Typhoon Eurofighters. Any complaints from other manufacturers over the lack of an open competition can be dealt with by referring to the “national security” caveat included in any government procurement program.
Directing that an acquisition program worth up to $19 billion , include associated equipment, weapons, and other services, go to a European conglomerate would send a strong message. It would be a message that could be heard and understood by many sectors of the U.S establishment.
If the announcement of a directed purchase of European jet fighters were to be followed shortly thereafter by a similar declaration concerning the acquisition of suitable numbers of Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft for use as air-to-air refuelers and transports the message would become deafening.
No project, however necessary or well-managed, can prevail against a government that does not see the political utility of the project. Conversely, a Cabinet and Prime Minister who understood the practical benefits, both domestic and international, to be derived from giving clear and unambiguous political support to purchasing proven, in-service aircraft and working with accommodating contractors could overcome many of the negative factors that have bedeviled Canadian military procurement efforts in recent decades.
Even more important would be the lesson delivered to both a national and international audience regarding the importance Canada places on its own sovereignty.
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Alaska Boundary Dispute
The Great Rapprochement
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Ted Campbell's Point of View
“From a Beetle to a Porsche:” The Purchase of the Leopard C1 Tank for the Canadian Army
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