There are good reasons for Canada to have followed this approach in the past. Following the lead of our allies appears to improve Canada’s standing in the world, especially amongst peer allied nations, and allows Canada to exercise some leadership in international affairs. This increased leadership role allows Canada to further its interests through diplomacy. These policies also make it possible for the Government of Canada to highlight perceived successes abroad so as to increase popular support for its foreign policy and raise awareness of the role of the Armed Forces in maintaining security.
However this is not the only policy option available. As a sovereign power Canada can set its own strategic priorities. Moreover, by continuing the historical pattern of letting alliance leaders determine its’ strategy, the case can be made that Canada is abdicating its responsibility to protect its own national interests.
The Canadian Armed Forces spend time and resources estimating the capabilities and kinds of forces they may confront in the future. The need to assess the probable opposition is driven by the requirement to determine what resources will be necessary to meet those threats. The time has come to start making the same estimations about the capabilities and intentions of those allies who, at least in the past, we have expected to be fighting alongside. These assessments should be driven by the same need to determine the resources necessary to meet the goals of the Government of Canada.
We are approaching the point at which it becomes necessary to take a more active role in safeguarding our own security interests. As quoted in MacLean’s Magazine while discussing his book “America: The Farewell Tour” author Chris Hedges is quoted as saying: “America is an empire. So we’re much more fragile than nation-states, non-imperial countries. You see that throughout history: the ancient Greeks invading Sicily, and their entire fleet sunk, thousands of soldiers killed and their empire becoming unsustainable; or in 1956 when Britain tries to invade Egypt after the nationalization of the Suez Canal, retreats in humiliation and thereby triggers a financial crisis and the end of the pound sterling as a reserve currency, marking the death of the British Empire, which had been on a slow descent since the end of World War One. The dollar as the world’s current reserve currency is running on fumes. The moment that’s over, American financial supremacy is instantly finished. It will be very similar to the aftermath of the Suez disaster—something like that is always characteristic of late empire. And the fragility of an empire means that when collapse comes it’s almost instantaneous. You look back at the rapid final fall of the old Soviet Union. A failing empire is like a house of cards that just comes down—it’s not a slow descent. We know from history what happens. It’s not a mystery.”
This is not just speculation. The U.K.’s Global Strategic Trends describes a 2045 People’s Republic of China (PRC) with an economy more than double that of the United States ($62.9 trillion versus $30.7 trillion) and noting that even today, the PRC military may already be “close to matching that of the U.S., perhaps exceeding it in some areas.” Studies show that the trajectory of PRC growth means that it poses a far greater economic challenge to the United States than did Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, or Nazi Germany.
There is a growing understanding that the ability of the United States to afford the kind of resources it spent over the Cold War years on furnishing defense for its allies will inevitably become more challenging over the balance of the twenty-first century. From 1940 to 2017, U.S. government debt averaged 61.70 percent of GDP. For 2017, that debt ratio soared to 105 percent of GDP, a level not seen since 1946. The United States today has accumulated more government debt than any other country in the world and is approaching the point at which it can no longer afford to finance its allies’ post WWII traditions of not taking on more responsibility for their own defense.
Even absent the collapse of the American ‘empire’ the time of lone American superpower status is passing. Relative U.S. economic and technological decline may translate into significant strategic and military challenges more rapidly than many expect, leaving allies like Canada with the requirement to modify their foreign and defence policies.
Such a reappraisal is not just a prescription for increased defence expenditure. A brave new world in which Canada takes a greater responsibility for its own security may well result in a decision that commitments should be more in line with capabilities.
In the past Canadian Forces have taken part in operations that were only vaguely related to Canadian interests, not committing to those kinds of operations in the future would free up resources to take part in more nationally-relevant operations. Maintenance and readiness have both suffered from over-stretch. Reducing the number of extraneous deployments would decrease costs and increase readiness.
More care in selecting operations, based on realistic commitments and driven by changing geopolitical realities, would let Canada set its own priorities and allow the Armed Forces and our allies to plan based on actual capabilities.
Canadians like to see themselves as citizens of middle power that ‘punches above its weight’. It is not true. There are 195 assorted nations in the world. In terms of economy Canada has roughly the tenth largest in the world. In terms of defence spending in dollar terms Canada is the fourteenth largest spender in the world. Even in population Canada is bigger than 157 of those 195 countries.
Canada is not a small country; we are not even a middle power. Canada is a large country that actually punches well below its weight. The time is rapidly approaching when we will no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.
America: The Farewell Tour
Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045
Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy, https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/preserving-the-balance-a-u.s.-eurasia-defense-strategy/publication
Reality Check: NATO's Defense Budget Woes Won't Disappear
Economy of Canada
List of countries by military expenditures
Countries in the world by population (2018)