As my colleague David Bercuson wrote here on Friday, Canada is rapidly falling behind Russia in its ability to effectively enforce claims to sovereignty over the Arctic. If anything, Bercuson was probably too polite. To call our military capability in a vast swath of our own territory token dangerously overstates our means.
Canada was able to get away with neglecting not just the Arctic but our national defence in general for many, many years. I’m afraid for so many years that it will be an impossible habit to break. But I am not the only one who has noticed. The United States is becoming increasingly frustrated with us. This matters.
It’s hardly breaking news that the Americans are certainly aware of Canada’s lacklustre commitment to defence. That’s been true as long as I’ve been alive. But the problem is becoming increasingly acute. The world was a safe enough place over the last 20 years that we could slack off, contributing meaningfully in Afghanistan, true, with such a small military that that contribution tapped us out. While our military was tied up in Kandahar, we could be reasonably confident we wouldn’t need it elsewhere. And if something flared up, the Americans would have our back.
The world is getting tougher — and we are not adapting
But we can’t be nearly as confident that either of those assumptions hold as true today. As Bercuson noted in his column, the Russian military presence in the Arctic is growing rapidly. Their Arctic region is already more developed than ours, giving them inherent advantages compared to Canada, with our sparse populated North. Those advantages, combined with their military buildup, would leave Canada completely unable to enforce its sovereignty if Russia chose to cause problems for us. China, likewise, is developing its naval power, including Arctic capabilities. Meanwhile, we content ourselves with a few thousand lightly armed rangers, and took a bafflingly long time to even replace their rifles — the most fundamental piece of military equipment of all. Our Arctic patrol ships are not capable of year-round Arctic operations and are behind schedule anyways. Talk during the Harper years of building a proper military base in the Arctic is essentially forgotten.
Is Russia about to invade? Of course not. But it’s hard to look around the world today and feel any reassurance that long-held assumptions about our stable geopolitical order and rules-based international system still hold much water. The world is getting tougher — and we are not adapting.
Nor can we assume instantaneous support from the U.S. The Americans, of course, can still be counted on to guard their own self interest. To an extent, that would mean protecting Canada. But it is an extremely open question as to what that extent would be, and what conditions might apply. If Russia did start acting provocatively in the Arctic, the U.S. may simply decide to protect Canada’s North as if it was American territory. What would we say or do?
Global News reported earlier this week that the U.S. has sent a stern, frustrated letter to Canada, noting our constantly missed military spending target of two per cent of GDP (all NATO members have pledged to spend that much, most don’t). Canada spends a little more than half of that. Canadian officials will always counter that a percentage of GDP is a poor proxy for actual tangible military contributions to the Western alliance. True. It is also true that in absolute terms, Canada spends more than most members of NATO.
Sure. But Canada is also geographically the second-largest country in the world, and the largest in NATO. We have massive air and sea approaches to patrol and protect. We have legal and moral obligations to provide effective search and rescue capacity over our territory. We are committed to North American air defence with the U.S. We have to be able to meaningfully control our own soil and coasts and airspace while also retaining sufficient military means to contribute meaningfully abroad in the defence of our allies and interests.
We have been lucky in recent decades to only face security challenges that could be dealt with at tremendous geographic remove. We cannot take for granted that that will still be the case in the decades to come. But building up our Forces, both men and materiel, is the work of decades. When it takes 10 or 20 years to procure a ship, you run the risk of needing that ship before it’s ready.
Canada will never be a military juggernaut. But we don’t need to be
Canada, and many of our other allies, spent far too long under the security blanket of the U.S., assuming that it would exist forever. One issue that U.S. President Donald Trump has been consistently right on, at least in big picture terms, is that the U.S. is underwriting the national defence of countries that can absolutely afford to see to more of their own security. Yes, the U.S. has benefited tremendously from its dominant leadership of the West, but we cannot take as a given that that will always be so, even if the Trump presidency is a historic aberration. Isolationism and a skepticism toward international alliances did not begin with President Trump, and we cannot assume they will end with him, whenever that end arrives.
Canada will never be a military juggernaut. But we don’t need to be. There are only two missions we need to be ready for: to assert our sovereignty, with force, if necessary, over our own territory (on land, sea or air) and to assist allies abroad, in a substantial and sustainable way. Canada, today, can probably do a passable job at one of those missions at a time — and even then, only barely.
But you’ve read this all before. I’ve been saying it for years. Something will eventually knock us out of our complacency — and it’ll take more than a letter from Washington, sadly. I hope the blow isn’t too painful when it comes. When it does, we won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.