Is Canada Pulling Its Weight in NATO?

When NATO’s military commander, General Philip Breedlove, visited Ottawa this week, he noted that Canada was one of the first countries to contribute military equipment and forces to NATO’s temporary deployment of land, sea and air assets to Eastern Europe, where allies such as Poland and the Baltic countries are understandably nervous about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The Conservative government deserves credit for these actions. NATO must demonstrate that it remains committed to the security of all its members, and these “reassurance” measures help to send this message both to our allies and to Russia.

We would be foolish not to invest in our diplomatic and military capacities now.

Beyond this particular crisis, however, the alliance also relies on all its members to maintain military capabilities that can be used for collective operations. Without these capabilities, the deterrent effect of NATO – its ability to dissuade others from threatening the security of alliance members – will erode.

This is why NATO has long called upon its members to maintain military spending at two percent of GDP. However, few alliance members have met this target.

The latest spending figures indicate that Canada is actually one of the worst offenders. In 2013, only five other NATO countries spent a lower percentage of GDP on defence (see below).

Canada is also a member of the G7, a privileged club of established, industrialized nations. Canadian defence spending is lower, as a percent of GDP, than that of all other G7 members in Europe, including financially-strapped Italy (see below).

These figures need to be treated with some caution: spending does not necessarily translate into quality. Canada has small, highly competent, deployable forces. We also have a track record of making modest but effective contributions to NATO’s joint operations, from the Balkan crisis of the mid-1990s to the missions in Afghanistan, Libya, and now in Eastern Europe.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Continued reductions in defence spending will have an impact on the quality of the forces that Canada can deploy in the future.

This is the challenge facing all NATO allies. Military spending is going up everywhere in the world except in North America, Europe and Oceania – namely, the West. This is worrying.

To be sure, addressing global security challenges will require more than capable military forces, as the US debacle in Iraq made amply clear. It will also require skilled diplomacy, the ability to build and manage relationships with both partners and adversaries, a willingness to adjust global institutions to reflect the rising importance of non-Western actors, and a recommitment by all Western states to upholding the rule of law, not just rhetorically but also in their actions.

But it will also require strength, including military heft, to back up the diplomacy. If the West and NATO continue disarming (which is effectively what they are doing, relative to others), we will find ourselves in a much more dangerous world in the not-too-distant future.

The case for government spending is always difficult to make in times of fiscal strain. Today, the economies of North America and Europe are facing slow growth and many competing demands. Nevertheless, we would be foolish not to invest in our diplomatic and military capacities now. If we fail to do so, we risk paying a much higher price later.

See also: Canadian military spending as a percent of GDP

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