The Myth of Canada as a Military Free-Rider

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on September 18, 2014

How much is enough in Canadian defence spending?

It has never been enough, and it won’t be in the future is the answer.

NATO suggests that states spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. In light of the decisions at the recent NATO summit in Wales, commentators have complained that Canada does not spend enough on defence, and therefore is less able to participate in future peace operations.

Canada has not been an Atlantic free-rider in the 1990s, nor is it currently free-riding in NATO.

This is an old story line dating back to the 1990s when some analysts suggested that Canada was not a good NATO ally: it was “asleep”, lived through a “decade of darkness”, its military was “killed by politicians”, or pursued a “pinch-penny diplomacy.”

To be sure, these classifications of Canada’s role in NATO prescribe an “inferiority complex.” In fact, Canada was never asleep, nor was it a free rider in the alliance; neither in the 1990s nor today. Rather, Canadians have punched their weight.

Part and parcel to this misunderstanding is that commonly accepted NATO burden sharing measures have become outdated. We should instead focus on states’ relative abilities, which means to calculate the forces deployed to NATO’s peace operations as a share of the states’ total forces available.

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Why? The logic is this: if country X maintains 80,000 forces, that country’s contribution to an operation must be interpreted as a share of the total size of those 80,000 forces. Above all, each country can only send as many troops on missions as it has in total at its disposal. States do not work like banks where they could borrow assets (i.e. soldiers). Moreover, their decision to send forces abroad are based on national factors such as national threat and security perceptions, the roles the national armed forces are given by society (e.g. pure national defence, conflict prevention, crisis management or humanitarian assistance), as well as the country’s geographical location, population, historical experiences, and strategic culture. Thus, unlike NATO’s 2 per cent benchmark, this relative index takes political calculations into account.

The relative force share index of major international peace operations since 1990 shows that Canadians furnished 5.4 per cent of the total United Nations force (UNPROFOR) in the Balkans, ranking fifth overall. It was the third largest NATO force contributor, shouldering 11.47 per cent of a total of 18,759 NATO soldiers. Only the U.K. and France sent larger force contingents.

When UNPROFOR was replaced with a NATO force (IFOR) at the Dayton Peace Accords, Canada sent 1,029 troops, ranking fifth overall, and way ahead of the U.S. (ninth).

In December 1996, IFOR was replaced by NATO’s Stabilization Force (SFOR). Canada shouldered 2.15 per cent of the total relative force burden, placing third overall. Only Denmark and the Netherlands shouldered a greater share.

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In Kosovo in 1999, Canada once again answered NATO’s call for a peace mission. By sending roughly 1,450 troops/year (or seven per cent of its armed forces) it was the fourth largest force contributor; only Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands shouldered greater burdens.

In Afghanistan, Canada sent 4.36 per cent of its armed forces to ISAF and thus ranked first and ahead of major powers like the U.K. (second), Germany (13th), France (23rd), and even the U.S. (sixth).

In sum, Canada has not been an Atlantic free-rider in the 1990s, nor is it currently free-riding in NATO. This is a myth in Canadian foreign and defence policy that from time to time keeps popping up. But it is just that: a myth.

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