The philosophy — and politics — behind Canada’s reluctance to meet NATO’s spending target

There was an unscripted moment during a panel debate in Toronto last month that could go a long way toward explaining Canada’s long-term reluctance to publicly and wholeheartedly embrace NATO’s guideline for members’ defence spending.

Appearing on a panel at the Eurasia’s group’s U.S.-Canada Summit, the typically unflappable Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was asked pointedly how Ottawa could be considered a reliable ally when it appears unable — or unwilling — to meet the western military alliance’s benchmark of spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence.

Offering up a dash of realpolitik, the moderator spoke about the enduring debate over the value of hard (military) power versus soft (diplomatic, development) power and said that at the end of the day, “hard power is what tends to shake out promises in the world” from other countries.

Joly was having none of it.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, left, and her Swedish counterpart Tobias Billström hold a joint news conference in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. (Anders Wiklund/AP)

“That’s your assessment,” she said. “We believe in the international rules-based order where rules must be followed, and, you know, small and big countries have the same rules that they have to follow.”

The suggestion that hard power is somehow an affront to the “international rules based order” — that jargony mouthful governments (especially Canada’s) like to invoke — speaks volumes.

The philosophical argument against hard power is not something that has been widely discussed in the often circular debate about NATO’s expectations of member states.

Without question, most governments — regardless of their political stripe — would prefer to spend money on something other than defence. But the fact remains that over the seven-and-a-half decades since NATO was created, NATO allies’ defence spending has tended to rise in times of heightened international tensions and fall in better times.

That’s the way the much-discussed “rules-based international order” has worked up to now to keep the world a few steps back from calamity.

Joly’s answer also indirectly peels back the curtain (somewhat) on what several sources within Global Affairs Canada say was at the root of the delayed delivery of the country’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy.

The federal government was looking for a way — any way — to avoid making the Canadian military the county’s calling card in a region where allies were clamouring for a more visible defence commitment, defence and foreign affairs sources told CBC News.

When it was released in late 2022, the Indo-Pacific strategy bowed awkwardly toward realpolitik with a significant military component, which included a boost to Canada’s naval presence and military participation in the region.

Naval ships from the Royal Canadian Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Navy sail in formation alongside HMA Ships Sydney and Perth during Exercise Pacific Vanguard during a Regional Presence Deployment on Aug. 22, 2022. The Chinese navy's "unusual behavior" in shadowing Australian warships in the South China Sea had not deterred operations in the contested waters, Australia's navy chief, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond said, Friday Sept. 9, 2022.
Naval ships from the Royal Canadian Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Navy sail in formation alongside HMA Ships Sydney and Perth during Exercise Pacific Vanguard on Aug. 22, 2022. (LSIS David Cox/Royal Australian Navy via AP)

But even when confronted with the brutal reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canada’s government tends to tilt away from expressions of hard power.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a think-tank in Berlin in March of 2022 that he believed Moscow’s war machine could be brought to its knees solely through the use of sanctions — as though soft power could somehow stop a Russian tank.

He told the non-profit association Atlantik-Brücke at the Munich Security Conference that since the Second World War, the international community had developed “more and better tools” to deal with international aggression — a reference to economic sanctions, which Trudeau said can be far more effective than “tanks and missiles.”

Appearing last spring on a panel at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Defence Minister Bill Blair offered a broader glimpse of how widespread this skepticism about hard power is within the federal government. He told the audience that meeting the NATO spending benchmark has been a tough sell at the cabinet table.

“Trying to go to cabinet, or even to Canadians, and tell them that we had to do this because we need to meet this magical threshold of two per cent — don’t get me wrong, it’s important, but it was really hard to convince people that that was a worthy goal, that that was some noble standard that we had to meet,” he said.

WATCH: Blair says he’s ‘confident’ Canada will meet its military spending targets  

Defence minister ‘confident’ Canada will meet NATO targets with new spending

National Defence Minister Bill Blair tells Power & Politics Canada ‘still has work to do’ to meet NATO’s 2 per cent spending target but he’s ‘confident’ Ottawa will get there.

In Washington on Monday, speaking before a foreign policy audience in advance of this week’s NATO summit, Blair was slightly more bullish. He repeated his claim that uncosted, unannounced additional equipment purchases, such as an investment in new submarines, will push the country toward or over the two per cent mark.

“I think we have a very aggressive plan to move forward,” Blair said. “I’m very confident that it’s going to bring us to that threshold.”

But by his own admission, Blair is going to face an uphill battle within cabinet and with voters who see defence spending as wasteful.

Kerry Buck, Canada’s former ambassador to NATO, said it’s wrong to subscribe to the notion that the military exists only to go out and kill people.

“You don’t want to have to use the military,” Buck said.

“You have the military so nobody has to go out and kill people because it acts as a deterrent. So arguing that investing in hard power means you have to use the hard power and the hard power way, I think, ignores the deterrent effect.”

WATCH: NATO chief expects member nations to meet defence spending commitments

NATO secretary general expects ‘all allies to make good’ on defence spending commitments

Speaking in Ottawa, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he will work to ensure that all allies meet the defence spending benchmark of two per cent of GDP, including Canada.

She said that while diplomacy is the first line of defence for any civilized nation, successive federal governments over the past two decades have not invested in foreign affairs to any great degree.  

Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior official at the Department of National Defence (DND) who once ran the department’s Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy, said a reluctance to be seen employing hard power is deeply rooted in the Canadian psyche.

“It’s the Boy Scout thing,” Rasiulis said. “It’s what Liberals love, right? And it’s their constituents who love that.”

He said that while he’s not entirely convinced the Liberal government is philosophically driven by the need to invest in defence, it clearly has put more money into the military.

Rasiulis sees the reluctance to embrace the two per cent metric as pragmatic politics for a minority government — something he doesn’t believe would change if the government changes hands next year.

“It’s butter before guns,” he said, referring to the age-old political maxim that describes an either-or relationship between defence and social spending.

“I’m not sure that the policy of the government would be radically different if the government were to change. You haven’t heard [Conservative Leader] Pierre Pollievre pledged to do two per cent either,” he said.

“They may have stronger words, like Conservatives generally do. And as we know, the Conservative records sometimes fall short.”

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