This prominent U.S. neighbor ID’d as America’s least helpful ally

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The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, Canada (Photo by N Band on Unsplash)
The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, Canada

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire.]

By Julian Spencer-Churchill
Real Clear Wire

Canada’s defense minister Bill Blair has declared, by strangely including future spending on its arctic surveillance network, that “I believe it brings us inevitably to over 2 per cent of defence spending.” This is an old Canadian trick of appealing to American anxieties of missile attack, satisfying the Canadian public’s fantasies about an Arctic presence, and avoiding deploying anything larger than a brigade, anywhere, ever. The official NATO estimate of Canada’s defense effort is only 1.33% of GDP. Canada is currently the world’s ninth largest economy, and the most productive major manufacturer committed to unilateral disarmament. A combination of incipient anti-Americanism, which creeps in as early as grade school history education, coupled with a federal government focused narrowly on the material well-being of Canadians, disincentivizes political leadership from spending political capital on international relations. From the perspective of a Canadian, U.S. politics oscillates wildly from expensive international engagement to isolationist hostility against international norms and institutions. Canadians, in contrast, proudly embrace joining international organizations that demand little of it. The Liberal Party, the current government in Ottawa, has disingenuously and repeated conjured non-existent economic crises to fend off the mantra-like requests of the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, for an outline of Canada’s strategy to contribute to the collective defense of democracy. There is plenty of available money in Ottawa: the number of federal public service employees has increased by an unprecedented 40 percent since 2015, to 357,000, with a commensurate 30.9 percent jump in personnel expenditures between just 2019 and 2022. A month’s worth of Russian or Chinese conventional missile volleys fired at Canada’s vulnerable energy sector, would almost certainly be able to inflict more damage than Ottawa’s entire 2024 defense budget of US$ 24.2bn (IISS Military Balance 2024).

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Deploying an army battalion to Estonia, dispatching a frigate to the Straits of Formosa, and updating the Northern Warning System in the Arctic, seems the extreme bare minimum contribution Canada should make. Canada is indeed a middle power, as measured by the size and stability of its economy, but Ottawa’s foreign policy has always been one of free riding on its democratic allies. Nestled safely between the 1867 United States purchase of Russian Alaska, to the relief of the British who could no longer afford to pay for Canada’s security, and Greenland (despite Washington’s 1946 failed bid to buy it from Denmark), Canada has little incentive to make the difficult defense choices. When Canadian Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbacker (1957-63) took the politically risky decision to address the serious issue of nuclear weapons in Canada, a cabinet split led to a vote of non-confidence and his defeat in the subsequent elections. The subsequent Prime Minister, Liberal Lester Pearson (1963-68), simply brought them in without debate. He, and his successor, Pierre Trudeau (1968-79, 1980-84), embarked Canada on a dramatic disarmament during the Cold War, atrophying its contribution to European defense to a weak brigade at Lahr, Germany, and abandoning its two aircraft carriers, the Bonaventure and Magnificent, intended to contribute to the security of maritime trade routes, to scrap.

Canada’s current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau (2015-24), is desperately following the polls, as a Liberal must do, given that the fractured left, vote sincerely, rather than strategically. He is therefore not likely to pursue policies that anticipate near-term world events, particularly in dealing with the rise of a territorially assertive China. Canadian politicians are mainly focused on marshalling the economy for the benefit of the electorate, and unfortunately judge foreign regimes in that light. Hence it is no surprise that Justin Trudeau praised China’s system of authoritarianism: “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China. Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime and say, ‘We need to go green; we want to start investing in solar’.” Likewise, Prime Minister Lyon Mackenzie King (1921-30, 1935-48) was partial to Hitler’s economic leadership, visiting him in 1937, and this led him to warn England that Canada would not participate in any war to keep the Rhineland demilitarized or to preserve the independence of Czechoslovakia.

In this, Trudeau is no less incompetent than previous peacetime leaders of liberal-democracies, with their laissez-faire neglect of contributing to alliances, their obsessive avoidance of escalation, and finally, their desperate hope for a peace at-any-price, in the face of an adversary clearly preparing for war. They principal explanation is that it would be irrational for an adversary which trades with Canada, like China, to provoke war with it. While it is true that Chinese prosperity depends on exports to the West and imports of energy, so too was the British Empire the largest trading partner for Germany in 1913, and Japan and the United States in 1940, both on the eve of the outbreak of war. As University of Virginia professor Dale Copeland has demonstrated, high levels of trade dependence, coupled with the fear of a future cut-off, leads to the building of great fleets and decisions for war, not peace. This is precisely how China’s high levels of trade with Canada are no guarantee of restraint by Beijing.

While most Canadians are proud of Canada’s role in participating in both World Wars and Korea, there is little appetite for the sort of preventive deterrence now needed. Smaller states can offset their weak diplomatic influence by jealously guarding their sovereignty, as Belgium did in the First World War, or Holland in the Second World War. Belgium mobilized hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and the Dutch inflicted severe losses on German troops when they parachuted in. Neither was strong enough to assert a successful deterrence without great power assistance, but neither is embarrassed by an historical failure of political will to assert their right of independence. American foreign policy makers should be aware that there is no dormant “normal” Canadian foreign policy, which can be prodded to life with the right combination of kind words and admiration of Canadian history by senior U.S. policymakers. The left-leaning Liberal Party has ruled Canada nearly two-thirds of the time in the last century, relegating the Conservative Party to leverage economic downturns to win elections. Stern advice from Washington would help break this collective action problem that has trapped and prevented the main Canada political parties from pursuing a rational foreign policy.


Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

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