In it, the Institute called on: “Prime Minister Trudeau, his Cabinet and the Government to lead and act with a sense of urgency to heed the recent call of the NATO Secretary General to treat 2% of GDP as a floor rather than a ceiling for defence spending.”
(Disclosure: I have been teaching with the president of the Institute for the last two years and signatories to the letter include current and former colleagues, students, and friends.)
The letter received plenty of media coverage, and if publicity was the signatories’ intent, then they might declare their effort a success.
But if the goal was to effect change in government policy, it seems to me that they could have done much better.
I see two inter-related problems.
First, while the signatories call for what amounts to an ongoing $15 billion+ increase in defence spending, they don’t explain where they think that huge sum of money should come from.
Do they advocate a 2% increase in the GST? The cancellation of Ottawa’s promise to enable all Canadians access to $10-a-day childcare? An increase to the age of eligibility for seniors benefits? More deficit spending?
It’s easy to call on governments to spend. But political leadership requires hard choices, and the letter offers no direction to help decision-makers make them.
The lack of clear policy direction does, however, enable a diverse list of current and retired senior officials with otherwise divergent views on public policy to line up alongside one another.
In doing so, it suggests a degree of consensus among the signatories that is, at best, skin-deep.
Would the former Conservative minister of national defence Jason Kenney have signed a letter calling for a GST increase or further deficit spending? Would the former NDP premier of Nova Scotia Darrell Dexter have signed a letter advocating cutbacks to a system of universal childcare?
In as much as I agree with the premise of the letter - that increasing spending on defence and security is consistent with the national interest - I would have much preferred to see these experts offer up practical options that Ottawa might consider to promote and preserve national security and Canada’s international reputation.
First on my list would be a call to lobby NATO to consider money allocated to refugee resettlement to be part of a member-state’s financial contribution.
Canada’s support for the over 200,000 Ukrainians who have arrived here since the Russian invasion represents a significant benefit to international security.
It certainly does more than the defence dollars that Greece spends on its border dispute with fellow NATO member Turkey.
Next would be some sort of consensus on where future defence and security dollars should come from.
A dedicated revenue stream seems to me to be a simple, stable, and transparent approach, but I suspect that a serious conversation would produce a variety of plausible options.
Given the incredible pedigrees of the signatories to the open letter, the CDA Institute could have at the very least initiated that conversation.
But since it hasn’t, I suspect that the letter will be ignored in decision-making circles in Ottawa – without political consequence.
If you read one article about Canadian defence policy this week, take a look at Amanda Coletta’s Washington Post piece on what the Discord Leaks reveal about Canada’s declining international reputation among certain allies. In it, she notes that Prime Minister Trudeau has told NATO officials privately that his government has no plans to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP target.
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