The arguments to do so typically include that:
- we committed to this NATO target a number of years ago but have never come close to meeting it;
- the world has gotten more dangerous and we can no longer afford to spend any less;
- among NATO’s 30 members, only Slovenia, Belgium, Spain, and Luxembourg spend a lower percentage of GDP on defence than we do;
- now that our fellow shirkers, Denmark and Germany, have pledged significant increases to their defence budgets, we really have no excuse.
Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has provided a compelling, straightforward explanation as to what the focus on 2% of GDP tends to miss:
“I mean, Canada was not criticized for being under two per cent when it had 3,000 troops in Kandahar and was engaged in difficult combat.”
I’d explain things even more crassly.
Canada could spend 2% of its gross domestic product on defence tomorrow if we doubled the salary of every member of the Canadian Armed Forces.
And while such a move might help a bit with recruitment and retention, it would do next to nothing for Ukraine, for NATO, or for North American defence.
What’s more, basing your defence budget on the size of your economy doesn’t make logical sense.
Major conflict often leads to an economic recession, which means a decline in a country’s GDP. So if you track your defence budget to GDP, you might end up cutting defence spending while at war.
All of this is not to suggest that Canada spends enough on defence, but rather that, instead of focusing on it as a percentage of GDP, Ottawa should be (1) determining what needs to be defended; (2) ensuring that we have the capacity to do so (we have some pretty serious recruitment, retention, and procurement problems right now that make me wonder what the Department of National Defence would do if too much new money arrived all at once); (3) costing the commitments; and then (4) figuring out how to pay for them.
Even more important, it seems to me that if the national conversation in response to the situation in Ukraine ends up emphasizing how much we spend, or don't spend, on defence, then many of the lessons that were supposed to have been learned from Afghanistan have already been forgotten.
Militaries do not fight 21st century wars alone. We need diplomats at relevant international fora; intelligence gatherers in the field; humanitarian aid workers on the ground; immigration officials administering the increasing numbers of refugees and displaced persons that wars create; settlement workers supporting those refugees once they arrive here; mental health professionals dealing with their trauma.
There is a tendency for people who study national security to talk a good game about these additional folks during peacetime, and then to forget about them when bullets start to fly.
Such was the case in Afghanistan, and it made a mess of the relationships between the Department of National Defence and the broader national security community; compromised Canada’s overall effectiveness; and left bureaucratic scars that have yet to fully heal.
So rather than having a conversation about the defence budget, let’s have one about national security writ large. And then let’s spend what it takes to keep Canadians, and the liberal democratic order upon which we depend, safe and prosperous.
One of Canada’s leading historians of security and intelligence, the University of Toronto’s Tim Sayle, had a provocative piece in the National Post last week about how Canada might best contribute to NATO in the future. Sayle wrote the book on the history of NATO, and his argument deserves serious consideration.
To be notified of my next post, follow me on Twitter @achapnick.
You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://buttondown.email/achapnick.