Should Canadians feel obliged to spend an extra $20 billion on defence because Russian President Vladimir Putin is bullying Ukraine? Of course not. Canada must do its share to deter aggression against our European allies, as we have in the past. But we can help them manage the threat without busting the bank.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been harshly critical of Putin’s “aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic” policies, he has every reason to resist pressure on Canada and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to spend 2 per cent of their national economic output on defence.
As the Toronto Star’s Bruce Campion-Smith writes, U.S. President Barack Obama has made the issue a “top priority” at the NATO leaders’ anxious summit in Newport, Wales, on Thursday and Friday. It’s a long-standing refrain in Washington, where Congress is forever grousing that the Europeans don’t pull their weight.
Yet few of NATO’s 28 members come close to the 2-per-cent benchmark, including the nuclear-armed United States and Britain. To match them we’d have to double our $18.7 billion spending. That’s a hard sell when the Conservative government is pinching pennies to find $12 billion in revenues and savings to bring the federal books into balance by next year. Even Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, spends just 1.3 per cent.
On Harper’s watch the military has seen its budget increase from $15 billion in 2006 to $20 billion in 2012 before dropping back to $18.7 billion this year. More than $150 million already goes to NATO defence programs.
And while the Canadian Forces are forever cash-strapped they are an Afghanistan-hardened military with strategic airlift, modern frigates, upgraded combat aircraft, and tanks and fighting vehicles. They can work seamlessly with U.S. forces in combat, as in Afghanistan and Libya.
Rather be spooked into a glut of extra spending Harper should pledge Canada’s political and practical support for giving NATO a modestly sharper edge. A proposed NATO multinational “spearhead” brigade of some 4,000 troops with pre-positioned supply depots in Eastern Europe would bolster the alliance’s capacity to hit hard, collectively and quickly at any aggressor. Given Putin’s contempt for European borders, peace and stability, it’s a prudent precaution.
Harper could reasonably commit CF-18 fighter-bombers, airlift, troops and armour to NATO’s brigade, on a rotating basis and through military exercises. That would signal Canada’s resolve to help defend our allies, without breaking the bank or returning to the Cold War days when Canadian troops and aircraft were permanently stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet attack. A rotating deployment would effectively build on what we already are doing.
After Moscow annexed Crimea Canada dispatched CF-18s to fly air-policing patrols over Romania and Lithuania. The frigate HMCS Toronto is on station in the Mediterranean Sea. And Canadian troops are participating in military exercises.
Equally significantly, Canada has joined others in imposing sanctions that are scaring off investment in Russia and choking off the credit it needs to finance infrastructure and service its debt. The economy is headed for recession. Soaring food costs, high unemployment, and unpaid wages and pensions are far likelier to get Russians’ attention than a hike in NATO spending.
The Group of Seven chequebook may well prove mightier than the sword, in limiting Putin’s taste for a fight.
Whatever the future trajectory of NATO’s defence spending, decisions don’t need to be taken in haste in a crisis atmosphere. What’s needed is a robust show of political resolve, a sharper point for NATO’s spearhead, and the patience to let sanctions bite.