The Liberals Won’t Solve Canada’s Real Defense Spending Problem: Richard Shimooka in the Hub

This article originally appeared in the Hub.

By Richard Shimooka, May 3, 2024

Last Monday, Sean Speer and Taylor Jackson published an excellent analysis of Canadian defense spending as part of The hub’s new DeepDives series. The release is timely for a number of reasons. Importantly, it provides crucial context for the recent federal fiscal and defense policy update that preceded it. However, its greater value became immediately apparent Wednesday following Defense Minister Bill Blair’s comments at a Canadian Global Affairs Institute conference on NORAD modernization. The most explosive sentence was his statement that it was difficult to convince his cabinet colleagues to agree to meeting NATO’s 2 percent threshold because “no one knows what that means.”

I wish I could say this is surprising, but it isn’t. There is widespread ignorance about foreign and defense policy, not only among his Cabinet colleagues, but also among the Canadian public.

There are many reasons why the government should aim to achieve the 2 percent target (which we will not repeat in full here), including the political costs of failing to provide adequate security, the risks of failing to properly manage the military capabilities to meet the threats Canada faces and the reputational damage our allies have suffered from being so out of step with their interests.

Instead, it’s more interesting to understand why the contours of this debate are so aligned.

For several reasons, Canadians’ general knowledge of defense and foreign policy is low. First, only very small segments have ever served in the military. Perhaps even more problematic is that Canadian civil society on defense is extremely weak compared to other countries: there are very few people whose job it is to address, analyze, criticize or promote thinking on defense issues. Disinformation is being filled into this vacuum by sensational and ill-conceived people, further confusing the public on truly vital issues of national security. That’s a shame, since potentially a majority of Canadians have good instincts and a genuine interest in Canada playing a strong international role befitting its size. But most simply have no idea what that means and are easily led astray.

It is also quite clear that there are ideological views on the military and international relations that are simply ignorant of reality. Our political leadership is, frankly, a lightweight among our international colleagues. The last leader to be highly regarded for their views on international relations was the recently departed Brian Mulroney. Stephen Harper and Paul Martin rose to that level at times, but it has been a relatively poor record over the past fifty years. More often than not, parochialism, ignorance and domestic political concerns have guided the international instincts of Canada’s political leadership.

Part of the issue is ideological in nature. It is clear that members of the ruling Liberal Party subscribe to a very naive understanding of international relations and military affairs. Strikingly, they have consistently misunderstood and underestimated the efforts of China, Russia and other authoritarian governments to overthrow the international order and negate the risks to Canada – up to and including directly interfering with Canadian democracy itself.

Similar problems are evident among some members of the Conservative Party. During his final years as president, Harper, based on a broader policy of austerity, implemented deep budget cuts that seriously affected the military’s readiness for the next decade. Likewise, the Conservative Party’s recent vote against the Ukraine Free Trade Agreement because of its carbon tax provisions, despite strong support for the beleaguered state, illustrates how even small ideological victories can push aside key foreign policy priorities.

The widespread lack of understanding on defense and foreign policy issues plays a role in the budget debate. I’ve long had one thought about public opinion on defense spending: the actual dollar amounts don’t matter all that much. Instead, political perception is all that matters.

More broadly, Canadians have lost their benchmarks on government spending. During COVID, the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep the economy going and people safe. Certainly, much of it was necessary, but very large investments and spending programs (which were by no means exclusive to the COVID response) have undermined the public’s understanding of what these dollar amounts mean.

There is no better example of how the numbers don’t matter than what happened with the CF-18 replacement saga. In 2010, based on a fairly in-depth analysis, the Department of National Defense attempted to purchase 65 F-35s exclusively for $8.9 billion CAD. It was clear that this was the cheapest and most capable option Canada could acquire.

The Liberal Party protested the purchase during the 2011 and 2015 elections, claiming it was an unaffordable and unnecessary “stealth” fighter that did not suit Canada’s interests. Once in power, their solution was to acquire a significantly more expensive, less capable option: an “interim capacity” of 18 Boeing Super Hornets. Instead of spending $9 billion on 65 F-35s, the governing Liberals now proposed spending $6.3 billion on 18 aircraft through a single source contract.

Did the Canadian public revolt against this looming boondoggle? Not really. The only concerns were expressed by experts who understood the disaster the government was planning to inflict on the country’s national security. There was absolutely no suggestion from the audience that this was unacceptable. The Liberals could vaguely gesture to the fighter jets they ultimately bought and the public was mollified that at least they were doing something – even if that “something” was the more expensive, less effective solution. No opposition party subsequently tried to weaponize this for their own purposes, and the issue failed to take off. That is fine for the domestic political concerns of those parties, but ultimately bad for the country in the long term.

Returning to our current 2 percent debate, this context of negligence by our leaders and ignorance by the masses explains why Blair’s Cabinet colleagues refuse to commit to spending up to that threshold. Again, it’s not about the actual amounts. Rather, it is the political perception of simply spending more, however incremental and ineffective, that is being prioritized. That is probably why the DPU effectively commits Canada to meeting the 2 percent target, while at the same time loudly proclaiming that this is not actually the case. It ensures that political leadership can go both ways; to tell key voters that the country is fiscally responsible, while claiming to allies that they will actually meet Canada’s obligations.

Allies are unlikely to be swayed. Most of Canada’s European and Asian partners have managed to increase their defense and reach or exceed the 2 percent threshold, despite also having domestic priorities such as health care, social security and infrastructure. But they see the deteriorating state of the international system and, determined to do something about it, have increased defense spending. For them, the Canadian trick is getting old.

Moreover, I suspect that Blair, like Anita Anand before him, understands what the budget choices mean. They are clear about the dire situation the military finds itself in and almost certainly realize that if the goal is to maintain even the extremely limited capacity of the military, 2 percent of spending will not be enough. But again, it’s simply domestic political concerns driving the decision-making here.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to address this situation. Increasing the education levels of Canadians in this area would certainly help, but that would require a level of policy coordination between different levels of government and civil society that is difficult to imagine coming to fruition. National service ideas could potentially address this problem, but they would be extremely expensive, further waste valuable defense resources and be politically untenable.

The problem with facing big problems is that it can be difficult to know where to start solving them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anything. If Blair fails to find the traction he needs within his own government, it may be up to the next government to provide a clean start. The Conservatives would like to make this case, if only because it provides another sharp distinction between them and the Liberals on which to lean. Yes, this would be another play for domestic audiences, but at least it’s one with the added benefit of beginning the country’s slow climb out of this mess. There are worse legacies Pierre Poilievre could leave behind than being the prime minister who arrested Canada’s decline into military and international irrelevance.

My advice? The 2 percent spending threshold is a useful target, but ultimately irrelevant if the broader system itself is not fixed. Right now, what we spend on, and how, is much more important than necessarily how much. We have to get that right before the rest can follow.

Richard Shimooka is a Hub writer and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who writes on defense policy.