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Therein Lies The Problem

Therein Lies The Problem

"Canada's strengths are not in its military force,'' he [Mohamed Boudjenane of the Canadian Arab Federation and NDP member of the Ontario legislature for Etobicoke North.] said. "Let's not (kid) ourselves -- we're not a power.”
Source: CTV New at

And therein lies the problem: Mr. Boudjenane is right, Canada is not a power, not a superpower, not a great power, and, in reality, not even a middle power.

In 1969 Canada decided, consciously, to eschew ‘hard power,’ Canada chose to be weak and disengaged. Prime Ministers Mulroney and Chrétien began, hesitantly, to change that in the 1990s when they authorized Canadian Forces participation in a variety of UN and, later, UN-mandated NATO missions in the Balkans. But both prime ministers, ever the Canadian pragmatists, were interested in doing just enough to show that Canada was ‘doing its bit’ to stabilize the international security problems brought to the fore in the new world order, thus safeguarding Canada’s trade and commerce interests – especially vis à vis the USA.

Canada was a power – up until 1969. Canada was a middle power but, to be sure, a cash-strapped one. Canada had emerged from the ashes of the 2nd World War as something pretty close to a major power – but that condition could never last and should never have lasted. The Marshall Plan and the Colombo Plan (in which Canada was a major player and which fostered the rise of India) were designed, in part, to bring about their own new world order – one in which former, war ravaged great powers would be rebuilt and rearmed so that they could bear a full and fair share of the global collective security burden envisioned by the United Nations’ charter. It didn’t quite work out that way – even with substantial North American aid (and charity) Britain, France, Germany and Japan could only become pale shadows of the great powers they had been. One of the reasons the former great powers failed to regain their past stature and, equally, why Canada found maintaining a leadership position amongst the middle and lesser powers was money.

By the mid to late 1950s the costs of defence hardware and of the (fewer in number but more expensive in skills) military personnel needed to operate and maintain it had skyrocketed and they continued to grow at far above general rate of inflation throughout the succeeding decades, as they do today. All countries, including the USA, found defence expenditures hard to manage; Canada was no exception.

The entirety of the Avro Arrow imbroglio was financial: building and flying the Arrow would have destroyed the Canadian Forces unless unconscionably huge increases were made to the defence budget – in the teeth of a recession! Defence Minister Paul Hellyer’s organizational ‘experiments’ in the early 1960s (the integration and unification of the Canadian Forces) were designed, almost exclusively to try to contain the ever growing costs of defending Canada. Those problems have only gotten more difficult to solve as the decades passed.

By the end of the ‘60s Canada was awash in anti-war and anti-military sentiments – greater by far than the mistrust of large military establishments that is part and parcel of our British heritage. In the 1970s inflation soared and the already high inflation rates associated with ever more technologically advanced military hardware went from high to nearly impossible but, in Canada, defence budgets were frozen. In the ‘80s it was becoming clear to most of the allies that the way to win the Cold War was to just keep American defence spending – especially on technology – growing; the Russians, it was reasoned would “have to eat grass” to keep up, or surrender. In the face of this, Canada, under Prime Minister Trudeau, embarked on a ‘peace initiative’ that was intellectually unsound and did measurable damage to our relations with our best friends and closest allies.

Briefly, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it looked as though Pierre Trudeau might have been right. History might have ended and nationalistic military forces might have become useless. Sadly the idea of a peaceful new world order demonstrated, yet again, the triumph of hope over experience. History was not ended; rather, as Francis Fukuyama forecasted, the end of the Cold War and, implicitly the end of the capitalism vs. (Marxist) communism debate, did ”not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se ...” there will ”still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out ...” and ”terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda.” 1

But, in 1970, Canada launched a process of unilateral disarmament and of disengagement from the collective security regime that had underpinned Western security for twenty years; by 1995 it was very, very hard to reverse the process.

Canada is, currently, punching above its weight. Since the mid to late 1990s we have, almost consistently, maintained a substantial naval presence in areas of dangerous tensions and a small but tough, well trained and adequately equipped army force in (mostly) combat operations and we have also, occasionally, provided modern combat aircraft for combat operations. This has made Canadians and some of our allies forget (temporarily, at least) that we spent a quarter century, as John Manley put it, like the man who enjoys a good dinner with his friends but, when the bill is presented, runs off to hide in the washroom while the other pay his share. It has also stretched our military resources right to the breaking point.

We could do nothing else because, as Mohamed Boudjenane of the Canadian Arab Federation noted, “we’re not a power.”

For a decade we have tried to act like a power – but, for the most part, without paying the price.

It seems pretty clear that Canadians believe they have a useful, productive, even important role to play in the world. Canadians have views and ideas and aspirations and they want their government and its agents to assert itself on the world’s stage to adopt, for Canada and Canadians, in former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s words, “A role of pride and influence in the world.”2

In that title former Prime Minister Martin correctly identified both sides of the coin: Canadians want to play a constructive role of their own (not as an adjunct to the USA) in world affairs and they want to take pride and satisfaction in that role. There is just one problem: over and over again Canadians tell their government that they don’t want to spend any money on these noble aims.

There are three main aspects to any reasonable sort of “role of pride and influence in the world”:

1. Diplomacy – Canada needs to be active in the world, in the United Nations, in other international political, social and economic fora, and unilaterally. Canada needs to have and offer ideas, based on Canadians’ ideals, that “make a difference” in world affairs. But, to have a diplomatic voice Canada must pay its dues in the other to domains and by way of a bigger and better foreign service;

2. Aid and development – Canadians pride themselves on “caring and sharing,” even if the balance sheets show that we are far, far less generous than we would like to believe. Aid and development assistant matters, even, perhaps especially when it is poorly managed, allowing large sums to be siphoned off as de facto bribes for government officials. Canada, and other countries in similar positions, can and should expect that aid will be repaid with support for e.g. seats on the UN Security Council; and

3. Security and defence – the most obvious and often most necessary attribute of power is hard, military power. The world (especially the poorest ⅔ of the UN’s members) wants, needs and sometimes even deserves armed help. Canada has been a pioneer and leader in developing and popularizing the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).3 Canadians have, probably thoughtlessly, agreed that they have a duty to act, with force of arms, to prevent the sorts of human disasters that have been all to prevalent since 1990 – the “high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence” Fukuyama predicted nearly twenty years ago. The current mission in Afghanistan is just one example of Canada actually exercising its R2P. Canadians remember that, under the Taliban, women and girls were denied equal opportunity – or, mostly, any opportunity at all – that soccer stadiums were turned into public execution grounds, and that homosexuals and female adulterers were publicly executed by being buried alive or stoned, respectively. But Afghanistan is not the only or even the neediest country when it comes to R2P. We can confidently predict that the sorts of human crises that caused us to push R2P as a doctrine will occur soon, indeed are occurring right now in Africa. Canada does not have enough military power to go beyond the levels described above – the ones which have already stretched our military too thinly.

But: the world needs some leadership from the middle powers, to offset the fear and mistrust of the USA and the other major powers. And: Canadians want to be leaders. It ought to be a no-brainer; Canada should have been – ever since the mid 1990s – rebuilding its diplomatic brains, its aid and development heart and its military muscle, creating a wise, generous and robust Canadian actor to play our part on the world’s stage. That, despite a generally robust economy, we have not done so, not under prime Minister Chrétien, not under Prime Minister Martin and not under Prime Minister Harper, tells us that political leaders, Liberals and Conservatives alike, have read the polls and have determined that Canadians may ‘want’ to be leaders but they are unwilling to pay the price to actually lead.

And it is no small price. Beyond more than doubling GDP to 0.7% of GDP ($10 Billion/year by about 2010 from about 0.3% today) as we have promised and promised and promised, it will, as The Ruxted Group has explained, 4 require something akin to 2.2% of GDP, year after year, for decades, for the defence budget alone. That’s likely to be $30 Billion very soon (Canada’s GDP is at or rapidly approaching $1.5 Trillion)5 then $40 Billion by 2020 and perhaps $50 Billion by 2030.   Those are huge numbers: 3% of GDP or $45 Billion (rather than the $25 Billion that most observers predict for 2010 to 2015) to buy ourselves “a role of pride and influence in the world.” We are not surprised that political leaders are unwilling to present such numbers to Canadians.

Canada really is a ‘peaceable kingdom.’ We inherited, from our British forbearers, a distaste for military forces and, especially, for their cost. But: we have roused ourselves when necessary and nations have discovered, to their peril, that they have “made a match with such a wrangler” and have suffered grievously for it. But: we are slow to identify real threats – and not all threats do require an immediate military response, because we would like to believe that others are as peaceable as we. But: we rely too much upon myths:

•   “Our ability and our force and strength are in our moral authority as a peacekeeper;”6

•   We don’t need big regular forces because, à la 1812 and 1885, our militia can be mobilized to save the day; and

•   There is no longer any role for a ‘leading middle power.’7

A final but: sometimes the threat is real and blue-beret wearing ‘peacekeepers’ and our citizen’s militia will not be enough to meet it. We will need to forge military ties with other powers, great, small and middle and the latter will want and need to be led by someone.

So, therein lies the problem: contrary to the views of most Canadians, The Ruxted Group asserts there are real threats to our peace and prosperity, threats posed by Fukuyama’s ”ethnic and nationalist violence;” these threats require much, much more than a few lightly armed and poorly equipped UN peacekeepers. New, loose alignments of like minded great and middle powers are required to contain and, as necessary, defeat the threats. Canada ought to be a leader amongst the middle powers in this new quest for peace. We have a Responsibility to Protect. Therefore, we need to rouse ourselves and pay the money, up front, now, so that we can pay a lower price in lives and treasure later.   

1. Fukuyama, Francis: Summer 1989, The National Interest.
2. Marin, Paul: A Role of Pride and Influence in the World, Foreword from the Prime Minister, Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs, 2006, at:
3. See:
4. See: Ruxted, A Look to the Future at:
5. See: Statistics Canada at:
6. Mohamed Boudjenane, again, at:
7. A myth proffered by e.g. Jennifer Welsh at:


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Peter Armstrong-Whitworth on :

Interesting piece. While I agree with the general thrust of the article and the third aspect of what a role of pride and influence in the world would entail, describing Afghanistan as a mission where Canada is exercising its Responsibilty to Protect is a bit of a leap, particularly as you mention that "Afghanistan is not the only or even the neediest country when it comes to R2P." Afghanistan is a mission where Canada is protecting its national security would be a more accurate description.

Furthermore what credibility does the Ruxted group have in advocating for R2P, when at the same time it argues against any involvement in Darfur -- refering to the region as a "Sand Trap" It is precisely in such situations where systematic human rights abuses are occuring, normatives values are undermined, and realist calculations of national security interests do not necessarily add add up that the R2P doctrine was established.

Secondly, I remain puzzled as to why the Ruxted Group continue to advocate for more effective alignements to counter threats to international security (on behalf of the UN - as outlined in your article on Preparing for NATO's Failure) and for Canada to ply a lead role amongst middle powers and has yet to examine, let alone make mention of Canada's involvement in SHIRBRIG. Although it may not precisely fit within the vision of the loose alignement the Ruxted Group has in mind, it is a grouping of middle and small powers where Canada has played a lead role to ensure that UN military operations can be more effective. As such, it deserves serious analysis.

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