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Realism Canadian Style

Joel Sokolsky

Visiting Canada-U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Bridgewater State College, Massachusetts and Dean of Arts and Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada

February 25, 2004

This talk covers US-Canadian relations from the Canadian perspective. Canada was conspicuously absent from the war in Iraq. That absence created ill will. In Canada, there was a lot of talk about bilateral relations and the record of Prime Minister Chrétien. Chrétien didn't make up his mind not to participate in the war until January 2003. Canadian officers had already gone to Tampa to work with the US command, and Canada was ready to commit 600 to 800 troops. At some point Chrétien got upset towards the Bush administration; members of his staff even questioned President Bush's intelligence. Chrétien said the war was not about WMD. He had floated a proposal to UN for more time for inspectors.

So Canada stayed out of Iraq but recommitted to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. 2100 Canadians remain there.

With the Canadian rejection of Iraq, relations with the United States went bad. Bush cancelled a visit to Ottawa.

Relations improved with Chrétien's exit. Prime Minister Martin is trying to bring everything back to normal. He's untainted by the prior brouhaha.

What do the lessons of the Chrétien government tell us about future relations?

Canada pursues its own interests. Many say the lack of defense spending shows that the Chrétien government did not understand international relations. But really Canada's leadership has long understood international relations, and that's precisely why Canada does not spend on defense. The Chrétien leadership was a cynical group who understand power and how to manipulate it.

Canada's defense problem is convincing America that Canada is not an American problem. Canada answers the question of how much defense spending is enough by asking how much is just enough. Canada tries to spend the minimum amount necessary to maintain activity within its alliance with United States, some level of interoperability, and the ability to participate in coalitions of the willing. The top Canadian foreign policy priority is trade and keeping the border open. To this end, US relations are a top priority. Defense spending feeds alliance politics, which allows trade.

The United States always complains about low Canadian defense spending, but the United States can't do more than complain given that Canada always participates in US missions. Canada takes the Woody Allen approach to international politics: 90% of life is just showing up. The result is a strategic culture where Canada always does something less than what its partners want but enough to stay in their plans. Henry Kissinger saluted the wisdom of this approach, saying Canada got a lot diplomatic punch for small amounts of spending.

Canadian politicians are savvy users of power. Recent governments have seen a concentration of power even within the executive branch in the Privy Council and Prime Ministers' office, the emergence of what some call friendly dictatorship.

There is view in Canada, and to lesser extent in the United States, that Canada has been asleep in dealing with the United States for 13 years - that is, not a good enough sidekick. This is due to low defense spending, which is less than 1% of GDP. The budget is the same as in 1991, $12 billion Canadian. Martin, who cut the budget, is now Prime Minister.

There has been a lot of aggrandizement of the Pierce legacy, but it's true that Prime Minister Pierce kept the United States happy. Canada never opposed major US priorities. This was true for most of the Cold War.

But it's just not true that Canada has been inactive since the early nineties. Actually Canada has been hyperactive in areas not related to its vital interests; Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo, for instance. Canada has been doing a lot more since the Cold War ended. In the Cold War, Canada avoided peacekeeping. Now Canada does a lot of peacekeeping.

Canadian forces were happy with these missions, though that they wanted more equipment. After the Cold War, the number of armed forces went from 80,000 to 60,000, with 20,000 in the Army. Interoperability with the United States remains the cornerstone of force development.

There was a strong Chrétien / Clinton relationship based on these missions. Canada did diverge from United States on "human security," pushing the Landmine Treaty and the International Criminal Court. The US leadership was a bit perturbed by this Wilsonian moralism. But by and large, the 1990s were years of unprecedented US-Canadian cooperation outside North America.

In North America, there were few issues of contention during the 1990s. NORAD radars were put into hibernation, and the Clinton administration was lukewarm toward National Missile Defense and did not press Canada much on the issue. Without the issue of Homeland Security, Canada was not seen as a relevant part of the defense of the continental United States.

Canada had a problem with NATO expansion, in the sense that more states means that Canada's role is reduced. But in a way, expansion was a great issue for Canada, because it allowed Canada to get a lot of diplomatic power - Canada ran NATO's office in Kiev.

Canada was concerned in the 1990s about rising American power, but comfortable with Clinton's unilateralism with a smile, as opposed to Bush's unilateralism with an attitude - and after 9/11, unilateralism with a vengeance.

For Canada, 9/11 had a special meaning. The emphasis on homeland security and terrorism makes Canada an important piece of real estate again. Canada's geographic relevance had been Cold War fantasy, but now it is real. Geography is back. The border is back. The Saint Lawrence and the Great Lakes require security. Immigration from Canada matters. Canada's shore line needs protection. Container security in Canada is important - half of the containers entering Montreal are headed for the United States border. Canada has become more important to US security. A Cold War assumption was that Canada could not be a strategic liability for United States. That sentiment is back.

NORAD is also back, dealing with internal airspace. NAV Canada works with the FAA. The United States is standing up Northern Command, under the same head as NORAD. The two nations are establishing a binational planning group at NORAD headquarters to look at the sea and land defenses of the continent.

Canada, which had been wavering on missile defense, is now looking to get more involved. There is talk about talks. If Canada does not agree that missile defense will be a NORAD role, it will probably do something in another capacity. Canada has drawn a distinction between the weaponization and the militarization of space, but the United States is not asking much. Missile defense may become a litmus test of sorts.

After 9/11, the Canadian government promised a $7 billion boost on defense - $800 million on the armed forces, the rest on intelligence, the border, the Coast Guard, and container security. The spending will focus on homeland security, not the military per se. Canada's security spending is driven by the need to keep the border open.

American calls for greater Canadian defense spending will then not accomplish much beyond the homeland. Canada's budget surplus is all going to health care and to pay down debt.

Right now there are 3800 Canadian personnel oversees. 2100 are in Afghanistan. A Canadian general is in command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Since 1991, Canadian ships have been in the Persian Gulf. Canada has had a small peacekeeping force in Bosnia since 1992. Canadian forces don't do a lot for UN missions, however. Canadian overseas work is mostly green helmet, not blue helmet.

Canada will not add to its presence overseas. Canada's Afghanistan mission will soon drop its number from 2100 to 500. Their Afghan base is for sale. Canada will not do much more overseas but will do most of what the United States wants on the border, intelligence, cargo, and arming the coast guard. The litmus test for the relationship won't be the away game, it will be on the homefield.

Canadian military spending is $12-13 billion Canadian and holding. It is probably in the US interest to encourage Canada to spend its resources on homeland security as opposed to pure military. The Canadian government has said that in an emergency it might have to recall troops to Canada. There is no national guard and it's harder to move around Canada than in many less developed countries.

In sum, the lessons from the Chrétien years are that Canada will remain supportive of the United States despite the patch of bad relations surrounding Iraq. 9-11 gives Canada new importance to the United States. Canada has to spend on homeland security to keep its border open. For US national security interests, pushing to Canada spend more money on defense may be misguided.

Dr. Joel J. Sokolsky is a Visiting Canada-U.S. Fulbright Scholar at Bridgewater State College. He is Dean of Arts and a Professor of Political Science at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). Dr. Sokolsky, the author and editor of several books, has served as a consultant to several government offices including the Associate Assistant Deputy Minister of National Defence (Policy) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He has been a member of the Secretariat Working Group of the NATO/Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies and Security Studies Institutes.

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

back to seminar schedule, Spring 2004