Still think outsourcing our national defence is a good idea?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting at the G7 leaders summit in La Malbaie, Quebec on Friday, June 8, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang. Justin Tang/CP

Over a decade-plus in journalism, I’ve probably written more about Canadian national defence issues than anything else.

Defence literacy is horrifically low in Canada. It’s not an issue the public is engaged in, and a few notable exceptions aside, it’s not something the media spends much time on. No doubt it’s a chicken-egg dilemma: if there’s no public demand, the media won’t report on it, which promotes even more public apathy, which lowers demand…

I’ve tried to push back on that, and to keep military matters on the mind of the public — to no overall effect, it would seem. As I’ve done this, the most typical reply, whether simply baffled or outright mocking, has always been, “But why should Canada have a military? The Americans will just protect us.”

Really? Does anyone still feel like this is something we should take for granted?

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This is not to suggest that we should be arming ourselves to resist an American invasion. Such a thing is virtually unthinkable, and even if it weren’t, Canada could bankrupt itself amassing the best military it could, and the U.S. would simply roll over us anyway. The U.S. is too big and too good at war.

But there are still many things that Canada should be able to do for itself, that we aren’t. And the reason we aren’t isn’t because we don’t have the know-how or the money. We’re one of the most high-tech nations in the world, with a gigantic economy completely out of proportion with our small population. We don’t have the military capabilities we need simply because, in the backs of all of our minds — in the forefronts of some of our minds, if we’re being honest — we have always believed there just wasn’t a point. Why spend money to do something your big, friendly neighbour will just do for you?

That’s an appalling attitude. It is astonishingly cynical and self-absorbed. Countries should care about their own defence because that’s basically what countries are for. It’s deeply embarrassing that Canada has forgotten this. But I’ve long since reconciled myself to the bleak reality that whatever I might think about such a lazy, self-indulgent attitude, it is the accepted defence consensus among both our major political parties.

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But it shouldn’t be, and Donald Trump, whatever else he might be, is a very helpful reminder of that.

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Trump is wrong on most of his views on trade (he’s right about his views on our dairy subsidies, but that’s a column for a different day). But he’s always been absolutely right that the U.S. has, for generations now, effectively subsidized the social welfare nets of many of its allies by underwriting their costs of national defence. He’s often inarticulate when expressing that view, but it’s an accurate one.

This is a problem for Canada. We have no real counter-argument we can make. Our long neglect of our armed forces isn’t a matter of debate, it’s a matter of record. It’s objectively true. Prior U.S. presidents have had the good grace not to harp on it too publicly; Trump is not similarly restrained. And it absolutely puts us in a weaker negotiating position.

While we’ll never be an equal partner in our alliance, there are still many things Canada could do that would at least leave us less dependent on U.S. military munificence. Canada would improve its standing with Washington, and do a better job just being a grown-up country, if it was more capable of taking care of itself at home. We’d find ourselves on firmer footing when dealing with a bellicose president, too.

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And, again, these are achievable goals. Canada does not have a large enough fleet to effectively patrol its massive coastlines while also contributing meaningfully to international missions abroad. I used the term “fleet” deliberately there — we could handle a lot of missions in our own waters by bulking up our Coast Guard, not just our navy. We’ve chosen to do neither. That’s sub-optimal.

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Our fighter squadrons, similarly, are too few and too old to be a significant player abroad while also watching our own massive airspace. Our search-and-rescue capabilities are inadequate for a country of our size. Our Army is well-trained and relatively well-equipped, but is too small and difficult to deploy for either missions abroad or emergencies (including disaster relief) at home. Our procurement system is a permanent disaster — every capability referenced above has recent procurement screw-ups that I could point to as proof.

The Canadian military can contribute to missions abroad, and does. Canadian military personnel are highly prized for their professionalism and poise. But there simply aren’t enough of them. Our contributions to our various alliances are often token. We need a bigger fleet, Navy and Coast Guard, with the right staffing, equipment and capabilities to both watch out for our own waters and contribute more than symbolic forces abroad. We need a much larger and more modernized Air Force just to patrol our own vast air defence zone, let alone support allies. The Army needs more units and more training time. No serious observer of Canadian defence issues would dispute any of this.

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But since we haven’t gotten our act together, like it or not, we are almost entirely dependent on the United States. That’s a bad place to be when a country is locked in a testy trade dispute with its benefactor. A dozen extra frigates for the Navy wouldn’t magically turn Trump into a free trader, but it would give actual heft — the proverbial hard power — to bulwark Canada’s negotiating position. We will always be America’s friend and ally, but it would be a lot easier for us to stare down a hostile and unpredictable president if we knew, in the backs of our minds, that we didn’t really need them watching our backs for us.

But we do need them, because we’ve chosen to outsource a big chunk of our sovereignty to Washington. It’s not a nice thing to admit, but it’s true. We know it, even if we pretend otherwise. And the problem is, the man in the White House knows it, too. If we want to be taken seriously at the negotiating table, maybe it’s time to take ourselves seriously at home, first.

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