The famous words of American president Theodore Roosevelt—“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”—suits Canadian foreign policy perfectly, except in the reverse of their meaning.
Stephen Harper’s government’s version of our Canadian foreign policy seems to favour talking tough with nothing much to back up the words—i.e., Canada has become a paper tiger.
Under the Conservatives, attitudes towards our military have been inconsistent. Conservatives talk a lot about the being for the men and women of our armed forces, but, at times, act as though they hold our veterans in disdain. I say this regarding both our active forces and with our veterans.
Too often, veterans of Canada’s wars seem not to be treated with respect and dignity and seem not to be given the benefit of doubt when dealing with government agencies. This is especially so under Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, notwithstanding his much appreciated recent announcement of new funding for visitations to veterans in long-term care facilities.
Fantino’s announcement will not, however, dull the memories of the many veterans who complain that Veterans Affairs is spending an additional $4 million on advertising this year, while ignoring the unfortunate families who care for injured soldiers.
Also, many veterans are still angry that Jenifer Migneault—a sick veteran’s wife—had to chase after Fantino as she tried, unsuccessfully, to speak to him in the House of Commons. And, of course, the scene of Fantino’s rudeness to veterans earlier this year—he arrived late to a meeting and reportedly “left quickly rather than face the irate vets”—is still fresh in the minds of many.
One measure of a country’s worthiness must surely be how well it treats those who survived its wars. Canada, as a nation that expects its citizens to go to war when called upon, should know this better than most.
Many Canadians seem not to understand the important role our armed services have played in building our nation. Some cling to the myth that we were until recently a nation of honest brokers, implying we were neutral or unaligned. We hear this articulated in debates over our role in the Middle East and vis-à-vis Israel.
It’s a false notion, of course. We have never been an unaligned, or neutral country. It is revisionist history. We may love peace, but we have waged war—and waged it well—when we felt it was necessary.
For thousands of years there were inter-tribal conflicts between our Aboriginal peoples, then European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries fought several colonial wars spanning some seventy years. Furthermore, Canada, under the British, rebuffed American invasions in 1775 and 1812.
After Canadian Confederation in 1867, Canadian forces fought along with the British in the Second Boer War and the First and Second World Wars. At the end of the Second World War, Canada had the third-largest navy in the world (over 400 ships, including three aircraft carriers and two cruisers), the fourth largest air force and an army variously reported at five or six divisions, establishing Canada as a major force in world affairs.
From 1945 onwards, Canada has been continuously aligned militarily with the United States and Great Britain. In 1949, Canada became a founding member of NATO, stationing troops in Germany and Norway. During the 1950s, Canada was one of the largest military spenders in the alliance. Over 5,000 Canadian service personnel, at any given time, were stationed in Germany until 1993.
As part of our commitment to the UN and our alliance with the U.S., Canada again fought in a series of wars: the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, and the NATO-led Afghan war.
Since the mid-1950s, Canada also played an important role in international peacekeeping missions, committing more troops than any other country over that time. This is, perhaps, the source of the myth that Canada was a nation of peacekeepers and favoured neutrality until the Harper years.
Besides, Canada has been an ally of Israel since—as one of 33 countries on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine—it voted in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. And Canada did so in the face of heavy pressure to abstain from the U.K. Moreover, Canada granted de facto recognition to Israel in 1948 and official recognition in 1949.
That brings me back to Canada’s current foreign policy, and its lack of a “big stick.”
Rather than speaking softly and carrying a big stick, PM Harper seems to prefer to use tough talk without a military to back him up. Under successive governments of both Liberals and Conservatives, Canada’s “big stick,” its armed forces, has been allowed to atrophy to the point we’ve become less than a shadow of our former selves.
Our annual military spending is the lowest it’s been in this century and is about half of the 2 per cent of GDP we’re committed to spend as a member of NATO. Besides, Canada’s contribution to the defence of North America is far less than the U.S. should expect from a partner that is a member of the G-7.
Moreover, Canada’s military is woefully incapable of defending its resource-rich artic region. Russia, a military Goliath, is one of Canada’s rivals in that region, and recent events prove it only respects military might when dealing with its neighbours.
Russia has a GDP that is only about 11 per cent larger than Canada’s (or about the same as Italy’s GDP), yet Russia spends more than four times more than Canada does on its armed forces. Because of its giant-sized armed forces—and only because of it—Russia is a major actor on the world stage.
On the one hand, Russia—in most international crises—is able to stride boldly onto centre stage and make things happen. Canada, on the other hand, must stand in the wings and hope someone notices.
Sometimes Canada hits above its weight internationally and receives well deserved recognition for its efforts—as was done in Afghanistan and on various peacekeeping/policing operations—but only when it finds a way to flex its moderate military muscles.
Should, however, Canada want to play a consistent role like we’d expect from a G-7 nation, we’d better step up and modernize our forces with new ships and planes and increase our manpower.
Australia is a similar democracy with similar standard of living and two-thirds our population. But Australia has a navy and air force more capable and more powerful than ours.
Canada is not likely to be a major power in the foreseeable future, but it could move up to being a solid second-tier player.
Time to stop being a tough-talking paper tiger.