Staples op-ed: Truth is: Canada one of the world’s highest military spenders

Politicians of all stripes and a platoon’s worth of retired generals like to claim we spend too little on defence and happily point out that Canada is just not pulling its weight among our allies. Well, believe none of it.

The truth is that Canada is already one of the world’s highest military spenders. The question is not how much more should we spend on defence, but are we spending the billions of dollars already in the military’s budget wisely?

Many folks on Parliament Hill would have been as surprised as I was earlier this year when I attended a defence conference and found a Senator, well-known for his support of the military, lecturing a roomful of senior Department of National Defence staff on how to be more aggressive with the government. “If you ask for $100 and they say no, don’t come back and ask for $50–demand $200,” he exhorted them.

The Senator reminded me of one of Jean Chrétien’s last interviews as Prime Minister, when he told reporters, “It’s never enough. I have never seen an army anywhere in the world who returned a government money– anywhere. They all need more and they all have plans for more.”

But Jean Chrétien’s advice falls on deaf ears around Paul Martin’s Cabinet table. This year Paul Martin handed the military “the largest increase in defence spending in the last 20 years,” as Finance Minister Ralph Goodale described it. The Conference of Defence Associations, a pro-defence lobby group, had another word for it: “staggering.”

Budget 2005, which passed with support from the NDP and Independents, will increase military spending by $12.8-billion over the next five years, pushing military spending beyond Cold War levels to heights not seen since Canada was at war with the Nazis. According to DND, our military spending will break the $20-billion-a-year mark if Martin’s budget survives the five years–37 per cent higher than it is today.

Even without the planned increases, Canada’s military spending consumes an enormous portion of the public purse. According to DND’s estimates, Canada’s total military spending will reach $14.68-billion in 2005-2006. This is just seven per cent below what we spent the day the Berlin Wall fell. Last week the respected U.S. journal Defense News ranked Canada as the 14th highest military spender in the world.

Still think it’s not enough? Just ask NATO if Canada is a welsher on defence. NATO’s latest study of alliance spending, released in June, showed Canada’s 2004 defence spending was the seventh highest among the 26-member alliance in terms of actual dollars spent, placing us squarely in the top third. Canada’s spending ($11.6B in U.S. dollars) is more than double that of Norway ($4.5B U.S.) and Belgium ($4.4B U.S.), and triple that of Denmark ($3.6B U.S.). In fact, it’s greater than the 12 lowest NATO military spenders combined.

Even using percentage of GDP as a comparison, according to NATO, Canada’s 1.2 per cent of GDP devoted to the military is roughly equal to that of Belgium (1.2 per cent) and of Spain (1.3 per cent), and only a few tenths of a percentage point behind Germany (1.4 per cent). Incidentally, it is far above Luxembourg (0.8 per cent), to whose spending Canada’s is often incorrectly cited is being comparable.

Sadly, Canada’s growth in military spending is contributing to a startling international trend. Annual global military spending has surpassed one trillion dollars, approaching the same level as at the height of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the United Nations is warning that unless drastic measures are implemented, the world will not meet its targets for reducing poverty and millions will die needlessly during the next decade, many of them before they reach their fifth birthday.

These misplaced global priorities are mirrored in Canada, where Paul Martin steadfastly refuses to commit to devoting 0.7 per cent of GDP to foreign aid while defence spending mushrooms. The result is that for every loonie we spend on global poverty alleviation and development, Canada spends $4 on defence. And even at home, for the price of a single military helicopter the government could build more than 1,000 homes to shelter Canada’s homeless.

If Canadians had a true appreciation of how much money the military spends, they might be asking what all this money is being used for.

Forget UN peacekeeping. Whether it is expanding the number of Canada’s secret commandos, maintaining submarines used for U.S. war games, or outfitting CF-18s with laser-guided bombs, these expensive DND programs are intended to ensure that the Canadian Forces stand ready and able to fight with, or for, the United States.

Increased participation over the last decade in U.S.-led missions abroad has taken place at the expense of Canada’s traditional support for United Nations’ “Blue Helmet” missions. In 1992-93, participation in UN missions accounted for $9.27 of every $10 spent on international operations ($473 of $510-million). By 2004-05, these UN missions have been nearly abandoned, accounting for a mere 31 cents of every $10 spent on foreign missions ($34-million of $1.1-billion).

A strong majority of Canadians celebrated the government’s decision to not participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and to take a pass on the Bush administration’s missile defence shield. Despite adopting these popular foreign policy decisions, Paul Martin’s government continues to push Canada’s defence policy to fall in line with the Pentagon’s war planners.

This month the Polaris Institute submitted a brief to the Commons Finance Committee raising questions about Canada’s alarming rise in military spending. In that brief we urge Parliamentarians to engage Canadians in developing a suitable defence policy that upholds our traditional values and support for United Nations peacekeeping, and until that is implemented, to support a freeze on Canada’s military spending.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in The Hill Times on September 26, 2005.

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