A couple of days ago I linked to and quoted from a speech given in Singapore by Major Choy Yong Cong, an officer in the Army of Singapore. One of the things Major Choy said stuck in my mind:
“… small countries like us have to punch above our weight just to stay relevant.”
There are two things that struck me:
- It, “punching above our weight,” is an expression that used to be used, a lot, about Canada, especially when it came to military maters; and
- Like it or not we are a (relatively) small country too.
We’re not geographically small, of course, indeed our landmass is so vast that even a country with a bigger population would be hard pressed to occupy it all. But we are just in the “top 40” of the 200 or so countries in the UN in terms of population, we are “small” in relation to our near neighbours, the USA and Russia, and to friends like Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom and South Korea. We share this giant landmass/small population dilemma with Australia ~ but Australia is far away from the USA or any of its traditional allies and it feels a need to spend around 2% of its GDP on defence.
“They are punching above their weight” was something often said about the Canadians, sometimes even to us, by senior allied officers, going all the way back, I think, to about 1900. It was commonplace in 1914-18 to use the cohesive, homogeneous Canadian Corps as the “shock army of the British Empire” (as David Lloyd George said), that was really punching above our weight. We continued that tradition in 1939-45 and in Korea, too. I heard, first hand, a German four star general, Jürgen Bennecke the Commander in Chief of NATO’s Central European Command, and a British general (three or four stars, I cannot remember) talking after an allied event that we, the Canadian brigade, had organized and hosted. The crux of the comments were: “Everything went well, of course, the Canadians ran the show.” “We’re lucky to have them in British Army of the Rhine.” “Indeed,” said Gen Benneke, “I wish we had 65,000 of them, not just 6,500.” That was our reputation, not just the Army’s, the RCN and RCAF were held in equally high regard by friend and foe alike. We, consistently, punched above our weight, and we continued to do so in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.
The Canadian Forces still can and will do that and earn prestige and e.g diplomatic and even trade considerations … if they are given the opportunity. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems intent on keeping a campaign promise to do less. It harkens back to his father’s infamous 1970 White Paper, A Foreign Policy for Canadians, that, explicitly, rejected the grand strategy that Louis St Laurent had put in place and the Conservative PM John Diefenbaker followed, of Canada being a leader amongst the middle powers, doing a full and fair share, even punching above its weight, to secure global peace and security. And so began an era of global freeloading in so far as defence and security issues were concerned, and, sad to say, both Conservative and Liberal administrations decided to follow the “butter” half of the “guns or butter” equation. It is hard to blame politicians, of either party, for choosing butter over guns … the butter is what Canadians want and they tell political pollsters that time and time and time again. But, still, even in a “butter” policy framework leaders like Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin Jr and Stephen Harper were willing to let the Canadian Armed forces punch above their weight in order to gain diplomatic, trade and political advantages for Canada.
I have said before that defending Canada requires both capacity and commitment. Despite being in difficult economic times ~ and we have been in worse, already in this century, Canada does have the capacity. What it appears to lack, in the early days of this new, Liberal government, is commitment, the will to punch above our weight.