Another Look at Defence and Foreign Policy

senator-hugh-segalSteve Pakin had an interesting chat on TVO‘s The Agenda, with Hugh Segal, former senator, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Mulroney and Ontario premier Bill Davis and, 9781459734456currently, Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, about his new book, “Two Freedoms,” (Toronto, 2016) which I have not yet read. Mr Segal makes a case that Canada needs to have a better focused foreign policy and a much better defence structure which means, he says, explicitly, a 2% of GDP defence budget.

I never liked Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” ~ they were enunciated, in 1941, in his first State of  Union address of his third term and were directed, mainly, at a domestic political audience. I believe, as I have said, that we should focus on fundamental rights to: life, liberty and property as defined by John Locke in 17th century England and privacy, as defined by Brandeis and Warren in 19th century America,not freedom from some things.

But it’s not Mr Segal’s ideas on foreign policy that I wish to discuss, although I think they are a bit muddled, rather, it is his views on defence.

The foundation of Mr Segal’s views on defence and defence spending comes from a  quip from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (story at 15’10” in the video) in which Mulroney said something like “no world leader wakes up and says ‘I wonder what Canada is up to today?’ so I have to look at the world and see where Canada can do a bit and earn some favours.” From this they, Mulroney and Segal learned that they had to have enough military capacity to “shake our sabres” as Mr Pakin put it, and Mr Segal notes that spending only half of the 2%, which he says that Prime Minister Mulroney did maintain, is “an abomination.” (The share of GDP devoted to defence in the 1980s and ’90s involves how one measured GDP and the defence budget … some would say about 2% others present a lower figure.)


Two percent is a good, useful and achievable target for defence spending  because, as Mr Segal explains, spending at that level will pretty much ensure that the country has adequate and available forces to meet all of the fundamental, core tasks (I said there are 11 of them, not all exclusively military) at about the same time, because the government-of-the-day doesn’t get to decide when events happen … but 2% is not a magic number. As the chart, above, shows defence spending, measured against GDP, has been in decline since the late 1950.

Defence budgets have actually gone up, but GDP rose even more quickly. But even more dollars could not cope with a markedly more rapid rise in the rate of inflation for aerospace/defence/high technology products ~ each generation of fighter airplanes, for example, was, just for the sake of argument, at least twice as good as the one that came before, but the cost rose (using the difference between a Supermarine Spitfire and a Canadair F-86 Sabre) by almost 3.5 times. In essence, whereas two CF-18 Hornets can do more than a whole squadron of Korean War era Sabres (say a performance ratio of 12:1) the cost ratio is nearly 40:1. ~ so even if you cut the number of aircraft needed by half (as happened, again and again) the costs still went up by 150% ~ and that happened over and over and over again to ship systems, to radios and electronics, to aircraft, to rockets and missiles, and, and, and … 2% is not magic, but it is about the share of a modern nation’s GDP that a modern, sophisticated military ~ the sort Canada needs ~ costs in the 21st century. NATO didn’t pull the figure out of thin air, some smart people, including some smart Canadians, looked closely at costs and capabilities.

So, Mr Segal is quite right: we need to spend more ~ about double today’s budget ~ on defence, and we need to do so just to ensure that Canada can do those 11 tasks I set out.

2015-09-29-03-40-52-DallaireWhere Mr Segal may be on shaky ground is in the roles and tasks he seems to envision for the Canadian Forces. Mr Segal bases his foreign policy ideas on the notion of Canada as a exemplary nation, (and idea pioneered by Jennifer Welsh, a Canadian academic, who was at Oxford and is now a special advisor to the UN Secretary General) doing what I called exporting values. The danger, as Steve Pakin pointed out in the broadcast, is that Mr Segal is getting dangerously close to advocating something akin to the Will to Intervene (W2I) doctrine, which is very problematical and has very, very little support outside of one university and one senator: Lieutenant General (retired)  Roméo Dallaire.

The decision on where, when and how to use military power ought to be grounded in a sensible grand strategy but it will, always, be highly political, too. We should not expect the Justin Trudeau regime, for example, to welcome calls to “go to war” against Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS. Even if they thought Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS constituted a serious threat, their political instincts tell them that they do not want to “be at war’ with anyone. They probably resisted NATO and American pressure to participate in the Eastern European force until the last moment ~ sometime in mid June, at a guess, and only agreed to announce it after President Obama has, publicly, requested it: good policy, even better politics.

Defence Minister Sajjan said Canada would take a leadership rolemy guess is that the bill for a “leadership role” will mean 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers not just a few hundred as early reports suggested (in the linked CBC News piece). Sustaining those troops in Europe, rotation after rotation after rotation, for several years, and building new ships and buying new fighters will be impossible when the budget is less than 1% of GDP.

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