In defence of defence
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels April 2, 2014. (REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule)
With Vladimir Putin drooling over the rest of Ukraine the plan seems to be to stick our tongues out at him. Laden with sententious rhetoric, to be sure. But we can’t shake our fist at him because we haven’t got one.
On Monday NATO’s Secretary General published a desperate appeal in Britain’s Daily Telegraph for members of this military alliance to get some, you know, military stuff. Nobody cared.
Our newspapers gushed ink over Rob Ford’s antics, how Quebec separatism is definitely dead unless it’s not and the need for Canada to devise “New definitions of sex and gender." But when it comes to the basic duty of government, protection of citizens’ physical security, hoo hah! Booooring.
We ritually declaim “from sea to sea to sea." But we’re down to 15 aging surface combatant ships, and when one of our three 42-year-old destroyers, HMCS Athabaskan , got hurt by a tugboat in late 2012 it was drydocked for more than a year. What would become of us if we got into a battle with an enemy who could hit back – admittedly unlikely after one of our two supply ships burst into flames and may be a write-off?
Seriously? Three oceans and one supply ship? But we are not alone.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen (NATO Secretary General in case you haven’t seen his name in print) warned that virtually every NATO member must do better in face of Putin’s Ukraine aggression. As recently as 1995, the U.S. accounted for 59% of NATO military spending; it’s now 72% though the U.S. military has been shrinking. And for years NATO members promised Washington they’d devote 2% of GDP to defence. But they lied.
The average is now 1.3%, with only the U.S., Britain and Estonia over 2%, plus Greece and Turkey which fear each other. But even Britain just mothballed a brand-new aircraft carrier because it couldn’t afford aircraft, while neither Greece nor Estonia could fight their way out of a wet paper bag.
Canada briefly scraped up 2% of GDP on defence at the end of the Mulroney years. But it plunged to 1.1% in what Tories call Chrétien’s Decade of Darkness before twitching up to 1.4% in 2009 then sliding to 1.2% and falling. Stephen Harper and the boys love commemorations and battle honours. But they just put off $3 billion in military purchases to burnish their electoral chances with a balanced budget.
They labelled it “Responsible Management of National Defence Capital Funding.” But where are the search helicopters, supply ships, armoured vehicles, or any of that “modern equipment” Rasmussen was droning on about? They don’t vote. Any other stupid questions?
Rasmussen tactfully said “I know how challenging this is in today’s economic climate.” But hard times are just an excuse. Western governments have been gutting defence to pay for vote-friendly social programs for two decades now, through lean years and fat.
It’s not immediately obvious what NATO would do about Putin’s belligerence in the short run even if we could do anything. But since we can’t, it is immediately obvious that we won’t. Geopoliticians pay more attention to capabilities than intentions because they change more slowly. And our capacities are as feeble as our ambitious are grandiose.
Politicians and commentators routinely intone that Canada deplores this, won’t tolerate that, and remembers Rwanda. We’re so splendid it’s a wonder we don’t burst. But suppose another Rwandan-style genocide erupted in, say, the Central African Republic. What could we actually do?
In 1950 we sent eight destroyers to Korea. We haven’t got half that many now. And Poland has officially requested a permanent NATO deployment of two armoured infantry brigades (10,000 men) on its territory. Could we send 500?
Then we tut our tut at Putin and wonder why he smirks.