Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner and liberal icon, is probably turning over in his grave this week.
For a number of reasons.
You probably know him as the revered, even celebrated, architect of peacekeeping, that cherished instrument of Canadian foreign policy and politics, which in today’s global context seems quaint and uncomplicated.
What you may not know about him is perhaps more important, especially in light of the geopolitical machinations and the wailing and gnashing of teeth online and editorial associated with Canada’s refusal to be locked into a specific defense spending commitment from the NATO.
You see, when the North Atlantic Treaty was drafted in the late 1940s, Mike (as he was informally known) Pearson was one of the people holding the pen.
In fact, according to historians, he was responsible for Article 2 of the landmark agreement that forged a group of restive and, at the time, increasingly restless wartime allies, into the instrument of geopolitical power it is today.
‘The Canadian Article’
The clause places the burden on members to “contribute to the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, achieving a better understanding of the principles on which these institutions are based” and “promoting economic collaboration between any or all” of the allies.
What was derisively known by allies who wanted NATO to be an all-military club as “the Canadian article” took a while to catch on.
The alliance leaders back then preferred to count tanks and ships instead of debating and dealing with the root causes of the war, namely politics and economics.
“Ultimately, Pearson and his colleagues laid the foundation for the development of NATO in the non-military field and, more broadly, in the development of political consultation among members,” says a research article in the online archive declassified from NATO.
There is irony in the notion that Canada’s foreign minister, as the title was then, is responsible for laying the groundwork for the politics that largely consumes any mention of the alliance in this country today.
NATO has undoubtedly gone through many evolutions in its nearly 80 years of existence.
But the mix of military, political and economic expectations has been a constant source of pain for successive Canadian governments, increasingly when one considers what the definition of “trusted ally” looks like through an economic prism.
Not complying with the 2% bar
The notion that nations must spend two percent of their economic wealth on their militaries to be considered serious partners consumes a lot of political oxygen and has led to some interesting contortions. Notice recently, as Breaking: reported, the effort by Canadian officials to broaden the definition of what counts in the metric.
Politically, it upset allies, according to defense officials, particularly in the United States, which has consistently opposed the idea of counting spending on space, cyber and artificial intelligence research as part of achieving the NATO goal.
Pearson, whose view that Canada had a useful and constructive role to play as a middle power on the international stage, a sense forged in the cauldron of two world wars, would likely be horrified by the headlines and the toxic fallout from Liberal government Twitter. refusal to commit to the two percent figure.
Figures recently released by NATO peg Canada’s contribution at 1.38 percent of GDP.
“There’s a lot of different math that can be applied in different ways,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the end of the NATO summit, where Canadian officials later insisted no allies raised the metric with them.
“We are now behind only the US and Germany in terms of real new dollars invested in defense since 2014, by NATO’s own calculations, so we have invested significantly and will continue to invest even more in defense.”
He insisted that the reality is that Canada continues to step up, it continues to invest more and Canadians are there “to contribute to the world in a meaningful way and will continue to do so as we continue to make progress in increasing defense spending.”
Spending hasn’t kept pace
Interestingly, David Perry, vice president of the Canadian Institute for Global Affairs, said the Liberal government would be closer to the NATO benchmark if it were spending the money it has already laid out on its 2017 defense policy.
“The anticipation in ‘Strong, Secure and Engaged’ was that we would be spending, I think, another five to six billion in ballpark numbers, more than we have now spent on new equipment, including warships, drones and fighter jets.” said Perry, whose organization hosts conferences that are sometimes sponsored by defense contractors.
“The economy has grown substantially and our defense spending has increased, but it has not kept pace with the country’s economic growth.”
Steve Saideman, one of the country’s leading experts on NATO at Carleton University in Ottawa, has long complained that two percent is a “BS metric” and pointed to the fact that the latest figures put Greece ahead of the United States in terms of economic investment. .
“I challenge you to find a Greek flag on any NATO placemat representing forces in the Baltic,” he said. “It’s just not there, is it? It’s consistent with them not showing up in Afghanistan.”
Saideman said some of the countries that complain behind closed doors, like Germany, can boast bigger armies, but he wondered “how many of their ships can sail, how many of their planes can fly and how many of their tanks can” . they actually drive, since they have a setup issue that probably makes our setup look pretty good.”
Still, allied officials speaking on Breaking: background after this week’s summit said there would be no immediate or direct consequences for failing to meet a recently agreed target of spending “at least two percent of GDP.”
However, in the absence of a firm commitment, “Canada will find itself sidelined, uninvited to meetings and discussions, and its voice heard less and less,” said an official familiar with the dossier who cannot be named due to diplomatic sensitivity.
Pearson would probably be horrified.
What seems to be implicit in Trudeau’s comments is that his government is prepared to spend more, but is waiting for the results of its defense policy review to say how much more.
However, there is skepticism among allies who have seen a parade of announcements and a flurry of spending promises only to see little delivered.
“There is a real problem with our spending, but it’s not about two percent,” Saideman said. “It’s about: we’re making pledges, and it’s not clear if we’re providing the cash for the pledges.”
When US President Joe Biden visited Ottawa last spring, the goal was to wring out of the Liberal government a specific timetable for spending the $38 billion that has been set aside to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command. (NORAD) for two decades.
It took Canada a year to explain how it was going to organize the NATO brigade it leads in Latvia, something that was increasingly worrying alliance officials in Brussels.
“There’s the challenge that Canada likes to have an outsized view of itself, that it has all these great values and it’s a very beloved country in the world, but that doesn’t buy much if you don’t show up if you don’t show up with stuff, with a plan, with a purpose,” said Saideman
“And I think one of the challenges in Ottawa is that people in government are primarily trying to keep things as they are, they’re not thinking too much about the future.”