Is Canada a Free-Rider?

Is Canada a Free-Rider?

With its relatively large economy and stake in global order, Canada should step up its commitment to its military.

On April 8, 2024, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presented Canada’s latest defense initiative: Our North, Strong and Free: A Renewed Vision for Canada’s Defence. While correctly identifying that there are “growing challenges to the international order,” it explicitly emphasizes the anticipated effects of climate change and the need to protect Canada’s Arctic rather than focusing on international threats to global security. In response to pressure from the United States to participate further in North American defense, Canada has promised to invest in the Northern Warning System

Nevertheless, Ottawa is famous for canceling military projects at the last minute. Most of Canada’s recent defense ministers are custodial managers preoccupied with politicized damage limitation rather than enhancing combat power. Defense Ministers Harjit Sajjan and Anita Anand grappled unsuccessfully with a slew of sexual assault accusations in the military, and the current minister, Bruce Blair, disingenuously declared on May 1 that he was unable to convince the federal cabinet to increase the defense budget to meet the minimum NATO threshold of two percent. 

In Canada, the prime minister can hire and fire the ministers of finance and defense at will, and policy is ultimately driven by Trudeau’s anti-military inclinations. He has, for example, continued Canada’s successful delay since 1988 in acquiring new combat aircraft. Canada has also spent over $600 million on the F-35 without receiving the delivery of a single aircraft and can now no longer provide comprehensive pilot training. Consequently, Canadian recruits go to the United States to undergo a significant part of their education.  

The current defense initiative explains that “this is about preserving our values of democracy, freedom, peace and fairness for the next generation of Canadians, so they can enjoy the same security and prosperity that was given to us by our parents and grandparents.”

However, beyond the rhetorical window-dressing, Canada is looking to free-ride on the efforts of its fellow democracies, not to seek peace. Trudeau, citing environmental concerns, resisted taking the emergency measures necessary to export natural gas to Europe amid the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. American defense spending divided by population is approximately $2,726 per person, whereas in Canada, it is roughly $680. If U.S. per capita spending were on par with Canada, it would drop from $916 billion to around $230 billion.

Canada is contributing far less to the defense of North America and global democracy than one would expect from the world’s tenth-largest economy. In contrast, Australia is preparing to defend itself, defend the freedom of the seas, and democracy in Taiwan. The United States’ historically low expectations of Canadian assistance have to do with its unhealthy acceptance of Canadian passivity in exchange for unquestioned dominance in North America. Two U.S. invasions of Canada, in 1775 and 1812, were launched to exclude the presence of a foreign power in North America, a goal secured by 1900. The purchase of Alaska relieved Great Britain of Canada’s western defense, which would have been further enhanced had the United States purchased Greenland under President Harry Truman or President Donald Trump

Thus, the U.S. demand that Canada not be a base for a foreign power is easily satisfied, especially since Canada took control of its own foreign policy in 1931. Canada, in 2024, has a population of almost 41 million. This is about the same as Great Britain on the eve of the First World War, which was at the height of its empire, with a globe-spanning navy and stewardship over the international liberal economic order. Although much has changed since 1914, Canada nonetheless can do much more with what it possesses. Given its shared fate with its American neighbor, it is time for Ottawa to start paying its fair share of continental rent.

Australia is significantly outpacing Canada in military procurements, especially in stealth aviation, air and ship-launched cruise missiles, and nuclear submarines. It currently has significantly more combat aircraft, six rather than four submarines, three light amphibious ships that can act as light carriers, twelve state-of-the-art P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, six crucial AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft, and twenty-two Tiger attack helicopters. It is investing significantly in hypersonic missile research and the Loyal Wingman project, which involves drones flying alongside combat aircraft. Australia also hosts, on a rotational basis, elements of the U.S. Pacific and Strategic Commands.

In contrast, Canadian procurement efforts lack any sense of urgency. Canada has agreed, in principle, to a U.S. request to jointly upgrade the North Warning System to deal with the new hypersonic missile threat and begun a project for a fleet of fifteen frigates, with the first expected to begin construction no sooner than 2026. Despite an unprecedented promise to share nuclear propulsion technology for submarines with Canada in the 1980s, Ottawa declined to take advantage of that unique opportunity. Historically, Canada has deftly ritualized the justification of arms procurement cancellations on the basis of fiscal miscalculations. However, in reality, governments are simply acting on the intersection of two political forces. The first imperative is that there is no obvious political constituency for increased defense expenditures. The second is that Ottawa needs token instruments of war (or their intent) in order to participate in international coalitions, which is an important foreign policy goal.

Canada outspent Australia on defense per capita by a factor of two until the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, during and after which point Australia irreversibly outspent Canada by between ten and fifty percent until the end of the Cold War. In 1968, the Canadian Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reduced Canada’s commitment to the defense of the North Atlantic to a minuscule half-brigade located as far back as it could possibly be deployed along the Franco-German border at Lahr. In 1970, he decommissioned Canada’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, without replacing it. Canada’s current armed forces are in a weak state. In 2022, its entire armed forces numbered 66,000 personnel, down from 86,000 in 1991. Twenty percent of these work in the National Defense Headquarters. This has enabled the preposterous deployment of only two companies to Latvia and a third to Iraq. The cost of the 24,000 armed forces reservists is more than the pro-rated procurement and operating costs of the United Kingdom’s entire ballistic missile submarine nuclear deterrent.

In the post-Cold War period, Australia outspent Canada by 30 percent per capita. This figure doubled by 2005 and was two-and-a-half-times by 2021. In absolute terms, Australia contributes one-and-a-half times the defense effort of Canada. Australia was far from the key theaters of the Cold War, especially after the neutralization of communism in Indonesia in 1965 and in Timor in 1975. Canberra should have been free-riding. Had there been a Third World War, it is improbable that the Soviet Union would have aimed anything at Sydney. With less than double the distance, even with the effects of an inverse square law or loss of strength gradient, Canada should be meeting at least a quarter of Australia’s defense effort in Asia. But with a single frigate deployed for freedom of navigation demonstrations in the Pacific, it is not.

The conventional wisdom on the difference between the two allies is clear: Australia is an enthusiastic partner of the United States because it is under a more immediate threat from China, primarily because of the shorter distance and the absence of another reliable, major power patron in the region. However, under closer scrutiny, we see that while Vancouver is only 4,649 miles away from Harbin as the missile flies, Brisbane, Australia’s northernmost major population center, is 4,542 miles from Shanghai. Canada has recently begun responding to U.S. pressure, with a naval ship and assets deployed to shadow Russian warships on exercise near Cuba (in addition to a vessel on a friendly visit to Havana harbor) and to deployments in Asia. Still, Ottawa is experienced at rolling back commitments once Washington’s gaze is drawn elsewhere. 

Scholarship has generally confirmed the intuition that democracies win more wars than authoritarian states because they are more amenable to aggregating power and economic resources by forming alliances. However, there is no evidence that democracies produce better technology or military leadership, and democracies endure long wars less frequently. Therefore, if the key advantage for democracies is their commitment to the collective security of their own kind, then Canada needs a kind reminder of its moral obligations from its tolerant and patient continental neighbor.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University and the author of Militarization and War (2007) and Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on security issues and arms control and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO).

Image: Macklin Holloway /