'Buying a Seat at the Table': Canadian Defence Policy in Reaction to ISIS

As pressure mounts on the United States and its allies to take strategic action against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, commonly known as ISIS, Canada’s financial contribution (or lack thereof) to Western democratic defence is taking severe heat in political forums and the media. In response, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged further action in support of growing international efforts to combat ISIS and the persistent threat of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Harper’s promise came this week while speaking with other world leaders in London, England in response to the horrific execution of a second US freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff. Calls for an increase in Canada’s financial contribution to Western defence are reportedly growing stronger from within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), putting the nation in an awkward and touchy situation. In today’s post we briefly examine the economics of Canada’s post-1945 defence policy, to provide a historical perspective to this most recent predicament.

The December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour sparked what has become known as a “crisis of proximity,” which in turn had a profound impact on Western hemispheric defence. Following the attack, American President Franklin Roosevelt famously commented: “We have learned that our ocean-girt hemisphere is not immune from severe attack—that we cannot measure our safety in terms of miles on any map anymore.” Out of this concern came a series of initiatives aimed at understanding the geostrategic vulnerabilities of the North American continent. No longer able to rely on isolation provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, strategic planners in Washington were put to task in an effort to improve the nation’s defensive readiness. Two prominent American political geographers and advisers to the US government, Hans Weigart and Richard Harrison, stressed the essential dynamic nature of forming a “flexible” world view. For them the quality of spatial perception was especially important. They also emphasized the agility in visual imagination and the importance of multiple vantage points. Their vision and the evolution in cartographic thinking amongst US defence planners that followed has since been coined “Air-Age Globalism.”

The advancement of aeronautic technologies during and after the Second World War brought about yet another “crisis of proximity,” where in the US (and Canada) concerns spread over the development in the Soviet Union of the long-range bomber capable of transcontinental flight. By the mid-1950s the Cold War was well underway, and both the US and Soviet Union had the technology and means to deliver a nuclear payload to a foreign, overseas target. For this reason, the Canadian government signed a contractual agreement with the US Pentagon to allow the installation of radar stations across Canada’s north. Matters worsened considerably on 4 October 1957 when the Soviet’s launched the world’s first artificial orbital satellite, Sputnik. The Soviet’s launched Sputnik on the back of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which immediately sparked concerns in North America about the possibility of a nuclear missile attack. Fearing that a ballistic missile could deliver an armed warhead to North America faster than installed radar lines in the North or jet interceptor technology could counteract, Canada entered into a bilateral defence partnership with the US and signed the North American Air (later Aerospace) Defence agreement.

For reason of geography alone, Canada’s Cold War defence policy was largely predicated on the geostrategic reality of its physical proximity between two growing technological superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. Caught in the crosshairs of a Cold War threat directed at the US, Canada was able to take advantage of precarious circumstances. Knowing that the US was prepared to defend North American territory at all costs, successive Cold War Canadian governments contributed financially to Western defence at home and abroad as a junior rather than equal partner. Take NORAD for example. Although bilateral in purpose, NORAD was (and remains) the most unilateral of all of Canada’s defence agreements. NORAD’s headquarters are in Colorado Springs, Colorado and its commander-in-chief, CINCNORAD, is a US military personnel. In exchange for a subordinate role in NORAD, Canada acquired the protection of the world’s most-advanced air and space defence network.

This line of thinking extended beyond North American borders as well. In tripartite relations with the US and United Kingdom, Canada contributed a great deal to information exchange and the advancement of scientific knowledge for the purposes of military defence. By the time Pierre Trudeau entered office in the late 1960s, there was significant pressure from the public to reduce defence expenditures. Anti-Vietnam protesters were critical of Western military science and international interventionism. As the perceived Cold War threat declined into the 70s and 80s, the Canadian government responded by slashing the defence budget and reorganizing the Department of National Defence. Since then Canada has assumed a significantly less prevalent international defensive posture, contributing both money and personnel only when absolutely necessary.  

In the immediate postwar period, Canada’s economic, military, and diplomatic capacities were swollen and the nation was in a position of significant need. The government was not prepared to surrender sovereignty to a higher authority, yet the nation was in no position (diplomatically or geographically) to reject bilateral or tripartite defence relations with the US and UK. Canada’s role in NATO has since been predicated largely by these partnerships, which have been extremely beneficial in terms of economic expenditure. Yet countering the collective influence of both the US and UK over Canada’s foreign policy has also been a consistent theme since the onset of the Cold War. Article 2 of NATO, commonly known as the Canadian article, insists that the organization must be more than a military alliance. Canada’s contribution to Western democratic ideals is thus judged not solely on its financial contribution to defence. Today, however, the NATO alliance is in a vastly different state than it was just a few decades ago. Extremely strained both politically and economically, the call for Canada to reconsider and re-up its financial contribution to Western defence will only grow stronger the longer international military action strains the prowess of the alliance. It seems Canada may be on the verge of major turning point on the international scene, but only time will tell.