The Next American Administration and Canadian Defense: Australia Has Set the Bar


2016-09-24 By Danny Lam

Whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump who is the next President, Canada’s current defense capabilities will come into the cross hairs.

Post-election, an incoming President or Prime Minister will “settle in” as campaign rhetoric and realities collide on inauguration.   Abrupt shifts in policy, like incoming US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich reversing course to help pass NAFTA after being briefed, are common.

While Canadians can take comfort in the second largest bi-lateral trading relation in the world with the US, in defense, storm clouds are gathering as Canada and the US have taken sharply divergent paths in elections a year apart.

Bromance will be no more.

Candidate Trump, like others before him, will focus foremost on national and homeland security and more likely than not an economy overdue for recession by 2017.

He must simultaneously improve defense capabilities and create new, well paying jobs for Americans.   Those priorities change the traditional dominance of trade and border security and elevate the importance of Canada carrying a fair share of the defense burden.

There will be continuity between Trump or Clinton and Obama in as US leaders share a view dictated by American interests with Canada.

The difference will be in tone and volume, but not substance.

Any solution sets shaped by the Canadians will have significant impact on American defense and security. Credit Image: Bigstock
Any solution sets shaped by the Canadians will have significant impact on American defense and security. Credit Image: Bigstock

Canada was not publicly singled out by President Obama in March, 2016 to be a free rider like Saudi Arabia and European allies despite being privately reminded of commitments made by the Harper government and since broken.

While Donald Trump has not spoken of this issue, when he is briefed about Canada’s desultory defense spending of 0.9% GDP, he will note that Canada is perhaps the most egregious free rider in NATO, comparable in scale to Germany and Japan.

Australia, with greater threats to their sovereignty than Canada, raised their defense spending to almost 2% GDP.

Why would not either President Hillary Clinton or President Trump demand at least the Australian level of effort from Canada, notably because Canada’s defensive weakness enhances direct threats to the United States as well?

Canada’s current government, through a combination of delayed procurement, cuts and stretch outs, or diversion of defense funding to personnel costs like pensions and benefits, effectively lowered defense spending to below Harper government levels.

Adding insult to injury, recent Canadian defense cuts were made along with large increases in federal and provincial government spending on favored social programs, financed by deficits.

President Obama’s speech to Parliament in June called on Canada to “contribute its full [defense] share”; it had no discernable effect.

Trump (or Clinton) will almost certainly insist that lopsided security deals like Canada’s have to be renegotiated.

Will he will renegotiate en mass with NATO all at once, bilaterally in updating agreements like NORAD, or act unilaterally?

Canada should anticipate an end to free riding on US defense expenditures and make plans to benefit from the changes coming.

A new US Administration will likely not tolerate an alliance that “does not work and is far from working” for long.

Canadians need to make a choice as to whether our sovereignty, freedom, democracy and values are worth defending.

And do what it takes to provide for an adequate defense.

Dr Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.  

Views expressed are his own and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.  

Editor’s Note: With the enhanced direct threats to North America discussed by Admiral Gortney when he was NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander, it is not so much a question of a “free ride” for Canadian defense, it is the inability to defend North America caused in part by the gaps opened by missing capabilities within Canada for its OWN defense. 

Although Trump has raised the allied issue most directly, this defense gap is not going to go away by simply by ignoring it. 

For an earlier piece by Danny Lam, see the following: