Canada-US security arrangements: Still defending against help?

When Prime Minister Harper told the Economic Club of New York (Sept. 20/06)[i] that “Canada intends to be a player” in international peace and security efforts, he quickly turned to what was of more interest to his audience, and of greater concern to his government, namely security arrangements in North America. He noted the recent and indefinite renewal of the Canada-US North American Aerospace Defence Agreement (NORAD), but then went on to the nub of the matter: “Our partnership on all of these issues depends vitally on our maintaining a secure and efficient border.”

After the Cold War and 9-11, military cooperation is not the primary focus of the Canada-US security relationship. But compare the Prime Minister’s focus with that of Prof. J.L. Granatstein’s recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail[ii] which revived an old theme in Canada-US security relations – “defence against help.”[iii] Prof. Granatstein argued that, even with announced increases, Canadian military spending is so abysmally low that, in the mind of Washington, North American security is being imperiled. Furthermore, if we Canadians don’t soon do something about it, the Americans will be forced to take drastic unilateral action help us, whether we like it or not, with untold consequences for Canada. Well, actually, not untold but repeatedly predicted consequences. If the Americans were to assume our military security duties for us it would be “completely destructive to Canadian sovereignty and nationhood.” On the other hand, if Canada were to assume “the full cost of providing its own defence to a standard that does not cause concern in the US,” it would be “ruinously expensive.”

For Canada to mount a military capability “to a standard that does not cause concern in the US” would certainly be a tall order and might well be “ruinously expensive.” Washington’s standards for military spending are well beyond both Canada’s means and political will. It is hardly news that the US finds Canada’s military preparedness to be inadequate – it was always thus and it simply continues to put us in rather common company. Washington generally thinks that any country broadly on “their side” should spend more. The Bush Administration has not hesitated to admonish its NATO partners to increase spending (repeated to the 2006 NATO Defence Ministers’ meetings)[iv] – notwithstanding NATO being the relatively small community of states that collectively accounts for about 60 per cent of planetary military spending. In truth, it is only those countries not in the friends of Washington column that are regarded as spending too much.

But for Canada to mount a military capability that is commensurate with a reasonable assessment of current and foreseeable military threats is eminently affordable. In fact, that is what this country has been doing, without relying on American help. Surveillance of Canadian territory (air, land, and sea) is carried out by Canadian personnel using Canadian assets. Under normal circumstances, the defence of Canadian air, land, and sea space is also carried out by Canadian personnel and assets (aircraft and ships). The main peacetime threats are contraband and now fear of terrorist incursions, and all wayward and undocumented or unaccounted for aircraft and ships entering Canadian territory are intercepted by Canadians, not Americans.

In extraordinary circumstances, Canada, like all countries, looks for help. On rare occasions, the tracking of unauthorized aircraft or ships in border regions can include cross-boundary pursuit if a neighbor’s forces are not immediately available for a handover. In circumstances of a direct attack or military assault on Canadian territory Canada would most certainly depend on its allies – not the United States specifically, but NATO, with NORAD as a regional arrangement within NATO. It is the same NATO that the United States turned to in its extraordinary circumstance on Sept. 11/01and which invoked its Article V to declare that the attack on the US was regarded as an attack on them all.

The appropriateness of such military-centric responses to 9-11 is another matter, but the point is that since 1949 Canada has relied on collective defence – a reliance that is not a compromise of Canadian sovereignty any more than it is a compromise of British or Danish or American sovereignty – and has more or less ignored Washington’s fulminations against Canada’s inadequate defences.

Trying to raise Canadian military spending to a level that mollifies Washington is not an option. In the meantime, Canada does pay for its own defence in accordance with its own assessment of need in the context of other national and international needs and obligations. Canadians will regularly debate whether that is too much or too little, but let’s hope the focus is on the defence of Canada, not defence against help.


[i] Available at: http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?id=1327.

[ii] “Will the US cut Canada Loose?, Aug. 30/06, Available at: http://www.ccs21.org/articles/granatstein/2006/jlg_washington_aug06.pdf.

[iii] An interpretation of Canada-US defence relations first proffered by Canadian academic Nils Orvik in the 1970s.

[iv]US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld”continued to urge his counterparts to examine the percentage of the gross domestic product that is invested in defense within their respective countries.” Available at http://www.usembassy.org.uk/nato203.html.

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