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Joe Varner: Canada’s selfish disregard of defence is the Achilles heel of NATO’s northern security


Canadian Armed Forces members during a ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, on March 10, 2024. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

In the face of global adversaries like Russia and China bent on hegemony and conquest, Canada’s hands-off approach to defence and security is no longer tenable. While the country itself has seemingly not woken up to this realization, its NATO and Western allies certainly have.

Canada‘s recent defence policy update, entitled “Our North Strong and Free: A Renewed Vision for Canada’s Defence” situated Canada’s defence strategy on a need to protect the Arctic and NATO’s northern flank. Sadly, all the document did was point out the obvious: Canada represents a great gaping hole in North America’s defences.

The title of the defence policy update is a play on the title of the Peter C. Newman book, True North Not Strong Not Free: Defending The Peaceable Kingdom in the Nuclear Age, which was a telling critique of the current prime minister of Canada’s father, Pierre Eliot Trudeau, and his defence policy throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Unfortunately, things have not much changed on the defence front with Trudeau the younger now in charge.

NATO’s Washington Summit is coming this July 9th to 11th in part to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the alliance, but also to discuss the international threat environment, Russia’s Ukraine war, and NATO member states’ readiness to defend alliance territory. One nation, Canada, stands out as the only NATO member state without a plan to reach the 2 percent of GDP spending goal and the only NATO country not able to spend 20 percent of its defence budget on capital.

Canada is the outlier on readiness and defence not because it is incapable of raising its defence spending—it is a G7 country with a top-ten largest economy in the world—but because it is unwilling to participate in the NATO goals it has signed on to. This is simply because its political leaders don’t want to, it faces no immediate consequences for not doing so, and it is happy to let others do the heavy lifting for them.

In fact, Canada seemingly has money for any social programme people care to name but will not spend what it needs to meet its NATO obligations that it sees as optional. Even though it signs on to NATO communiques agreeing to them, Prime Minister Trudeau has reportedly told allies that Canada has no intention of meeting the minimalist 2 percent of GDP goal. In terms of defence spending, Ottawa is now at 1.3 percent.

In fairness to the Trudeau government, it has finally joined the U.S. in the recapitalization and modernization of NORAD’s early warning system and Canada’s Royal Canadian Air Force with the purchase of new F-35 fighter planes, strategic Airbus tankers for in-flight refuelling, and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The government has decided to purchase AWACS early warning aircraft in the recent defence policy update, but it will be several years, if not the end of the decade, before these systems can become operationalized and combat-ready capabilities to defend Canada’s North.

Until then we are forced to rely on an ageing CF-18 fighter fleet that was viewed in a recent Royal United Services Institute panel as a liability for NATO operations and elsewhere.

The long-neglected Royal Canadian Navy is a very different story. On the naval side, its offshore patrol vessels, even though brand new, are at best, a constabulary defence measure. Canada’s sub-surface fleet of 35-year-old diesel-powered Victoria-class patrol submarines spends more time out of the water than in the water, and its similar-aged surface fleet of frigates is nearing its end of life. None of these vessels can go under the icecap and chase Russian—and likely in the future Chinese—nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic and cruise missiles.

The Canadian Army that served so ably and brilliantly in Afghanistan is forgotten about by the current government which sees them as nothing more than expensive labour to put out forest fires and fill sandbags. Once among the NATO experts in Arctic and winter warfare, Canada is a shadow of its former self. Expeditionary capability—the ability to reinforce NATO allies—was forgotten about in the defence policy update.

The Canadian Army is 8000-10,000 people short and lacks modern air and any tank defences, has no drone or counter-drone capabilities, and lacks a modern interoperable command, control, and communications system that can withstand Russian and Chinese electronic warfare capabilities. The Canadian Army is so stretched and under-equipped that it could not produce peacekeeping forces to take on the gangs in Haiti.

Canada is not in any sense prepared for Russian hybrid warfare or Chinese grey zone strategies and tactics in the rest of Canada, as its foreign interference public inquiry has shown, let alone Canada’s Arctic realm—the focal point of vulnerability of North America’s and NATO’s defences.

Canada will tell you that it found Chinese underwater surveillance devices in its northern waters and removed them, but its own coast guard put Chinese monitoring devices in the waters of its Pacific naval anchorage on behalf of a Chinese research project. As a Five Eyes intelligence community ally, it took years for Canada to ban Huawei from its future telecommunications network even though the Chinese intelligence threat was well understood. Ottawa closed down Chinese police stations in its largest cities only after they were publicly disclosed in the media and ignored a Chinese veterans association of the People’s Liberation Army that holds reunions in the country.

The Trudeau government has turned a blind eye for years to Parliamentarians working knowingly or unknowingly for foreign governments. Those are merely the things we know about because they have appeared in the media.

Canadians are facing an election perhaps two years down the road and we may very likely see a change in government, one with a much different attitude towards its defences. But as Canada dithers, the U.S. and NATO can’t wait two more years to shore up the Arctic defences so key to North American and NATO’s northern flank.

We have recently seen the U.S. and several NATO countries’ outspoken admonishments regarding Canada’s lack of interest in its allies’ collective security and defence in general. But the time has come for NATO member states to confront the Canadian government in Washington this July on its purposeful choice to allow a lack of military readiness, a choice that puts all NATO and Western allies at risk.

Canada at present is the Achilles heel of the NATO alliance and cannot be allowed to grow weaker. Insecurity and inaction are no longer viable options. The security and peace that we too often take for granted only comes through military strength and readiness. On this front, Canada cannot count on its allies to pick up its slack forever.

David Polansky: Note to the EU—the Right winning elections isn’t a threat to democracy. It is democracy in action


Supporters of French far-right National Rally react at the party election night headquarters, June 9, 2024 in Paris. Lewis Joly/AP Photo.

The suppression of the East German uprisings of 1953 inspired Bertolt Brecht to produce the following satirical poem:

After the uprising of June 17th
The Secretary of the Authors’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Which said that the people
Had forfeited the government’s confidence
And could only win it back
By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it
Be simpler in that case if the government
Dissolved the people and
Elected another?

One strongly suspects that the European politico-media establishment shares this sentiment following the twin surprise outcomes of the (planned) European parliamentary elections and the subsequent (unplanned) French ones this past week.

The long and short of it is that throughout much (though not all) of Europe, right-wing parties saw significant political gains against their centrist and left-wing counterparts. These included France’s Rassemblement National, Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, and Germany’s AfD. Meanwhile, in France, the incumbent President Macron, a centrist technocrat, called for new national elections following his party’s losses on the European stage to establish a new governing coalition at home.

It should be emphasized that these results did not signify a radical realignment in the continent’s politics, but rather an unexpectedly strong showing from once marginal segments of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, these upsets were greeted with mixed shock and incomprehension by many politicians—a reaction shared by a wide swathe of political commentators, too many of which have a tendency to observe the effect but not the cause. But these political developments did not arise in a vacuum and it is impossible to understand them without considering the major events of the past decade.

The effects here have been repeatedly classified as either “far-Right” (one of those terms like “root causes” or “grave danger” where the modifier appears more often than not) or “populist” (which is not actually the same thing). Now, populism is one of those terms in which familiarity through overuse has become a substitute for clarity—a mnemonic device: populism is when democracy does things you don’t like. More seriously, references to populism tend to be a way of talking about the defects of democracy without attributing them to democracy as such.

Of course, the democratic process is the clearest and most peaceable method for the ruled to signal their preferences to the rulers, regardless of how the latter feel about the results. At the same time, this basic tension between rulers and ruled is general, and further, it probably inheres in the structure of the postwar European project, in which political integration would have to proceed bureaucratically rather than openly. The not-implausible view was that after two catastrophically destructive world wars, the conventional politics that had prevailed across Europe were no longer viable.

Nonetheless, this accountability gap remains and the bad conscience it produces among the leaders who are notionally committed to democratic ideals tends to produce highly charged rhetoric when things don’t go their way. The sheer range of political differences here could fill several books, but two are especially relevant for the recent electoral outcomes.

The first is the normalization of ambitious environmental policies that threaten to have deleterious impacts on Europe’s economies. One of the interesting trends—not limited to Europe—has been the increasing acceptance among technocratic centrists of what was once considered radical environmental views, along with an increase in the political power of Green parties to shape parliamentary coalitions. The trouble is that the legitimacy of technocratic centrism rests upon a broad recognition of their ability to effectively steward the economy. A leadership class that can plausibly promise to generate wealth and fairly distribute its benefits is going to enjoy a certain degree of democratic popularity even in the absence of charismatic figures. But it cannot be a surprise that a far more dour economic outlook has failed to resonate with voters.

We’ve already seen significant evidence of political discontent with the Dutch farmers’ protest. Shocking as this might sound, telling people who are mostly not especially wealthy already that it is their duty to accept an indefinite reduction of their material situation is not a winning message.

But the second major theme—arguably more important than eco-radicalism—is immigration, which has shaken up much of the continent over the past decade. It is certainly conceivable that demographic fears would have become a political issue regardless, but Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow over a million migrants into Germany undoubtedly turbocharged it, and its political ramifications are still taking form (among much else, it proved a major catalyst for “Brexit,” though Great Britain’s disengagement from the EU was poorly planned and managed, and ironically proved to have little impact on immigration numbers).

This was (to borrow a metaphor from Europe’s favourite sport) a colossal own goal, and one hardly needed to be some sort of racist to recognize its implications. Immigration is never zero-sum, but there are diminishing returns when it is not managed strategically. More importantly, there are numbers at which it begins to produce recognizable demographic and social changes, and the failure of mainstream parties to grapple with those has allowed challengers from the Right to reap the benefits.

As it happens, the “far-Right” headlines oversimplified the electoral outcomes across the continent. For example, Denmark, among other countries, did not witness the same political upheaval, having already taken broadly popular steps to curb immigration, thus removing it as a source of political leverage for the Right.

In sum, we in fact have a kind of semi-controlled experiment here: where political systems offer relatively liberal parties that nonetheless favour sensible restrictions on immigration, they will find favour with at least a plurality of voters, while more far-Right alternatives will not. But in countries like Germany and France, where more moderate options have not succeeded, the story looks different.

As it happens, the belief that immigration restrictions are necessarily illiberal—even fascist—is now widespread, but it has little basis in theory or fact. Certainly, there are modes of border control or other restrictions that would be illiberal, such as detention without trial or physical mistreatment of asylum-seekers. And while negative reactions tend to be coded as “right-wing,” concerns about the makeup of one’s country are not antithetical to liberal democracy; in many ways, they arise from it.

As the political scientist Rogers Brubaker observed:

“Citizenship in a nation-state is inevitably bound up with nationhood and national identity, membership of the state with membership of the nation. Proposals to redefine the legal criteria of citizenship raise large and ideologically charged questions of nationhood and national belonging. Debates about citizenship…are debates about what it means to belong to the nation-state. The politics of citizenship today is first and foremost a politics of nationhood…The central question is not ‘who gets what?’ but rather ‘who is what?'”

This is, in the end, a political struggle within democracies—not a battle with antidemocratic forces. Call it further testament to the strength of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis: for the fact is none of the oppositional parties has managed to develop a true ideological alternative to the prevailing postwar consensus. Right or Left, political parties are still compelled to navigate within broadly liberal democratic parameters. What is often forgotten is that these still afford a wide degree of latitude, and many views that are lately considered déclassé remain well within the bounds of democracy. For, defining democracy as the regime that only produces one’s own preferred outcomes reflects a child’s understanding of politics. Yet this appears to be precisely how political and media elites both in and outside of Europe have chosen to interpret this week’s developments.

The real question is why more mainstream parties steadfastly refuse to adjust their policies to suit the preferences of their electorates, even to the extent of handing political victories to movements they claim to fear so much (for all their differences, in this at least, Canada’s political establishment resembles much of Europe’s.) Instead, the conventional establishment has pursued what are in fact historically extreme policies on a number of major issues. Those who remain dissatisfied (and in some cases bereft) by this week’s developments might be encouraged to consider what true moderation would look like. Who knows? It might even be popular.