Canada's Hawkish Foreign Policy at Odds with Popular Priorities
TORONTO - Canada has flexed its military muscles, first in Afghanistan for nine years alongside NATO forces, and now in Libya in its supply of ships and combat planes for the rebel forces, but little debate has happened on the ground among Canadians themselves on this direction.
A recent summer opinion poll by Environics discovered that among priorities for Canadians, the economy or job creation factors as high as 29 percent, compared to health care at 13 percent, deficit reduction and cutting taxes tied at six percent, and defence and crime tied at a mere four percent.
"This is a consistent trend," said Marc Zwelling, president of Vector Research and Development, a market research firm. "National defense and defence spending rank low in Canadians' long-term priorities when your pollsters prompt respondents."
Furthermore, 52 percent of Canadians told Environics the Conservative government should not purchase 65 expensive F-35 fighter jet aircraft, totaling at least nine billion dollars by Canadian government estimates – versus 37 percent who are in favor of a deal.
That division on the planes didn't help the opposition Liberals, who put particular pressure on the Conservatives on the issue but ended up - for a variety of reasons, including leadership - being reduced to third party status in the May 2011 federal election. Here, the militarily hawkish Conservatives led by Stephen Harper won for the first time a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
A similar disconnect has happened in Afghanistan, with Canadians in ever larger numbers telling pollsters they oppose the involvement of their soldiers in NATO's protracted battle against the Taliban insurgents. In one Ekos 2010 poll, it was 49 percent opposed, 36 percent in favor and 14 percent with neither position.
But Afghanistan has not translated into a major issue either, even though one party, the social democratic New Democrats - now the official opposition since May - have consistently favored withdrawal of Canadian troops from the Central Asian country, notes defence analyst Philippe Lagassé, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
Furthermore, the Canadian mainstream political parties, right and left, appear to have developed a common consensus on the necessity for increased defence expenditures, he said.
"I find that to be a very problematic notion simply because it does lead us down to situations like Afghanistan and like Libya, where all parties agree among themselves to be quiet and not say much," Lagassé told IPS. "When everybody agrees then it is not necessarily a good thing for oversight and debate."
Another defense analyst, Walter Dorn, an associate professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, says the failure of NATO to bring the war to a conclusion in Afghanistan could result in Canada returning to participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions, in which the country has had considerable expertise since the 1950s.
"We've had this terrible experience in Afghanistan, 157 military personnel dead, and 20 billion dollars spent," he told IPS.
The difficult problems of debt and finance will force the governments of the United States and European countries like Britain and France to scale back defence spending and in the process "their military adventures", Dorn suggested.
"The pendulum will start to swing back," he predicted. "Canada will provide the forces when needed in the circumstances, and I think the U.S. will be much less interested in being involved in wars that [former U.S. president George] Bush launched [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. The budget cuts are going to be great throughout the Western world."
But the Conservative government in Ottawa may stick with its current two percent annual growth expenditure for defence while trimming and even cutting other federal departments and programs, says David MacDonald, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Ottawa.
Defense spending can be a mixed blessing economically, MacDonald told IPS. While the new proposed ships for Canada's navy will be built inside Canada, such will not be the case for the F-35s once the deal with the U.S.-based manufacturer Lockheed Martin is signed in the next few years.
"The F35s cost a lot more money than the ships and they are going to be built in the U.S. So Canada does not see an economic benefit from any major job creation," he said.
Starting in 2006 near the end of the Liberal government in Ottawa, the pro-military lobby has successfully convinced politicians of the necessity to reorient the Canadian Forces towards a greater combat role and outfitted with the best equipment for that scenario, said Lagassé.
The policy of curtailing defence expenditures in the 1990s by the previous Liberal government of Jean Chretien meant that Canada was "not being taken seriously" in the world, he said.
"The mission in Kandahar has given Canada a more prominent place in NATO and a greater degree of respect from larger allies, such as the U.S., UK, and France. In order to retain that prominent place and the favor of allied governments, successive governments have been willing to invest more in the military and take on more difficult missions," he explained.
The military lobby has sought to rebrand Canada "as a nation forged in fire", dating back to World War I when the country lost about 60,000 soldiers in combat, says Jamie Swift, co-author of a forthcoming book, "Warrior Nation, Rebranding Canada in a Fearful Age".
"I don't believe it has been entirely successful," Swift told IPS. "The military has gone on a huge public relations campaign at our expense since 2006, Operation Connection, to increase a military presence at public gatherings and sports. To try to convince Canadians that the military must be a central institution in Canadian life and indeed that military spending should go up."
A weak anti-war movement at home has made countering this message a challenge, adds Swift. But he remains hopeful. "If Canada got involved in a big shooting war, the peace movement might be rekindled," he concluded.