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Michael Den Tandt: U.S. won’t care about Canada until we get more serious about military affairs
May 28, 2015
By Michael Den Tandt

U.S. President Barack Obama could not give two figs about Canada, it is generally agreed. He has touched down here twice since winning the White House - once for five hours in 2009, which barely qualifies as a visit, and again in 2010 for G8 and G20 summits. Pfffft. It’s a slight. Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it is said, is glacial. Shoring up Canada-U.S. relations, Republican aspirant Jeb Bush asserts, should be among the next Chief Executive’s first priorities.

But here’s a thought: What if it’s not, actually, all Obama’s fault? What if Canada - not Harper personally, but the country - is also to blame?

It’s not a view you’ll hear repeated much, with Ottawa preparing to fork over billions for a new Detroit-Windsor crossing. The Ambassador Bridge, now more than eight decades old, carries a quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade, which in 2013 (including services as well as goods) totaled more than $780-billion. It is falling down, in places. And it belongs to a single cantankerous billionaire, Manuel “Matty” Moroun, whose interests are his own. A second bridge is vital, for people on both sides of the border. Yet this country has had to assume the entire $4-billion cost (minus projected returns from tolls). You call that fair?

Or take Keystone XL. For years, this proposal by TransCanada Corp. to link Alberta’s oil fields via pipeline with the U.S. Gulf Coast was a key “ask” of Canadian politicians visiting Washington. Obama responded by repeatedly finding more important things to worry about, such as sorting his sock drawer. Keystone is now becalmed at least until after he leaves office. Another grievous snub.

Canada was founded in a climate of rampant anti-American sentiment, as a reading of Sir John A. Macdonald’s speeches makes evident. That reflexive prickliness and disdain, expressed in a thousand different ways, remains embedded in Canadian culture. When genuine irritants emerge, they’re seized upon as fresh evidence that we, valiant little polite folk that we are (not!), have been poorly treated.

But let’s turn it around. When did Canada last extend itself for the United States? The Afghan mission was substantial, granted. Since then, there’s been precious little. Canada makes its pro-forma contributions to international military efforts, such as sending half a dozen F-18s to Eastern Europe, or half a dozen more to drop bombs on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But if the currency of geopolitics is a country’s contribution to the common weal, then Canada is a laggard.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney boasts about nominal increases in defence spending on his party’s watch, but it doesn’t amount to much. The Ottawa Citizen’s Lee Berthiaume calculated last fall that, adjusted for inflation since 2005, DND spending had not budged. By the most reliable measure, spending as a percentage of GDP, we lag Estonia and Albania. The NATO recommended standard is two per cent of GDP; The U.S. spends four, the United Kingdom more than two, Australia 1.6, and Canada one per cent.

Even now, with an election five months off and defence supposedly at issue, there is no meaningful debate, nor is there progress. The defence minister’s contribution Wednesday at CANSEC, the conference of the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries, was to pledge a new “independent panel” to review major defence equipment purchases. He also unveiled an updated “defence acquisition guide,” intended to “help Canadian Industry position themselves” to compete for future Canadian defence contracts. Further along in the preamble: “most of the initiatives listed have yet to be presented to the government of Canada for approval and consequently are subject to being amended or deleted altogether.” Well then.

This December will mark three years since the F-35 sole-source purchase went bust, yet still there is no move to replace Canada’s 1980s-vintage F-18 fighters. The army’s long wait for trucks has become a protracted Zen meditation. The Navy has no supply ships and the federal cabinet, apparently fearing a tug-of-war between West, East and Quebec, is fiddling over a straightforward decision to approve a gap-filler, with refurbished commercial tankers. And the opposition New Democrat and Liberal defence critics, weighing in this week in The Hill Times, hammered Tory failings but were careful to offer no hard promises of their own.

In Canada, a robust commitment to defence is not politically necessary for any federal party. Reason? This country’s security isn’t really at issue, in a geopolitical sense. There’s a big fella to the south, a bruiser with a beef arm, to frighten off any bullies.

So imagine you’re sitting in the White House, or the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, gauging the tenor of debate across the spectrum. Do you deem Canada a serious player? It should be no surprise that Obama doesn’t bother much with this country. Nor will any future president, campaign rhetoric aside. We get what we’ve paid for.