On defense, Canada is an ally worth engaging
© Getty Images

First, President Obama said it, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in The Atlantic. Then, Republican front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE said it in his foreign policy speech in Washington last week. U.S. allies have heard the message loud and clear: The United States is frustrated with allies who take a "free ride" on U.S. defense spending.

And in capitals around the world, the question leaders have been asking is the one made famous by Robert De Niro in the film "Taxi Driver": "You talkin' to me?"

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, in Ottawa, the question is asked more politely. Still, the question is being raised both inside the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and by security policy analysts as Canada begins its first full defense policy review since 1994. This review, commissioned by Canada's Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, will guide Canadian investments in military equipment and personnel and is, according to Sajjan, "long overdue."

Neither Obama nor Trump could fairly label Canada a free rider on defense. A quick review of Canada's current military deployments includes boots on the ground training Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), training Ukrainian troops as part of a U.S.-led support mission, deployment to eastern Poland and the Aegean Sea as part of a NATO mission, patrolling the waters of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to combat piracy, and patrolling the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of North America to interdict illegal narcotics trafficking. And Canada was a major contributor to recent NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.

In all of these missions, Canada is reliant on some measure of U.S. military support. That is a given for a middle power ally of the United States. Yet Canada seeks to avoid placing an undue burden on U.S. resources and capabilities wherever possible, a strategy that Professor Joel Sokolsky of Canada's Royal Military College refers to as an effort to be an "easy rider" rather than a free rider.

Yet Canada spent roughly 1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense in 2015, according to figures published by NATO. With the conclusion of its expensive commitment in Afghanistan, Canada began a gradual decline in military spending from a recent high of 1.39 percent of GDP in 2009 — still falling short of the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP for all allies. Aside from the United States, only Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United Kingdom met or exceeded the 2 percent target in 2015.

Obama and Trump are frustrated with this situation, but calling allies "free riders" will only provoke them to quote De Niro, not spend more. Canada is an ideal ally with which to try a new approach. Canadians are unequivocal allies of the United States and most Canadians expect to have to do their fair share on defense. Yet the Trudeau government is contending with a weaker Canadian economy thanks to the fall in global commodity prices and has to be frugal: In its current budget, the Canadian government anticipates a $30 billion deficit (in Canadian dollars), even without a significant increase in expenditure of defense.

As Canada proceeds with its defense review, the United States should encourage Canada to make smart investments that provide good security value for the dollar and provide irreplaceable benefits to the United States. For example, Canadian investments in domain awareness, from satellite and air patrols to monitor Russian and other military activity in the Arctic (especially in the Canadian Arctic archipelago) to intelligence and law enforcement efforts to combat the recruitment of Canadians to terrorist activities in North America or abroad, help to secure the continental home front now guarded by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), Canada's Joint Operations Command, and the U.S. Northern Command.

In other areas, the United States should also engage Canada in new ways. U.S. leaders should emphasize the importance of the interoperability of U.S. and Canadian security capabilities, including a more complete spectrum of security from law enforcement to military operations overseas. Traditional military expenditures have been coordinated for decades, but as "defense" now requires more than military investments, the dialogue should be extended to the law enforcement, border security, intelligence and cybersecurity realms.

A third step toward improving Canada's ability to make smart investments in defense is procurement reform. Canada has struggled with procurement, with recent embarrassments over the purchase of maritime helicopters and submarines. The Trudeau government has questioned the decision to purchase F-35 fighter jets by made its predecessor, the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper. With so much at stake, Canada needs a better military procurement system and the United States has an interest helping Canada.

It is time for politicians in the United States to stop whining and begin engaging more constructively and in new ways with allies on defense. Canada is a good place to start.

Sands is a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the G. Robert Ross Distinguished Visiting Professor in the College of Business and Economics at Western Washington University. This article is based on his testimony before the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on April 21, available here.