From the late 20th century until the present, Canada has always been a nation respected for its peacekeeping efforts and its strong support for liberal democratic ideals and human rights in troubled corners all over the globe.
Through its participation in the United Nations and NATO, Canadian troops have often found themselves on the front lines of many scathing conflicts down through the decades, doing their part to ensure that the freedoms that were so hard-fought and hard-won at the conclusion of WWII and other conflicts do not go quietly into the night.
Today’s global order, however, appears to be one of shifting responsibilities and declining interest in playing an internationalist role, a troubling brew that is seeing some nations retreat into isolationism, increasing territorial intransigence in others, and the rise of populist and neo-fascist ideologies rooted in a drift toward authoritarianism at the expense of democratic freedoms.
Disturbingly, many of these same qualities and ideas were contributing factors in leading the globe into the deadliest conflict in human history in the last century.
Unfortunately it has been a long time since anyone in the international community looked to Canada to take a leading role in international affairs — at least when it comes to military intervention.
But last week, responding to shifts in the international order and uncertainties produced by the rise of populism in the U.S. and other nations, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a military expansion and funding plan that will help Canada position itself in taking a commanding role in international affairs, rather than just a willing partner or helpful follower as has been largely true in the recent past.
In a watershed announcement that broadsided most pundits, critics and observers — many of whom had expected cuts, not expansion — the Liberals will be pumping an additional $13.9 billion into defense spending over the next decade, putting another 5,000 troops in uniform while adding new modern capabilities in cyberwarfare, as well as armed drones for unmanned airstrikes. This will also include purchasing 88 new fighter jets and enhancing the complement of the surface navy.
Perhaps key, the new plan is designed to address three current trends in international affairs: growing tension between global powers, the changing nature of conflict, and rapid technological advances.
Last week during a speech in Montreal, former U.S. president Barack Obama warned against the appeal of populist ideals, and with typical eloquence suggested that the 21st century would not belong to “strongmen”:
“If we begin to question the progress we have made over decades and we violate our principles because of fear and uncertainty… we are inviting in people who say democracy doesn’t work, that restrictions on the press are necessary and that intolerance and tribalism and organizing ourselves along ethnic lines are the answer to today’s challenges,” said Obama.
That’s apparently a sentiment Trudeau also believes in, not surprisingly considering the internationalist aspirations of his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who did much to enhance Canada’s profile on the world stage.
It’s also a politically-shrewd move, which could also be ascribed to taking notes from the flamboyant Quebecker. Dramatic increases to defence spending are something we might expect to see from conservatives, not a Liberal government. Stealing a march from the opposition is dirty pool politics in Canada, and always has been.
And it’s a game the Liberals have played well — the minority governments of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s borrowed extensively from their CCF/NDP brethren, including the idea of Medicare which went on to become a cornerstone of Canadian values.
While enhancing Canada’s military might still leave the nation a far cry proportionally from superpowers like the U.S., Russia, or China, it is about time the nation attempted to distance itself from relying on others to secure her sovereignty, especially in a troubled world where commitment to the alliances of the past may be slowly eroding.