The Trudeau Liberals – them of the “sunny ways” – have just announced an increase in military spending by approximately $30 billion over the next decade, raising the military budget from its current $18.9 billion to $32.7 billion. This includes continuing projects initiated, and in some cases halted, by the Harper Conservative government, and an expansion of Harper commitments. The plan includes more fighter jets, more warships, armed drones, and an expansion of military personnel, including Special Forces. Of course, committing to spending is not the same as actually spending. Still, it’s a significant plan and worth thinking about for a moment.
One narrative we’ve seen following the announcement is that this is a response to the Trump administration’s demands that Canada spend more. No doubt the Trump administration’s criticisms of Canada’s military spending – combined with its threats to free trade – likely played some role in the Liberal’s announcement. But we should also be careful not to overstate this, as it might obscure broader dynamics that are equally important.
First, US governments complaining about Canada not spending enough on its military is not new. NATO has also criticized Canada on this score in the past. This hasn’t led Canada to significantly increase spending. The Liberals (with the support of Jack Layton’s NDP) and Conservatives both increased military spending in the 2000s as Canada was heavily engaged in the occupation of Haiti and the war in Afghanistan and started dreaming of a more robust interventionist global presence. The global financial crisis shifted thinking amongst the ruling class on this strategy, and military spending was curtailed as Canada withdrew from Afghanistan.
Second, militarism isn’t new to the Liberal Party. It was a Liberal government that sent troops to support the coup against the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 2004 and pacify Aristide’s supporters (leading to the deaths of thousands of Haitians in the months that followed). It was a Liberal government that sent troops to lead the occupation of Kandahar a year later. Nor did the Liberal Party in opposition offer any meaningful criticism when the Harper government intervened militarily in Libya, Mali, Niger, and Iraq or sent security assistance, in partnership with Colombia, to Guatemala and Honduras and oversaw a $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Indeed Canada’s military role (including bombing and Special Forces operations) has continued in Iraq and Syria under the Liberals, while Trudeau committed to completing the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Third, the Liberal government has, on other issues such as the Paris Accords (or climate change more generally) and multilateral institutionalism more generally, chosen to stake out a different position than the Trump administration, even offer weak criticism of it. Of course the Liberals aren’t committed in any meaningful sense to reversing climate change. But they do have an interest in making nominal efforts, and looking like they care about, slowing it down, and thus are publicly not in step with the US government.
Fourth, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s foreign policy speech from June 6 stakes out a ground that acknowledges the historic role of the US superpower in leading global imperialism (my words, not hers) while at the same time suggesting that the kind of leadership Canada is looking for is not forthcoming from the Trump administration. Thus, she argues, an overdependence on the US “would not be in Canada’s interest”. The speech is replete with references to: the importance of an “international order based on rules” and multilateral institutions (by which she means of course rules that benefit rich countries and that rich countries, including the US, should make some effort to follow); challenges to the Transatlantic-led international order from terrorism, China, and people who “have been left behind”; and the necessity of “the backing of hard power” for Canadian diplomacy – “the principled use of force … is part of our history and must be part of our future.” The speech suggests, to me at least, that the Liberals’ military pivot is as much a response to what they see as a failure of US global leadership under Trump than a simple attempt to appease Trump.
Fifth, the Canadian capitalist class’s interests, and ambitions, are global. Canadian multinational corporations have a strong orientation toward foreign direct investment, in banking, mining, oil and gas production and transport, manufacturing, and so on. An aggressive, and militarist, Canadian foreign policy, even if pushed by the US or NATO, is therefore in fact in the interests of Canada’s ruling class; and the Conservatives and Liberals – both parties of Canada’s ruling class – understand that. They don’t increase military spending, design foreign policy, or seek to undermine governments they don’t like (or promote those they do) simply because the Americans do – they do so because Canada’s ruling class is invested in a particular kind of global order, one that benefits Canadian capital.
Sixth, just as with the Harper Conservatives, we must absolutely oppose the Trudeau government’s militarism. This is a government that won’t spend money to end legalized sexism in the Indian Act or $155 million to end racial discrimination towards indigenous children, as it was ordered to do so (twice) by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. However much it tries to present itself as a meaningful alternative to the Conservatives, on this score (and on climate change, and indigenous issues and so on) it isn’t. Canadian foreign policy, in its militaristic or economic form (and these are intimately connected), has nothing to do with making the world a better place. And we should be clear that this isn’t simply because of pressure from Americans. The Canadian ruling class isn’t controlled by the US. It has agency, and it has a vested interest in an international order where the poorer regions are prostrate, resistance – from social movements or governments that don’t align with Canada’s interests – is negated, and profits are safe and secure. Internationalism, opposition to Canadian imperialism, and solidarity with grassroots movements fighting imperialism (and governments backed by imperialism) must be a central part to the rebuilding of the Canadian Left.
Todd Gordon is a member of the New Socialists and author of Imperialist Canada and, with Jeff Webber, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America.