With Canada pulling its fighting troops out of Kandahar this month, there’s growing interest in whether the government’s enthusiasm for defence spending might wane once the heat of combat cools. Over at the National Post, for example, Mercedes Stephenson warns against “nickel and diming ourselves into another decade of darkness.”
That’s a reference to former chief of defence staff Rick Hiller’s evocative characterization of the supposedly dismal era of military spending restraint, imposed by Jean Chrétien’s deficit-fighting Liberal government, which is often said to have brought the Armed Forces such a low point in the 1990s and early in this century.
Voices on the right tend to see the Liberals as inherently unsympathetic to the military, while viewing the Conservatives as naturally inclined to spend more freely on the Forces. But can this pattern be seen in the historical data?
Over the decades, ups and downs in defence budgets in Canada have tended to track U.S. military spending fluctuations, albeit at much lower level, rather than changes in the party in power in Ottawa. (To see this mirroring, take a look at Chart III in this working paper from Project Ploughshares.)
Within this general pattern, it seems to me the variable to watch is the spread between American and Canadian spending on defence as a share of gross domestic product. If you’re inclined to think Canada shouldn’t scrimp on the military, it stands to reason that any widening of the gap between Ottawa’s defence budget as a percentage of the economy and Washington’s might be cause for alarm. U.S spending provides a convenient point of comparison.
So I looked at this recent NATO document, particularly Table 3: Defence expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product.
The NATO figures show the U.S. spent, on average, 2.8 per cent more of its GDP on defence than Canada did (4.6 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent) during last stretch of Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government (1990-94). In the Chrétien era the gap actually narrowed to 2 per cent (1995-99), then widened just slightly to 2.2 per cent (2000-04).
Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, U.S. defence spending has again pulled further ahead of Canada’s, with the gap widening from 2.9 per cent in 2006, to 3.9 per cent in 2010, when the U.S. spent an estimated 5.1 per cent of GDP on defence, compared to Canada’s 1.5 per cent.
By this measure, at least, that decade of darkness doesn’t look so dismal for the military after all.