Is Canada a Free Rider?

Steve Saideman on why Canada isn't free riding on American defence efforts – it's just a relatively quiet partner.
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August 8, 2013
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One of the most basic logics in international relations (and in life in general) is that many efforts to cooperate will under-produce because the potential participants have a temptation to free ride on the efforts of those with greater motivations.  The academic literature has coincided with the policy debates – that in alliances, countries will tend to under-provide which leads to uneven burden-sharing.  Historically, Canada has, at times, been seen as a free rider because it has spent less of its gross domestic product on defence than the NATO standard of two percent and less than what the United States would like.  Given the extremely uneven burden-sharing in Afghanistan, it is time to revisit this notion even as defence budget cuts across the alliance suggest that there is much free-riding in its future.

This question of free-riding may become clearest if Canada seriously faces its submarine problem.  One way to deal with the combination of few submarines (with extremely poor operational histories as of late) and three oceans to monitor is to give up on having a submarine capability and rely on the United States.  This would seem to be an act of free-riding that the Americans could resent on the basis that the Canadians would not be doing their fair share of keeping the nearby seas secure.  The reality is that we are already there – the semi-operational sub is not providing the Americans with much added situational awareness.  The Americans, as they always have, are running their submarines through the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans because it is in their interest to do so.  The real question is whether the Canadians can make a deal to get the reconnaissance information that the American subs are providing.

This could be seen as free-riding, but Canada is not so much a free rider as a relatively quiet rider.  Canada provides a great deal to American security so that the Americans can focus their efforts elsewhere.  That the U.S.-Canadian border is undefended should not be taken for granted and actually requires the Canadians to do a great deal of work.  The Americans save a great deal of resources not having to position troops or ships to deal with northern threats.  The efforts by the Canadians to provide law and order, to be a stable country, is something that should not be taken lightly, especially as the U.S. shifts its attention to the violence engulfing large swaths of Mexico.  The mutual trust between the U.S. and Canada over immigration and customs is deep and crucial, even if Congresspeople and Senators still think that the 9/11 terrorists came from up north (nope, they got their visas from American embassies). 

For more than half a century, NORAD has meant that Canadians play key roles in the defense of the United States.  Canadian planes are often the first to encounter Russian planes voyaging over the Arctic.  The Deputy Commander of NORAD is a Canadian, and that officeholder can be put into very important situations, such as commanding all of North American airspace on 9/11.  Again, this is not a loud, visible effort that gets heaps of press in Washington, DC, but it makes a difference to American calculations, deployments, and grand strategies (even if the occasional map codes all of North America as U.S. homeland).

Despite these contributions to American defence, contributions that are hardly cost-free, Canadians will continue to be annoyed by the more ignorant Americans who think that Canada is free riding on the American efforts to provide security in the NATO alliance and beyond.  The good news is that fewer Americans (although still many since so many watch Fox News) are in this state of ignorance, as they have watched Canadians fight alongside Americans in some of the toughest places in Afghanistan.  While Americans do have short memories (I exemplify this American tendency), one of the products of the Afghan mission is to make Canadians a bit louder in NATO and in North America, reminding their southern ally of the contributions Canada made in September 2011 and since then.  Afghanistan has not only helped Canada shed the label of free rider (the Germans are now paying the price for their limited effort in Afghanistan and their absence over Libya) but also challenges the notion that Canada is a quiet ally.  And it is okay (and probably smart) to remind Americans of Canada’s contributions when they do forget.