The missing middle between defence and development? Good governance

With continued calls for increased defence spending — despite levels at an all-time high — investment in governance institutions and initiatives may take a hit. Here’s why they are just as key to global security. 

By: , /
August 20, 2018
NATO
Justin Trudeau, Harjit Sajjan and Chrystia Freeland hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

Canada continues to be under pressure at home and internationally to increase defence spending from its current level of 1.2 percent of GDP to the NATO target of two percent, which was agreed at the alliance’s 2014 summit in Wales and underscored at last month’s summit in Belgium. 

The Canadian government has defended its current spending, noting its 2017 pledge to increase defence expenditure by 70 percent over the next decade and its commitments in-kind, including the new Canadian-led NATO training mission in Iraq.

The government could have also pointed out that — despite what certain foreign leaders might believe — increasing military assets does not necessarily increase international peace and security. Indeed, if the opportunity cost of military investment is reduced support for other important international commitments, increased defence spending may even undermine peace and security.

Today, defence spending by the Western alliance has reached levels virtually unparalleled in history. The United States spends more than all other NATO countries combined. NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization spend more than the rest of the world put together. And these levels are on the rise. Last year, NATO countries spent US$919 billion on defence, US$30 billion more than they spent in 2016. Amounts will continue to increase as member states aim to reach their two percent of GDP commitment, which to date only Estonia, Greece, the UK and US have achieved. European countries are also increasing their spending due to US unreliability under Trump. 

At the same time, spending on development is stagnating, with OECD donors spending just US$147 billion on official development assistance in 2017, less than one sixth of NATO military spending that same year and 0.6 percent less in real terms than they spent in 2016. The Trump administration in particular is trying to slash its development budget at the same time as it increases military outlays. This could exacerbate massive humanitarian and development challenges, particularly in conflict and post-conflict countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. International assistance for Afghanistan has fallen by 40 percent since 2012, reversing development successes at a critical time for the country. The Brookings Institute estimates that poverty is increasing in over 30 at-risk countries around the world. This retrenchment could have disastrous humanitarian consequences for countries most in need and threatens peace and security everywhere. 

A gap in global leadership

In this context, Canada can make an important contribution to international peace and security by investing in a critical unmet need. The opportunity resides in the missing middle between defence and traditional development. Military activity abroad often focuses on building the capacity of local armed forces. Development largely focuses on issues with measurable outcomes, such as vaccinating and educating. What is too often missing is sustained commitment to governance and the rule of law — the people and institutions that ensure that governance is good and justice is delivered.

Such investment could reasonably be expected to relieve the pressure Canada is facing at home and abroad to further increase its defence spending. While the Trump administration might not see it this way, many Canadians and international actors would readily understand that governance and rule of law can do as much or more for international peace and security than tanks and missile defence systems

"Despite what certain foreign leaders might believe, increasing military assets does not necessarily increase international peace and security."

Governance and rule of law must be nurtured rather than imposed. They are difficult issues requiring leadership, expertise, patience and sustained investment. Yet these ingredients are conspicuously absent. While many donors and multilateral development organizations do invest in good governance and rule of law, there is no single lead agency, and what national leadership used to come from the US is faltering. As a result, governance and rule of law are addressed by a patchwork of sometimes poorly coordinated interventions, creating strategic white space. The opportunity has been already recognized by major multilateral institutions. The World Bank’s 2017 World Development Report was devoted entirely to governance and the law, and the African Union designated 2018 as the African Anti-Corruption Year. 

Countries the world over — including Afghanistan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Africa — provide clear and recent examples of how poor governance and impunity can undermine development. Indeed, good governance and the rule of law are under extraordinary pressure across the globe, including in developed countries. Press freedom is under threat in the US, and liberal democratic institutions are in peril in European countries such as Hungary and Poland. According to Freedom House, democracy “faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets — including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law — came under attack around the world.” 2017 marked the 12th consecutive year of declining global freedom.  

The potential for Canada

Canada has the credibility and capacity required to step in to fill this space. It has already adopted “inclusive governance” as a key action area in its Feminist International Assistance Policy. The policy notes that Canada “supports inclusive governance by investing in the rights of women, their participation in politics, their legal authority and their access to justice, as well as by helping to create an enabling environment for civil society.” The success of such women-centered investments depends significantly on good governance and rule of law more generally. Canadian leadership in governance and justice would thus complement Canada’s feminist approach to international assistance.

Canada has a strong track record of governance engagement. Canadians provided advice on drafting the South African constitution and on law reform in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union; Canada assisted Vietnam’s transition from a closed, planned economy to an internationally-integrated market economy, supported the office of the auditor general in Mali and police reform in the Ukraine; and, in collaboration with others, Canada established the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Capacity Building Program for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries. 

Canada is well placed to do much more. It could leverage the individuals and systems of its civil service, including the RCMP, to make a serious and sustained investment in governance and rule of law around the world. For example, Canada could create a cohort of 1,500 RCMP officers to help national governments improve the rule of law in key countries such as El Salvador, where the impunity enjoyed by the M13 criminal gang has for years compromised security and development. Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights could multiply the world-class work it does helping local media around the world report on democracy, human rights and governance.  

Chrystia Freeland speaks articulately about the rule of law, most recently when she received Foreign Policy’s 2018 Diplomat of the Year award. Her acceptance speech described a “difficult truth”: “as the West’s relative might inevitably declines, now is the time when, more than ever, we must set aside the idea that might is right. Now is the time for us to plant our flag on the rule of law — so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules, too.” Freeland is a Liberal, but other political parties have also expressed strong support for democratic governance. The importance of good governance and the rule of law around the world should be an issue about which all political parties can agree.  

Indeed, Conservative John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, supported Canadian peacebuilding in a fragile state through rule of law. The fragile state was Canada, specifically Rupert’s Land, a lawless territory just acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rather than adopting the American 7th Calvary approach, MacDonald created the North West Mounted Police, comprised of policemen rather than military officers. 

With about a year left before elections, Justin Trudeau could frame support for good governance and the rule of law as an important, concrete way of showing that “Canada is back,” with an initiative that builds on our past successes but is designed for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Over the last three years, the Trudeau government has not hesitated to point out critical human rights and governance challenges in countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Taking action on governance would enable Canada and Canadians to go the extra step and actively support initiatives to improve human rights around the world. It would also be an additional, powerful argument for why Canada deserves to be elected to the UN Security Council. And the cost would be relatively inexpensive — for the price of an extra frigate, Canada could make a significant global contribution at this critical time.