When it comes to NATO, Canada is not a free rider

An alternative analysis of Canada’s perceived global engagement gap

By: /
October 1, 2015
Canadian soldiers from November Company 7th platoon of the NATO-led coalition prepare a night shelter during a mission in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan March 19, 2009. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa

Whether a member of the G7 or one of the 28 members of NATO, how do we ensure a state carries its weight in a coalition?   What does that responsibility look like — in NATO’s case, is it based purely on funding or on how many troops it contributes relative to the size of its armed forces?

Bickering about burden sharing, especially in the context of NATO, and how to achieve distributive justice is not new by any means. It has been both contentious and constant since the birth of NATO in 1949. NATO’s defence ministers and their bosses have regularly—and often times vociferously, uncompromisingly, and publically—disagreed about how to reach distributional fairness in running and maintaining an alliance.

Robert Greenhill and Meg McQuillan’s recent report Assessing Canada’s Global Engagement Gap is thus in good company. They find that historically Canada is and has been a laggard internationally, and that we continue to fall behind in our global commitments. While their report contributes to debates on burden sharing, unfortunately, it is largely out of touch with the literature and most recent scholarly findings, at least when it comes to NATO. Why?

First, for the past decades no study on NATO burden sharing has found that middle powers like Canada were free-riding. To the contrary, the literature finds that the so-called ‘free-riding’ of middle powers, including Canada, does not apply to NATO after the late 1960s. It is thus well known that there is no statistically significant exploitation (or free riding) by smaller (or middle power) NATO members.

Second, a study published in April of this year specifically examines the Canadian case and finds that for the time period 1990-2001 Canada was not a laggard or free-rider but over-contributed relative to its abilities. To be sure, this study only compared Canada to its NATO allies. Similar findings were echoed at a recent workshop on NATO burden sharing at the University of Ottawa.

Third, that study also argues that the true measure of free-riding would be to compare each country’s contribution to peacekeeping to the relative size of its armed forces. The logic is this: If, for example, country X maintains an 80,000-strong armed forces, that country’s contribution to an operation must be understood and interpreted as a share of the total size of those 80,000 troops. Why? Because, above all, each country can only send as many troops on NATO missions as it has in total at its disposal. States do not work like banks where they could borrow assets (that is soldiers). In other words, states cannot commit forces they do not have, and thus overcommit. Moreover, the size of the armed forces is a uniquely political decision that is influenced by factors like national threat perceptions, the tasks the national armed forces are given (be it pure national defence or a combination of conflict prevention, crisis management and humanitarian assistance), the force’s efficiency as well as the country’s geographical location and proximity to allies, population, historical experiences, national resources, and strategic culture. All this this matches Greenhill and McQuillan’s underlying assumption that states act rationally: they will employ as many troops as necessary, which in turn supports the use of the armed forces personnel share index.

Fourth, the study also shows that for the time period 1990-2001 and compared to Canada’s NATO allies, Ottawa ranks 7th out of 19 NATO member-states in terms of providing foreign aid. It was not a laggard. For sure, one can always do more. However, comparing Canada to other non-NATO states, such as Australia is unfair because Australia is not a NATO member.

Fifth, the literature agrees that the traditional burden measure (i.e., Military expenditures / GDP) has lost its explanatory value since NATO adopted the new Strategic Concept at the end of the Cold War, as analyst Jens Ringsmose wrote in 2010. He examines NATO burden sharing using troop contribution data for ISAF, and finds that smaller (or middle power) members are not free riders.

There are also a number of questions arising from Greenhill and McQuillan’s methods of analysis.

First, the analysis of burden sharing originates from the economics of collective action, especially the public choice school. While theorists have disagreed on the nature of the public good at stake, they generally rely on a measure of contribution that is equivalent to the ratio of a budgetary item (e.g. defence spending) on the ability to pay (e.g. GDP), which is the index Greenhill and McQuillan predominantly refer to. However, the GDP index assumes that states act rationally based on strict cost-benefit calculations, which we know they don’t. How could we otherwise explain Canada’s überproportional contribution to peace in the Balkans at times of nearly being bankrupt in the mid-1990s?

Second, the GDP index is reductionist, oversimplified, and static. We know nothing, for example, about how states construct a collective burden, and when they decide to contribute to a collective action situation or not (and why)—all of which comes before seeing burden sharing as an outcome.

Third, the percentage of GDP spent on defence is a poor indicator that measures neither the quality of a military nor a country’s ability and willingness to deploy effective forces. Greece is perhaps the best example here.

Fourth, the GDP index does not take into consideration specific situational contexts in which national burden sharing decisions are made. Presumably, there is a difference when states are asked to contribute to an intervention for humanitarian purposes, preventing genocide etc. or to illegitimate interventions like those in Iraq in 2003.

Fifth, the GDP index does not explain why some allies, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, have contributed strongly to NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan. We know that in part of what explains their high contributions was to show their national flag and seek status, prestige, recognition, and economic benefits, especially from the U.S.

Sixth, NATO and the UN operate with their own accounting systems that are essentially incompatible. The consequence is we don’t really have reliable comparable statistical data. The GDP index also does not reflect the variations in income levels across the alliance.

Finally, member states report on their defence spending differently. Some countries, for example, include health care and pensions for their soldiers in their reporting’s, others don’t. Moreover, some states include expenses for R&D and conscription, others don’t. All of this makes comparisons and thus generalizations inherently inaccurate.

To be sure, none of the points I make above are politically motivated or meant to promote ideas of a certain political party in this current election campaign.

But, when it comes to vast generalizations about a country’s burden sharing performance or assessing its role in the world, we must be very careful what we say and how we interpret the data. I do agree that budgets for our foreign, defence and development policy have been in decline. Of course, that does not automatically mean that Canada vanished from world politics altogether.