Is Canada becoming a freeloader again?

Tomorrow, the defence ministers from six nations will meet in Paris to discuss an acceleration and intensification of the coalition's efforts against the Islamic State. Canada will not be present. What does this absence mean?

For many, this has been interpreted as an insult, after all, Canada was one of the first nations to join the coalition, and one of the very few to enlarge its participation to include airstrikes on Syrian territory. However, given the insistence of the new government to withdraw the fighters from the coalition, and not having announced alternatives – such as retaining the enablers (refuelling aircraft and surveillance aircraft) or articulating what the alternative contributions might be, Canada's exclusion is not so much an insult as it is a recognition by allies that if you have nothing to contribute, why should you take up space?

Canada has stated it will continue as part of the coalition, however, without any other details, we can rest assured that people such as Defense Secretary Ash Carter will question Canada's commitment as an ally. Days ago, Carter in a speech noted that “The lasting defeat of ISIL must be a global undertaking, because it’s a global threat. And any nation that cares about the safety of its people or the future of its civilization must know this – America will continue to lead the fight, but there can be no free riders."

There are certain risks to Canada, no matter how quickly they are glossed over by government spokespeople.

  1. Not being at the table, we will not be able to influence the direction of the campaign, notwithstanding U.S. claims to leadership.
  2. We may hear of the results of the meeting, but will not be aware of the nuances, nor necessarily all the details. In other words, our diplomacy will be navigating somewhat in the blind – reliant on whatever details the allies decide to share with us.
  3. Inevitably, since ISIS is not a threat that is uniquely confined to Iraq and Syria, wider issues, including Libya, Mali, and the Sinai amongst others will inevitably have been discussed.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly – as a neighbour to the U.S., with whom trade, security and defence rely on a close relationship, it is distinctly possible that Secretary Carter's characterization as a "freeloader" may gain traction in Washington, with policy spillovers to other areas of the Canadian U.S. relationship.  That would be deeply inimical to our interests.

It is highly unlikely, having invested so much political rhetoric, confirming time and time again that the fighters will be withdrawn, that there is any chance the government will reverse itself despite the dire situation the world is in today. However, to preserve our country's credibility, it is now paramount that the governement announce something instead of continuing to vascillate on its future plans. Whether that plan includes expanded training, a new mission with the British in Libya, assistance to the French in Mali, it matters not.  The important thing is to make Canada's future intentions known soonest, lest the perception of being a freeloader again take root.

George Petrolekas