Canada’s Place on the World Stage

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance.


As a country of extraordinary prosperity that enjoys a climate of durable peace and stability at home, Canada’s place on the world stage is framed by the opportunity and responsibility to make a more significant contribution toward advancing beyond our borders the enviable conditions that prevail within them. It is a responsibility that will require increased peace and security spending, with a focus on supporting measures that:

  • Address unmet basic needs through poverty elimination efforts (development),
  • Promote political inclusion and respect for basic rights (democracy),
  • Reduce the availability of the weapons that transform social and political conflict into armed conflict (disarmament),
  • Promote the peaceful settlement of disputes (diplomacy), and that
  • Provide for the protection of civilians in extraordinary peril and for support to peace operations in complex conflicts and emergencies (defence).

In addition to it being a responsibility, it will be in Canada’s interests to expand development assistance spending to the declared target of .7 percent of GDP and thereby expand the overall “peace and security envelope” from current levels of about 1.3 percent of GDP to about 2 percent of GDP, with particular emphasis on a deepened commitment to the eradication of poverty and the prevention of armed conflict.

1. Canada’s responsibilities on the world stage

By global standards, Canada enjoys extraordinary levels of prosperity and peace and security at home, and as such is one of those states with the opportunity and the responsibility to make a significant contribution to international peace and security beyond its borders. Canadians have traditionally been supportive of their country’s active participation in efforts toward international peace and security, grounded both in the sense of a common humanity, and in a recognition that our own security depends ultimately on a stable and prosperous international order.

The fact that we are privileged not to face daunting or imminent military challenges to our sovereignty and territorial security means that we enjoy considerable flexibility in considering the best ways and means of addressing the real security challenges beyond our borders:

Because we are not burdened by the need to maintain high levels of military forces for our security at home, we have a special opportunity to devote significant resources to international security; and

Because our peace and security tool kit does not need to be dominated by high levels of military capacity, we have options – we can decide on the most effective way to deploy our resources in response to contemporary security threats.

2. What are the primary international security needs?

The conditions of insecurity that currently escalate to armed violence around the world are primarily to be found within states rather than between states. There are currently 36 wars on the territories of 28 countries – all are variations of internal or civil wars, none are wars between states.1 In other words, the continuing high levels of armed conflict are not so much a failure of the international system as the failure of national systems. It is individual states that are on the front lines of the struggle to maintain the social, political, and economic conditions essential to a stable order – the kind of order that protects and serves the welfare of people and avoids the descent to war. Or, as the OECD peacebuilding guidelines put it, a primary security and war prevention measure is the development of state “institutions capable of managing socio-political tensions and avoiding their escalation into violence.”2 It is a measure of the dysfunction of many modern states that more that one in seven has failed so badly in managing its socio-political affairs that tension has escalated to a level of violence sufficient to define it as a location of ongoing war.

The roots of these conflicts are myriad, both local and international, and they are not amenable to settlement through quick fixes, military or diplomatic. Long-term social, political, and economic measures are required to rebuild conditions conducive to durable peace. There is thus a special need for states that enjoy comparatively high levels of prosperity and security at home to assist in that peacebuilding process and to bring protection to populations in peril on that slow road to genuine transformation.

3. Addressing real security needs

This assistance, of course, includes, but is not confined to, a military capacity to provide protection to vulnerable people in states that either cannot or will not provide such protection, to help restore order and thus build confidence in public institutions in failed or failing states, and to enforce compliance with binding international norms and commitments, including human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. For security policies and measures to be effective they should obviously address and mitigate the ways in which people and communities actually experience insecurity. And around the world, the most immediate experiences of insecurity come in the form of unmet basic needs, political exclusion and the denial of basic rights, social and political disintegration, and the related escalation of criminal and political violence.

The primary threats to the safety and welfare of individuals in most instances do not stem from external military forces bent on attacking the territorial integrity of their state or on undermining its sovereignty by imposing their will on an otherwise safe and stable national order. In extraordinary, circumstances (often when vulnerabilities are not addressed early enough with  appropriate measures), conditions of human insecurity translate into military challenges, but failure to deal effectively with such criminal and political violence cannot be said to be due to a lack of military capacity. Indeed, the international community collectively is in possession of extraordinary levels of such capacity. Annual world military spending now stands well in excess of $1,000 billion (Canadian), of which at least 60 per cent is by NATO – countries with which Canada is in alliance.

While the Canadian Armed Forces will require the resources to rebuild and restructure in order to more effectively respond to current security needs, simply adding to the surfeit of global military spending will not make the world more responsive to the needs of the vulnerable or more inclined or able to assure compliance with international laws and standards. The point is not that military force is irrelevant to international peace and security, but that for it to be relevant and effective it has to be applied within a two-fold context.

First, it must be used in coordination with other security measures (e.g., diplomacy, political reform, disarmament, and so on).

Second, when military forces are employed, they have to be trained, equipped, and managed so as to support regional peace and security in ways that do not escalate violence and distrust and without resorting to attempts at militarily forced global engineering that ignores the transformative social, economic, and political conditions that are essential to durable peace and security.

4. An inclusive peace and security envelope

Based on the recognition that the maintenance of international peace and security is dependent upon much more than military strength, Canadian security policy has to include a variety of military and non-military elements. In fact, a comprehensive peace and security envelope should include five basic elements:

  • Development – Measures to end poverty are essential to addressing the underlying causes of humanitarian emergencies and to creating the kinds of economic, social, and environmental conditions that are conducive to sustainable human security;
  • Democracy – Measures to promote good governance that emphasize political inclusiveness and participation, as well as respect for human rights;
  • Disarmament – Measures to prevent the transformation of political conflict into armed conflict by limiting the availability of weapons;
  • Diplomacy – Engagement in multilateral efforts toward the prevention of armed conflict, the peaceful management of political conflict, the development of a rules-based international order, and the promotion of development, democracy and disarmament;
  • Defence – The capacity to resort to the use of force in extraordinary circumstances in support of the full range of peace and security efforts, i.e. the other four Ds, including protection and compliance.

5. Funding the peace and security envelope

Canada of course spends money all five D’s in support of international peace and security, although getting an accurate measurement is a challenge. Indeed, it would be a major service to Canadians if federal officials were to track and disclose the full extent of Canadian international peace and security spending within these five areas. A preliminary effort to identify expenditures in each of these categories concludes that Canada currently spends about $16 billion, or 1.3 per cent of GDP on the five D’s. Of that, about 16 percent is development spending, another 4 percent is on diplomacy, disarmament and democracy promotion, and about 80 percent on defence.3

Spending $16 billion per year represents a substantial Canadian effort toward the collective, multilateral pursuit of international peace and security, but two questions obviously follow:

Is it enough? Given Canada’s extraordinary wealth, and given the high level of stability and security Canadians now enjoy at home, should we be doing more to support efforts in the rest of the world to reach similar levels of peace and security, and in the process contribute to the durability of our own well-being?

Is the distribution of our effort appropriate? Should some four-fifths of our peace and security effort be on military roles when the most prominent threats to the security of people come from non-military sources? Defence can certainly be expected to be the most prominent component, given its responsibilities at home as well as abroad, and given their extraordinary hardware and personnel requirements, but the basic question still applies.

Another way to look at the proportions is to compare the military-to-ODA ratio among OECD countries.4 The Canadian defence to development ratio is about 3.8:1 – putting it roughly in the middle of the OECD rankings. The most balanced ratio is held by Luxembourg (1.2:1), while the most disproportionate ratio belongs to the United States (24.8:1). It is not particularly relevant to compare Canada to either Luxembourg or the US, however, in comparisons between Canada and several like-minded, similarly situated, countries (Germany at 5.9:1; Netherlands, 2.2:1; Sweden, 2:1; Norway, 2:1; Denmark at 1.6:1; and Ireland at 1.8:1), Canadian peace and human security spending priorities are weighted more heavily toward the military than most.

Action on two key proposals from civil society organizations engaged internationally could constructively shift the relative balance within the peace and security envelope. The first is the proposal that Canada more seriously pursue the declared goal of increasing development assistance to .7% of GDP. To reach that goal within a decade, development assistance funding, focused on poverty eradication, would need to increase by 12% over the next two years, and by 15% thereafter. A second proposal is that $50 million per year, initially for three years, be allocated for a special fund for Conflict Resolution and War Prevention.5

If development spending was actually increased to .7% of GDP, if at the same time there was modest growth in democracy, disarmament, and diplomacy spending, including special funding for conflict resolution and war prevention, and if defence spending moved during the same period from its current level of about 1% of GDP to about 1.2% of GDP, the result would be a significant shift in emphasis toward security measures and strategies that actually address the insecurities experienced by people in their homes and communities on a daily basis.

Overall, peace and security spending would rise from its current level of about 1.3 per cent of GDP to about 2 per cent of GDP, and the Canadian defence to development ratio would move from roughly 4:1 to 2:1 (making it comparable to Netherlands at 2.2:1; Sweden, 2:1; Norway, 2:1; Denmark at 1.6:1; and Ireland at 1.8:1).

Would that be an appropriate balance? Would an expanded peace and security envelope reproportioned in that way be a more appropriate expression of a relevant and responsible Canadian contribution?

6. A note on Defence Spending

The most likely objection to such a scenario is apt to be the reminder that Canada’s armed forces are already under funded and unable to meet burgeoning challenges beyond our borders. But it must be said that the call for more military spending requires a thorough public debate and review of the kinds of military roles and capacities that are most relevant to international peace and security challenges in this first quarter of the 21st Century. Canadians have not yet had that discussion, and it is essential that the current Defence policy review be carried out within the context of the larger international policy review.

Prime Minister Martin has already signaled that “merely rebuilding Canada’s armed forces on old models will not suffice.”6 The Prime Minister’s call for military models more relevant to current peace and security needs was reinforced by the 2001 report of the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Its focus on military intervention to protect civilians in peril posited a specialized military role between traditional peacekeeping and even more traditional war fighting: “The challenge in this context is to find tactics and strategies of military intervention that fill the current gulf between outdated concepts of peacekeeping and full-scale military operations that may have deleterious impacts on civilians.” 7


Most current wars involve core intractable conflicts that are not amenable to either military or diplomatic quick fixes. Such conflicts tragically persist and persist, and to deal with them effectively the international community requires long-term peacebuilding strategies that address the fundamental social, economic, and political failures that fuel them. In the meantime the international community must also become more determined and better equipped to protect those civilian populations most grievously affected and imperilled as the process of slow change unfolds in the midst of ongoing violence and abuse.

Canada is in a position to contribute significantly to such protection and peace support operations, but the costs of Canadian military operations must be balanced with funding requirements for the development, diplomatic, disarmament, and democracy promotion efforts that are essential to ensuring that military contributions to international peace and security are carried out in an environment conducive to positive change.

  1. Armed Conflicts Report 2004, Project Ploughshares.
  2. OECD (2003), A Development Co-operation Lens on Terrorism Prevention: Key Entry Points for Action, p. 9.
  3. Details on sources and calculations of total peace and security spending are provided in, Ernie Regehr and Peter Whelan, Reshaping the Security Envelope: Defence Policy in a Human Security Context, Project Ploughshares Working Paper 04-4, Appendix I.
  4. Military spending data is drawn from The Military Balance 2003-2004 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press); and data on ODA is drawn from OECD statistics, Table 4: “Net Official Development Assistance from DAC countries to Developing Countries and Multilateral Organizations.”
  5. Canadian Council for International Cooperation, Summary Briefing Note, International Policy Review, October 2004.
  6. Martin, P. (2003, April 30). Canada’s role in a complex world.
  7. The report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, in its focus on military intervention to protect civilians in peril, posited a specialized military role between traditional peacekeeping and even more traditional war fighting: “The challenge in this context is to find tactics and strategies of military intervention that fill the current gulf between outdated concepts of peacekeeping and full-scale military operations that may have deleterious impacts on civilians.” (p. 5)
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