Counter-point: Canada needs to realign foreign policy, fighter jets a step backward

Parliament is missing the point in the debate over the acquisition of new F-35 fighter jets at a cost of $16 billion. Government members have argued that our ability to stand with NATO allies in air defence rests in our possession of the fighter jets.

Opposition critics have pointed out that the fighters were not acquired through a competitive process, that Ottawa has not laid out any specific missions that the F-35 would be useful for, and alleged that the Conservatives have overstated the ability of the F-35 program to bring jobs to Canada.

This, however, is not an isolated debate about jets and we shouldn’t regard it as such.

In 2005, the Canadian Institute of International Affairs released a report entitled “Making a Difference? External Views on Canada’s International Impact.”

In it, 40 political actors from 19 different countries were asked to analyze Canada’s impact in the world.

The results were less than stellar. Over the last 15 years, the report found that Canada’s role in international security and development deteriorated and our impact was found to be marginal.

Prime Minister Harper seems to recognize this. Over the last several months, the Conservative government has spent heavily to influence others in the United Nations to give Canada another turn on the prestigious Security Council.

Just last week when speaking of Canada’s moral imperative, Harper told the UN that “It is essential that we strive to make a significant, actual difference in the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged people.” The allocation of jets seems to be another attempt by Harper to build that global image.
Yet, the semantic debate about the finer points of this jet purchase exists is a very small corner of the bigger picture.

This is about a fundamental decision about the future of military funding in this country and what kind of role we want to play in the world.

Does sitting on the Security Council with an arsenal of fighter jets in our pockets change the findings of the 2005 report and let us begin to stake a meaningful place on the world stage, or do we need to do something more fundamental?

Canada used to be the peacekeeping nation of the world. We had a perfect record of contributing to every single UN peacekeeping mission and we lost over 120,000 peacekeepers in the process. In 2001, we were still spending almost $100 million on peacekeeping operations.

Today, we spend $15.6 million (that’s less than one per cent of the $16 billion allocated for jets). We rank 57th in the world in peacekeeping and have less than 100 Canadians deployed as traditional peacekeepers.

Ghana and Zambia currently have more people deployed in peacekeeping than we do. We have lost a crucial bedrock of Canadian foreign policy and we stand to push it further and further in the background with a $16 billion jet purchase.

Furthermore, the Harper Conservatives have frozen Canada’s contribution to foreign aid. And it’s not like we were really breaking the bank with foreign aid before.

Our contribution stood at a measly 0.3 per cent of our annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A freeze means that as our economy and GDP grows, that percentage will only go down.

We now rank 29th in aid effectiveness, and of 22 wealthy countries, we rank 18th in overall aid contribution.

The threats of terrorism are real, and we must stand with our NATO allies. However, we must not follow blindly in pursuit of our very own military industrial complex.

There is a much greater opportunity here to achieve the moral imperative Harper spoke of last week. Hypothetically, if we could cut the jet purchase in half and spend the $8 billion leftover on more aid and peacekeeping, it would put us on par with other world leaders in foreign aid spending.

That’s an attractive moral spotlight on the international stage. Instead of debating endlessly on the details of the F-35 acquisition, we need to have a fundamental discussion on the direction of Canadian foreign policy.