Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MAY 2017

Canada and Australia prospered after World War II as U.S. allies and trading partners. But they are separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and face different economic and strategic challenges. Canada must deal with its "colossus to the south," and Australia lives in the long shadow of a superpower to the north, China.

These allies occupy among the world's largest land masses, yet have relatively small populations. Canada's 35.5 million people occupy 3.85 million square miles, much of it in the arctic north. Australia's 23.5 million live mostly along its coasts, in a continent that comprises 2.9 million square miles, much of it semi-desert. Both are highly productive nations in economic output: Canada's GDP is 1.56 trillion dollars (US), and Australia's is over 1.35 trillion.

Australia and Canada were part of the British Empire until 1931 when they acquired dominion status within the Commonwealth. It gave them full control over their internal affairs, but allowed London to guide their foreign policies. As a result, when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, Canada and Australia sent troops to join British forces in Europe. Australian troops were caught in Singapore in 1942 when Japanese forces attacked the British base there. Many were captured and died in Japanese prison camps.

Following the war, the two countries concluded defense alliances with the United States, replacing their earlier reliance on Great Britain for their security. Canada became a charter member of NATO in 1949, and Australia, along with New Zealand, concluded a defense alliance, ANZUS, with the U.S. in 1951.

A major difference in Australia's and Canada's defense relationships with the United States is their attitude toward defense expenditures and military service. Australia currently spends roughly 2 percent of its GDP on national defense and plans a major increase in its defense budget over the next five years. Canada currently spends only 1 percent of GDP to defense, among the lowest of NATO. In 2014, NATO agreed to an increase in members' defense budgets to 2 percent of GDP. But Canada's government, currently headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has to plan to reach that goal. The result: Canada's armed forces remain small compared to the rapidly expanding Australian navy and air force.

Two reasons account for the allies' divergent attitudes toward national defense and alliance policy. One is geography, the other domestic politics.

Both countries enjoyed security for seventy years as a result of their alliances with Washington, whose navy and air forces provide security in both the Atlantic and Pacific. While Australia supported the U.S. in decisions to intervene abroad, including Vietnam and Iraq, Canada declined to give its support unless the military interventions were sanctioned by the U.N. Ottawa contributed troops to the Korean War in 1950 and sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001. But Ottawa refused to participate either in the Vietnam War or in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Canada like Western Europe became complacent about defense after the Cold War ended, and they failed to provide sufficient funds for their own defense until NATO decided in 2014 to increase defense budgets. Canada has lagged behind, and a large factor is its public opinion. While the military is held in high regard in Australia, in Canada the military lacks wide public support. Its government shows little inclination to reverse that trend.

File last modified on Tuesday, 03-MAY-2017 8:45 AM EST

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