"Speak softly and carry a big stick."

- U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1900

Canada's modest military might has always made it hard for its prime ministers to strut convincingly on the world stage. Stephen Harper is only the latest to offer stirring rhetorical contributions to the Western alliance, without having much firepower to back them up.

When it comes to speeches, Harper has not pulled his punches, even comparing the predations of Russian President Vladimir Putin to those of Nazi Germany. He says that Putin's "aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic" activities threaten the "peace and stability of the world."

For domestic consumption, Harper's government claims to be leading the Western response. Foreign Minister John Baird has insisted that "no other government has stood up more forcefully and aggressively against the Russian aggression in Ukraine."

Really? Those are big words. But this week's NATO summit in Wales will expose a gap between words and deeds.

Faced with a pressing need to offer more than ringing denunciations of Russian aggression, NATO's 28 members are being challenged to increase their defence budgets.

Harper intends to do no such thing. As long as that's true, Harper will be speaking loudly, but carrying a small stick.

Duelling accounts

So far, Harper seems reluctant to mention the topic. The official account of his pre-summit phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama states that it "focused primarily on preparations for next week's NATO Summit in Wales, where leaders will discuss, among other things, the coordinated response to Russia's efforts to destabilize Ukraine and undermine the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Nothing there about boosting defence spending.

By contrast, the White House account of the same call says this: "The president stressed that agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO summit."

A "top priority?" For the U.S., maybe — but not for Canada, where the Conservative government is focused on balancing the budget before next year's election.

Instead, according to the account of the Prime Minister's Office, Harper's goal at the NATO summit is to emphasize what Canada has already done, especially with its fine rhetoric: "Canada's main objectives for the Summit include highlighting its contributions to the Alliance, notably the role it has played since the onset of the Russia-Ukraine crisis by stressing the need for a strong international response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine..."

So: our "main objective" is to "highlight" our role in "stressing the need" for a "strong response."

No doubt, other members of the NATO alliance will hasten to highlight the exemplary power of their own speeches.

But among NATO's key members, only the U.S. — which pays 70 per cent of NATO's bills — and the United Kingdom top the desired level of two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in defence spending.

Canada's spending is closer to one per cent of GDP. Greece and Estonia both do better.

Which leaves Canada with a challenge — which it is meeting rhetorically.

Small, but mighty?

The PMO says that Canada's military is "one of the most engaged and responsive armed forces within the Alliance." Perhaps so — but it's one of the smallest.

Canada ranks sixth in spending among the allies and contributes just six per cent of NATO's budget. As a share of GDP, only five of NATO's 28 members spend less than Canada.

It is true that Canadian troops fought effectively in Afghanistan, although how successful the Western intervention there was will be another difficult question for the summit.

More recently, Canada has sent half a dozen CF-18s to Eastern Europe for patrols in response to Russia's Ukrainian adventure, and has also offered support and "non-kinetic" aid to the Ukrainian government. (Apparently, that means it won't hurt anyone. No bullets.)

Ukraine CDA 20140828

Canadian CF-18s arrived in Lithuania last week as part of stepped-up NATO patrols on Russia's doorstep. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But NATO wants something much more kinetic from all its members. It wants a more agile, muscular military deterrent to Russia, kept in a high state of readiness with a rapid-reaction force and pre-positioned supplies close to Russia's borders — notably in Poland. And the outgoing secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says that members who want the "insurance policy" of collective defence must "pay the premiums."

Rasmussen will still be in the chair at this week's summit — he doesn't quit until the end of the month — and it's clear that the NATO alliance will, once again, urge its members to raise their defence spending to two per cent of GDP over 10 years — a pledge made before, without success.

Balanced budget required cuts 

The Harper government has not denied that it is resisting this latest proposal. Instead, a defence department statement implies that Canada's already doing enough: "Our government has made significant investments into the Canadian Armed Forces ... Following a decade of darkness under the previous Liberal government, we have increased the defence budget by over 27 per cent. We have also delivered on important procurement projects..." 

These procurement projects, it says, include the frigate modernization program and the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships — neither of which has, in fact, been delivered. Besides that, the 27 per cent increase takes no account of inflation.

But never mind; we still have plenty of rhetoric. The statement says: "Our government is delivering on its commitment to ensuring Canada's military is strong, proud and ready to defend Canadian interests at home and abroad."

Wrong, says the Conference of Defence Associations, a fiercely pro-military group whose experts concluded in a June report this year that, "adjusting for inflation, the defence budget is now smaller than it was in 2007."

In fact, the report found, defence cuts provided a quarter of all the current year's budget reductions. The CDA adds that, "in real terms, capital spending for major new equipment has declined four years in a row, and remains on a downward trend. DND [the Department of National Defence] has not spent 25 per cent of the amount allocated to replacing major equipment for four straight years. As a share of the defence budget, capital spending has dropped to the lowest level since 1977-​78."

The CDA's conclusion was that "the Canadian Armed Forces' operational readiness is dropping, its purchasing power is being eroded, and future military capability is being reduced." 

Is the "decade of darkness" over? Or is this just a new one? There's no sign that the trend will be reversed soon. But if words are needed, Canada stands ready.

"Canada will continue to work closely with its allies and partners," says the PMO, "and will take further economic steps if Russia continues down this reckless and irresponsible path. We will continue to support our allies in Eastern Europe and take the steps necessary to assist them to maintain their security and national territorial integrity."

Except, apparently, spending money.