Guidelines for NATO Spending: Inputs, not Outputs or Outcomes

I tend to complain a lot about the NATO 2% expectation – that members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense stuff, which probably makes more Canadian than anything else I do (I don’t skate or watch hockey much).  This is aspirational and countries are supposed to reach it by 2024.  I have written much about why this is problematic (it tends to make Greece look good, which is a clue; doing is more important than spending, etc), but today I want to focus on the heart of the matter: 2% is a measure of input and nothing else.

The basic idea is if we all spend a significant hunk of money, we will get more defense than if we spend somewhat less money.  But spending more money on defense may not improve NATO’s ability to field effective armies, navies and air forces.  For many members, spending more could simply mean spending more on personnel, which might lead to a more capable force or it might not.  There are additional NATO goals which get far less coverage, which are aimed at persuading members to spend significant hunks of cash on capital–building ships, planes, tanks and other equipment.  Again, this is a focus on input.  Spending more on equipment does not necessarily mean getting better or more equipment.  It could simply mean more waste.

The funny thing is that the US is pushing Belgium to buy the F35, suggesting that this would help them get to 2%.  Buying a super-expensive plane may or may not improve Belgian military performance, but it might get Belgium off of the free-rider list?  I am trying to remember a similar example of being so focused on inputs that they become more important than outcomes, but can’t at the moment.*

Sure, we tend to focus on inputs or even outputs because they are easier to measure, and in NATO dynamics, are things about which it is easier to come to a consensus.  It is hard to measure outcomes like readiness and effectiveness.  Also, big numbers are not secret whereas actual military capability–what can a country really do–might have to be covered in secret sauce.  But what really matters is whether NATO can fight better (against others, not against each other) or not.  Spending more might help, but it might not, depending on where the money goes.  When countries underperform, is it because they underspend or because they have restrictive rules or because they have lousy strategies (who could that be?) or because their procurement processes are busted (hello Canada!) or because the adversary gets a vote?

One last semi-related point: asking the Western democracies to spend more on defense after encouraging austerity post-2008 is a hard sell, and, yes, domestic politics is a thing.  After years of saying that spending must be cut on social programs because debt is the supreme evil, saying that the first priority now must be defense is just not going to fly, especially with all of the complex coalitions that are barely governing so many members of the alliance.

So, as we keep invoking 2%, let’s keep in mind that many countries will never reach it, as it would require more than a few to increase defense spending by 50-100% AND it allows us to ignore the bigger challenges of how to foster greater effectiveness and readiness.

* The only thing I can come up with would be examples from the Soviet Union of meeting five year plan targets by building huge non-usable things that helped reach the goals measured by weight like one really ball-bearing or something like that.


From Nascent Insurrections to Full-Blown Insurgencies: Why Some Militant Groups Engage in Sustained Armed Conflicts

The following post summarizes findings from NPSIA Ph.D. Candidate Michael Shkolnik’s latest research paper.

In October 2014, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis conducted a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack targeting two Egyptian military positions and killing 31 soldiers. A month later, that group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, escalating violence and solidifying itself as an unprecedented threat to Egyptian national security. The dramatic and rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its affiliates shocked many observers around the world. By waging a successful military campaign in 2014, the militant organization was able to gain control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, consolidate new power bases in the region, attract an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, and coordinate large-scale attacks around the world. Now, as the group loses its core territorial stronghold, observers are concerned about the potential emergence and escalation of other terrorist insurgencies around the world.

Data on terrorism and civil wars point to a sharp increase in militant activity worldwide in recent years – both in terms of casualties from terrorist attacks and battle-related deaths during armed conflicts. It is puzzling why some initially weak militant groups, who face immense difficulties in garnering material resources and support, are able to eventually engage in sustained violent operations and confront more powerful militaries. Most militant groups fail to survive beyond their first year, let alone pose a serious threat. Why do some militant groups engage in sustained armed conflicts while other groups do not?

In a recent paper, I conduct quantitative regression analysis on 246 prominent militant groups from 1970-2007 and find that, on average, organizational characteristics are better predictors of sustained armed conflict than measures of group capabilities. Some of my core findings diverge from current explanations of insurgency onset or outcomes. Posing a serious challenge to a state is not necessarily a function of how powerful or capable a group may seem – it’s more about the competitive militant environment and internal organizational capacity to effectively mobilize resources and maintain armed hostilities against regime forces. Three particular factors of importance emerged from my analysis: group ideology, organizational structure, and competitive militant environment.

Militant Group Ideology

Exploiting or fueling grievances among a particular population is critical for groups to mobilize for an insurgency. Some militant groups should be more capable of capitalizing on grievances than others – particularly religious and ethno-nationalist groups that can draw on resources from a well-defined constituency. Religiously motivated groups, in particular, tend to be more lethal and maintain indivisible objectives, making negotiated settlements improbable. These types of organizations are also better at overcoming key militant organizational hurdles: collective action and principal-agent problems. Religious groups are often in a stronger position to effectively screen recruits and mobilize resources via their robust social networks compared to more secular rivals. This is one explanation behind why Hamas was better at managing its operatives than its more secular rival Fatah. Religious groups rarely achieve their ultimate objectives. But my research suggests that those religiously motivated militant groups are far more likely to engage in sustained armed conflicts than other ideologically oriented groups – whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Organizational Structure

Research on social movements and militant group structures suggests that centralized and formally structured groups are more likely to achieve broader objectives than more decentralized groups. Militant groups with hierarchical structures tend to be more lethal and have a higher likelihood of ultimately defeating the states they fight. More centralized and integrated groups are more capable of allocating resources effectively, reducing principal-agent problems, and keeping lower-ranking members in line with the group’s broader objectives. By looking at a different dependent variable, however, my findings challenge conventional wisdom: groups with relatively less centralized command and control are just as likely to engage in sustained armed conflict than the most hierarchically structured organizations. Groups with more autonomous cells and specialized wings should still be able to launch a sustained insurgency, regardless of whether they end up beating the regime. Less centralization might make it harder for counterinsurgency forces to infiltrate and dismantle militant groups.

Competitive Environment

Competition for resources and manpower among rival constituent factions and other rebel groups is particularly crucial in the early phases of a violent conflict. Violence serves as an important signal of capabilities and resolves among groups competing for leadership of a particular constituency. Recent work highlights the importance of rival relations and internal movement structure to assess strategic success. In general, I find that more competitive militant environments also reduce the likelihood any particular group presents a major threat to the states they fight. This study also finds that the overwhelming majority of militant groups that engaged in sustained armed conflicts were the most dominant group in their environment around the time the group challenged the state. In the nascent stages of an insurgency, militant groups often have to consolidate rivals – whether by destructive campaigns or alliance formation – before emerging as the dominant organization and then taking on the regime.

Theoretical and Policy Implications

This study offers some implications for scholarship and policy, by examining an underexplored outcome of interest and addressing a selection bias prevalent across literature on political violence. It is important to study analytically distinct phases of armed conflict and differentiate between various militant group objectives (i.e. organizational, strategic) when evaluating success. Understanding this phenomenon is critical since groups that sustain military operations gain more influence and fundraising capabilities while further weakening the target state. Battlefield successes, in turn, encourage more recruitment and defections from rival groups. It is far more difficult for states to defeat a full-fledged insurgency than prevent a nascent insurrection from flourishing. There is no single theory that can explain particular militant group trajectories and counterinsurgency campaigns require context-specific analysis. But this paper presents generalizable empirical associations across diverse militant groups, while acknowledging the limits of large-n research, and identifies key cases for in-depth analysis by the author in subsequent work.


Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.

 You can follow him on Twitter:  @Shkolnik_M



Dismounting the Moral High-horse: Nuancing Canada’s Perceived “altruistic” Approach to Immigration

Canada is a leader in welcoming refugees. Claims that the government holds an altruistic stance on immigration have become part of the collective national consciousness. What is especially surprising is the belief, regardless of political affiliation, that Canadian immigration is a form of charity to newcomers that allows them to start a new life. Whether it be praise for Trudeau’s acceptance of Syrian migrants or criticism of his overly generous refugee acceptance at taxpayers’ expense, many Canadians perceive their country as generous with regards to immigration policy. Although this perceived altruism may appear as a fundamental international responsibility to some, or a misguided charitable policy that holds a high economic cost to others, the notion that immigration policy is not in Canada’s own self-interest is fundamentally wide off the mark. There may be a charitable portion to immigration by accepting refugees (both government funded and privately sponsored) fleeing danger and seeking asylum, but the majority of immigration remains principally economically motivated.

Put bluntly, the question is whether Canada’s policy is really based on welcoming those in need, or not. Does it not restrict admittance to only the best candidates to further its economic agenda, thanks to the points system (as well as other provincial programs aimed at filling employment and skill gaps), whilst natural barriers to illegal immigration do the rest? The underlying motive here is to demystify Canada’s role in “progressive immigration strategies”. The Canadian immigration strategy should more adequately be portrayed as a mix of charitable and economically viable policy rather than erroneously labelling it as one or the other.

A little bit of back story: what do the numbers say?

So, what do we mean by “immigrant”? The term immigrant refers to non-native citizens and non-citizens residing in Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers and those on work or student visas. There are three main classes of immigrants in Canada as defined by Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada: Economic Class, Family Class, and Refugees.


Note: The 2016 and 2017 figures appear as targets since official numbers have not yet been released for the entire year (only available for the first few quarters).
Source: Immigration data and target data.

Two prominent economists studying migration, Abdurrahman Aydemir and George Borjas, point towards large influxes of “skilled” migration in Canada (mainly due to the points system that favours economic migrants) narrowing the wage inequality gap. They also claim that large influxes of “low-skilled” migrants in the US have had negative labour market impacts, including unemployment and reduced wages. Although their research dates back to 2006, the central policy conclusions remain true today. Canada has seen a steady increase in its admittance of economic class migrants that prioritise Canadian economic welfare over its compassionate international responsibilities towards vulnerable displaced individuals worldwide.

Canada the altruist: the good face of Canadian immigration

As many celebrated the return of the Trudeaumania of the late 1960s, the acceptance of additional thousands of Syrian refugees became one of the cornerstones of the Liberal platform. Between the renaming of Citizenship and Immigration Canada to Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees Canada and the trending #welcomeRefugees Twitter tag, it seemed to usher in a new era of increased appreciation for Canada’s international responsibility. This grand humanitarian gesture towards those in need reaffirmed Canada’s image as a welcoming country, in stark contrast to the rising isolationist, populist and nationalist waves across many western nations.

Although far behind Germany, Canada ranks among the very top regarding inflows of asylum seekers per capita in the world according to OECD estimates. Fulfilling, even surpassing, its international responsibility as per the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Canada has experienced significant growth in its acceptance of permanent residents or immigration numbers, including family reunification through family member sponsoring programs. This increase in diversity puts Canada on the path to nearly one in two residents being either an immigrant or second-generation immigrant (person with at least one parent being an immigrant) by 2036. Although this bright and altruistic depiction of Canadian immigration policy may be inspiring to many, Canadians should remember that the majority of immigration remains economically motivated as opposed to the often-portrayed humanitarian idealism. Refugees and compassionate/humanitarian immigrants remain a small fraction of Canadian immigrants (14.5% per the 2017 immigration target data).

Case against the moral high-horse: nuancing Canada’s altruistic stance

Although it can be flattering to see descriptions of Canada as a compassionate country that is accommodating of migrants of all kinds, one does not need to look far before conceding that such claims need to be nuanced. Despite having become more accommodating over time, the refusal of Jewish migrants and their return to Europe in the wake of the Second World War and rigid ethnic quotas for immigrants (particularly Chinese immigrants before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947 since it was inconsistent with the United Nations Charter of Human Rights) still mar Canada’s historical immigration record.

Canadian immigration, which remains mainly self-interested and economically minded largely depends on the points system to filter out “less-skilled” migrants (although this could potentially include “less-skilled” family members of the primary applicant). These economic migrants serve as important drivers of Canadian entrepreneurship and long-term growth, and it is erroneous to dismiss this as Canadian compassion, selflessness or altruism. Economic migrants offset the costs of other more compassionate forms of immigration such as family reunification or refugees. There also exist natural barriers that prevent these “less-skilled” migrants from crossing into Canada illegally. It is easy to claim that Canada accepts many immigrants on compassionate grounds when it doesn’t have to worry about undocumented migrant waves that are largely “low-skilled” and a potential drain on public resources (at least temporarily) and has economic migrants through the points system that offset costs.

Appreciating Canada’s nuanced stance on immigration: balancing humanitarianism and economic benefit

There exist significant benefits to immigration. These range from higher fertility rate in second-generation immigrants, to maintaining balanced demographics (landed immigrants or first-generation immigrants tend to be older and do not have this rejuvenating effect), to filling employment gaps and reducing inequality, to increasing the average entrepreneurial spirit and increased average education levels. Therefore, immigration can be a boon for Canadian growth. However, we are cherry picking migrants by largely focusing on economic class migrants. And although Canadians have often welcomed asylum seekers and others in need, choosing the cream of the crop when it comes to economic migrants is primarily motivated by economics and demographics, not altruism.

On a global scale, Canada remains among the highest receivers of refugees per capita, with Germany a mile ahead of the pack. Canadians have, to a certain extent, earned the right to claim some moral high ground when it comes to immigration issues. Recent uptakes of family and refugee class permanent residents indicate a more charitable stance to immigration during the Trudeau government’s tenure. But let us all remember that immigration remains a fundamentally economic issue. The recent reductions in targets for refugees (from 55,800 in 2016 to 40,000 in 2017) and the increase in economic immigrants (from 160,600 to 172,500) are a testimony to that.

Canadians from across the political spectrum appear to believe their country is generous in accepting refugees. Canada may be welcoming to refugees and those in need, but claiming its immigration policy is purely selfless is willful ignorance from the “pro-immigration” camp and an easy target for advocates of reduced immigration. There is nothing inherently wrong with a charitable or a self-benefiting (focused on more productive economic migrants) immigration policy, but let it be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest. We can debate the merits of a philantropic and charitable versus a self-benefiting immigration policy, but let us be clear: Canadian immigration policy, as it currently stands, is mainly driven by economic self-interest.


Samuel MacIsaac is a PhD student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specializes in International Economic Policy. He holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Montreal. His research interests include international migration, international finance and trade, and international relations. He has written on issues relating to negative interest rates, the impact of trade on education outcomes and forecasts of immigration within Canada.  


Three ways Canada can influence the Asia-Pacific region

By Steve Saideman

It is easy to understand why Canadian political leaders tend to focus on Europe rather than Asia/Pacific. Because of the various institutions in Europe, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we know how Canada fits in. We know what Canada’s role is in Europe, but we have a hard time imagining how Canada can make a difference in the vast waters of the Pacific and among the huge populations of Asia. The answer, to preview, is for Canada to do what it does best.

I recently spent a week in Japan, on a trip organized and paid for by that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so you can take what I say with a grain of salt. However, what I suggest below can advance Canadian interests, be true to Canadian values and not blow out the budget.

There are two clear realities: That Canada cannot make much of a difference in any military kind of way; and North Korea is someone else’s problem. The Canadian Navy is simply too small and currently too stressed to do much. Same goes for the Air Force. North Korea is the most immediate threat with its nuclear-weapons development, missile tests and awful regime, but Canada will have to rely on others to address North Korea. Canada simply lacks the tools to influence North Korea or provide security for the neighbourhood. So, we need to focus on what Canada can do as the region faces the growing pains of China.

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Is excluding Syria’s unaccompanied men evidence-based policy?

By Simon Palamar

Among the promises the federal Liberals made in the recent election campaign were to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by year’s end, and a return to evidence-based policy making.

Now the government admits that they will not be able to settle 25,000 Syrians in Canada by the end of the year, and that it may take until February. This may be a good thing. After all, taking a few more weeks to ensure that services and support are in place is an acceptable delay, especially if it improves the chances that refugees coming to Canada will be able to successfully restart their lives here.

The more troubling issue is the decision on who from Syria will be allowed into Canada; that is, no unaccompanied males under the government-sponsored program (except for gay, bisexual, and transsexual males, who are remarkably vulnerable to predation in parts of Syria, and who should be welcomed to Canada). Is the new Canadian government  already violating its pledge to make policy on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology?

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Does Merging Improve Aid Efficiency?

By Rachael Calleja

In foreign aid, ‘efficiency’ (which is distinct from ‘effectiveness’) usually refers to the costs associated with administrating aid programs, that is, the costs of running aid agencies and activities related to ODA programming and delivery. Despite being necessary for operating an aid agency, administrative costs are frequently referred to as a negative function of ODA that donors seek to reduce. In Canada, for example, the 2007 Budget listed “improving efficiency through reduced administrative costs…” as a key way to improve the effectiveness of Canadian aid.

The 2013 merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to form the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) led some to speculate that the reorganisation would spark efficiency gains for the government by reducing the duplication of efforts and cutting administrative costs. While efficiency gains were not the main or official justification for the merger, which was said to improve the coherence of Canada’s foreign policy, some observers at the time remarked that job cuts and efficiency gains would be “hard to avoid”.

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Introducing Canada Among Nations 2015 – Elusive Pursuits, Book Launch

By Steve Saideman

A week from today, on October 29th at noon, we are holding a book launch of the next edition of Canada Among Nations, Elusive Pursuits: Lessons from Canada’s Interventions Abroad.  The event will be in room 270, 2nd floor, Residence Commons, at Carleton University.

What is the book about?  Every year, NPSIA assesses Canada’s place in the world via a Canada Among Nations volume.  For the past few years, it has been in partnership with CIGI.  The theme of this issue is on learning the lessons from past interventions.  Why?  Because we have been profoundly frustrated by the mixed results and by the government’s refusal to learn lessons.

Afghanistan was supposed to be different, as the government did put together a serious lessons learning exercise.  At the end, it was buried–not only have I not been able to access it via Access to Information (my appeal is now more than two years old), but it was also not disseminated to the people making and implementing Canadian foreign and defence policy.

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