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Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a closing press conference at the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales on Friday, September 5, 2014.The Canadian Press

When it comes to defence spending, the old Stephen Harper wouldn't recognize the new one. The new one looks at lot more like Jean Chrétien.

Mr. Harper came to office believing that bigger defence spending paid off in terms of influence, particularly in that most important capital, Washington. But he's since decided that the results are not worth the extra billions.

It all seems so incongruous. Last week, Mr. Harper announced that Canada is sending up to 100 special-ops advisers to fight the jihadi Islamic State in northern Iraq, and dispatched a frigate to U.S.-Ukraine military exercises in the Black Sea, designed to send a signal to Russia.

At the same time, Mr. Harper brushed off demands of his biggest NATO allies for bigger defence spending, pushing back against U.S. and British efforts to have allies commit to larger defence budgets.

That's not really unusual, in the historical sense. Canadian prime ministers have in the past calculated that they can afford to leave some of the burden of defence spending to larger allies. And others, like Mr. Chrétien, handed the Canadian Forces a medley of tasks while squeezing their funding.

But in Mr. Harper's case, it's the product of lessons learned on the job.

Back in 2008, when he unveiled his government's Canada First Defence Strategy, Mr. Harper criticized his Liberal predecessors for the so-called "decade of darkness," when military spending was cut in the 1990s.

"Even as new conflicts erupted in Africa and the Balkans and elsewhere, our military was starved and neglected. They kept getting new responsibilities but not the tools to keep them going," Mr. Harper said then. He promised to provide stable defence spending increases, expand the forces and buy new equipment. He argued nations that don't spend on their military aren't taken seriously.

His government had increased budgets. But it didn't last. One reason was the financial crisis of 2008-09. Another was misadventure in Afghanistan. It seems clear he also decided that increased defence spending wasn't really buying Canada clear influence on the world stage, or in Washington – or at least not enough to justify political sacrifices at home.

Under the Conservative government's 2008 strategy, defence spending was supposed to be about $22-billion this year, 2014-15. Instead, it's one-fifth less, $18.15-billion in accrual accounting terms, according to Defence Department documents.

Adjusted for inflation, spending is now lower than in 2007, according to David Perry, senior security and defence analyst with the CDA Institute. In other words, it is essentially back to Liberal levels. Compared to the size of the Canadian economy, it's less than it was in Mr. Chrétien's tenure, at about 1 per cent of GDP.

What changed? When Mr. Harper took power, George W. Bush was U.S. president, prosecuting two wars, and it seemed reasonable to argue Canada's influence depended on military burden-sharing. But Barack Obama disengaged from wars. Mr. Harper found a sizable role in Afghanistan didn't necessarily pay with NATO allies. It's not clear that increased defence spending earned extra influence with Mr. Obama – it certainly didn't transfer to a cherished file, the Keystone pipeline.

Of course, in theory, defence spending isn't supposed to be quid pro quo. Canada is supposed to share the burden of global security. But Canadian prime ministers don't face major domestic threats, and bigger allies can be counted on for global ones. They'd usually rather spend the extra billions at home.

When crises come, Canadians often want their country to play a part, and allies request it. Mr. Harper, like Mr. Chrétien, asks the military to send modest contingents to hot spots, while budgets are shaved. Mr. Harper argues, rightly, that it's not how much you spend on the military that counts. Allies care about who is willing to contribute, even modestly. But that calculation only lasts so long.

Politically, it's long enough. Mr. Harper's government has pushed back spending on training and new equipment, so one day soon Ottawa will face a big spending crunch, when things like jet fighters and navy frigates have to be purchased – though not until after the next election.

In the meantime, Mr. Harper has apparently learned what Mr. Chrétien knew: that he can afford not to spend big on defence.