Time to face Canada’s NATO commitment
Try as he might, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t going to be able to shrug off the question of Canada’s commitment to NATO in terms of how much we spend on defence. Three years ago, NATO members met in Wales and signed a declaration agreeing to increase defence spending to two per cent of the gross domestic product within 10 years. But the very next year, according to NATO reporting, Canada spent only about one per cent of the GDP on defence – the smallest amount since before the Second World War.
We’re not alone on this point. Many members don’t contribute nearly two per cent. But Canada isn’t just a bit behind, we’re more like near the back of the pack, ranked 23rd of 28 NATO countries, stuck between Hungary and Slovenia.
The Donald Trump government says it wants countries to start paying their fair share or risk the U.S. “moderating” its commitment. And Trump isn’t the first commander-in-chief to be irked by the laggardly behaviour of other NATO countries. It was a sore point with George Bush, and even Canada-friendly Barack Obama wanted to see “more Canada” in NATO, although he didn’t specify what that looks like.
Trudeau, along with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, say money doesn’t tell the whole story. They argue Canada should be judged on the work it does, the amount of “heavy lifting” Canadian troops do in support of NATO activities. Sajjan says those contributions include sending troops to Ukraine and Poland, deploying a frigate to the Black Sea and helping stop drug trafficking in the Caribbean.
Fair enough. But it’s not clear whether that constitutes more, less or the same amount of heavy lifting as other under-spenders. It’s also fair to add that the Americans are very fond of Canadian military contributions, with one U.S. general famously remarking he wanted to give a hug and a kiss to every Canadian soldier stepping off arriving aircraft. Canada’s military personnel are known for doing good, hard and sometimes deadly work, without question or complaint.
But does all that mean we’re doing enough in terms of defence spending as per our commitments?
The answer is probably not.
How much more must the government commit at a time when the economy is less than robust and deficits are already worrisome? A hike to two per cent would cost something like $20 billion a year, on top of the current $19 billion defence budget. Unlikely given current financial circumstances. But holding the line isn’t an option either, although in fairness previous governments have done just.
Bottom line: The government needs to take some serious steps toward meeting the commitment it agreed to, or face the consequences of not doing so.