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Canada must start pulling its weight in NATO

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

This week's NATO summit in Warsaw will test the Trudeau government's commitment to collective security.

Speaking last week in Canada's House of Commons, U.S. President Barack Obama called on every NATO member to contribute its "full share to our common security." So that there was no mistake about his message, Mr. Obama repeated his call three times that NATO "needs more Canada."

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The next day the Trudeau government announced that Canada will take a "leadership role" to support NATO in Eastern Europe. Putting boots on the ground is demonstrable support for deterrence. It illustrates continuity with the Harper government's earlier commitments of fighter jets and trainers to Eastern Europe. It is also smart politics: three million Canadians claim Eastern European origins, 1.2 million from Ukraine alone.

Canada's new contribution will be welcomed in Warsaw but there is still a big gap between Canada's current spending of 1 per cent of GDP on defence and NATO's 2-per-cent standard. With the U.S. currently spending 3.62 per cent and tired of carrying the rest of the alliance, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump will likely be as gentle as Mr. Obama in pressuring Canada and other NATO members to budget more on defence.

The 28 nations that make up the NATO alliance face a series of crises, including leadership changes. Europe is weakened by economic malaise, the migrant crisis, and now Brexit, a contagion that threatens to spread across Europe. To the east, the alliance confronts a revanchist Russia. On its southern flank there is continuing turmoil in the Middle East and terrorist strikes deep into member countries.

The spine that sustains our beleaguered liberal international order is collective security. Collective security depends on a credible deterrence supported by all members of NATO.

The Warsaw summit comes as the government concludes its cross-country consultations on Canada's new defence policy. Two submissions, by retired naval officers Bruce Donaldson and Glenn Davidson, stand out.

Retired vice-admiral Donaldson argues that the key questions in the review are not the what, when and where but rather, "how much … how soon, and for how long … how many at the same time", and "at how much risk"? To enhance Arctic sovereignty, Mr. Donaldson recommends investments in high data-rate communications, navigation safety, air and ground transportation infrastructure, and monitoring of activity in remote internal areas.

In his submission, Mr. Davidson warns that while planning is useful, "things will only rarely happen as forecast." This underlines the need for a flexible Canadian Forces response capability and to maintain interoperability with U.S. Forces. Mr. Davidson, who later served as Canadian ambassador in Syria and Afghanistan, also says that because deployments historically extend well beyond their originally anticipated date, we need to build sustainability into operating budgets.

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Both admirals are also critical of recent defence management. Mr. Davidson argues for greater risk tolerance, more continuity in senior positions and a "long pause" in continual "organizational tinkering." Mr. Donaldson warns of the culture of "risk intolerance" that infects government with the senior bureaucracy adverse to all financial risks and ministers reluctant to make decisions. The result is serial delays at the cost of capacity and capability.

Later this week Dr. David Bercuson will release a collection of essays by experts on Canada's defence challenges, underlining the importance of collective security and the U.S. defence partnership. Dr. Bercuson's essay warns that Canada "must never spread itself too thinly, try to do too much across the spectrum of military operations, or use the military as tokens where tokenism won't count for much."

The Trudeau government has shown deftness in its handling of foreign policy and leadership on climate and migration. It understands soft power and the importance of multilateral engagement and dialogue. But experience suggests that a credible deterrence is a precondition for constructive dialogue with adversaries.

Once again, hard power counts. The government's international credibility will depend as much on its defence policy as its diplomatic finesse. This means a credible and sustained Canadian contribution to NATO.

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