Stéfanie von Hlatky is the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Security, and the Armed Forces and full professor in the department of political studies at Queen’s University.
Most Canadians are probably not tracking the details and implementation of Defence Minister Anita Anand’s policy update, which was announced last year. But our allies are – and they have upped their ask at the NATO summit in Vilnius.
The official communiqué from Lithuania’s capital, issued by NATO member countries’ leaders, declares that “we make an enduring commitment to invest at least 2 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually on defence.” This means that the alliance’s long-standing goal that members devote 2 per cent of GDP to defence spending is no longer aspirational, but rather a minimum requirement to be viewed as an ally in good standing. This is important, because despite joining its allies in 2014 in pledging to “halt any decline” in defence expenditures and committing to “move toward” the guideline by 2024, Canada has slipped to the bottom tier of NATO members on defence spending as a share of GDP. And in 2023, it’s been made abundantly clear that Canada is not moving toward that goal at all; in fact, we recently learned that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently told NATO officials that Canada will “never” get there, according to a leaked Pentagon document.
The CDA Institute recently published an open letter, signed by former Canadian defence ministers, ambassadors, military leaders and senior public servants, stating that Canada can no longer conduct “business as usual,” which in today’s diplomatic parlance means talking a big game and then underperforming. And while we can argue ad nauseam (and believe me, we do) about how much to spend on defence, on what, and according to what timeline, what we should be able to agree on is the importance of standing by our commitments. This is the most important issue at stake in this debate.
We need to be bolstering, not undermining, Canada’s reputation as a valuable and reliable ally. Our insurance policy for crises, conflicts and wars has long been tied up in our alliance relationships, which are treaty-based agreements – and they matter. The credibility of those commitments hinges on your word and what you bring to the table to back it up. The reason NATO membership is seen as so valuable is because the alliance is seen as a credible backer of collective transatlantic security and stability. But by sticking to the status quo on defence spending, Canada is telling the world that it takes collective defence – and its allies – for granted. Staying the course on defence spending could even be interpreted as a refusal by Ottawa to acknowledge that the state of transatlantic security has changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The credibility of a member country’s NATO commitments is also important for reassuring allies (especially those bordering Russia) and deterring adversaries. These commitments convey each ally’s resolve to collectively defend against any threat or attack where backup might be needed, and can be brandished as a warning against potential belligerence. NATO’s territorial sovereignty has not been violated like Ukraine’s – at least not yet – but what allies do, individually and collectively, can strengthen or weaken that signal of resolve. Now is not the time to signal to the adversary that these commitments could be in doubt.
And while one can be agnostic about defence spending, the fact is that when the government is making commitments on Canada’s behalf, it needs to be clear, transparent and accountable first and foremost to Canadians, and then to its allies. It cannot state one thing publicly, and then privately say something that is entirely different in the corridors of power. As it turns out, polling suggests that Canadians are largely in favour of honouring the 2-per-cent defence-investment pledge.
The U.S. and other key allies will continue to pressure NATO member states like Canada to do more, and indeed, Canada is not alone in trailing behind. But we do have models to follow in changing course. Germany, a G7 country like Canada, had no intention of meeting NATO’s 2-per-cent pledge, and had been a laggard on defence spending – until it decided that the invasion of Ukraine warranted meeting the NATO spending goal, without even needing to be further admonished by allies. The country’s defence policy U-turn – or Zeitenwende, in the words of Chancellor Olaf Scholz – is a remarkable departure from historical trends. And hopefully, especially in the wake of the Vilnius summit, Mr. Trudeau will become more isolated on the world stage in believing that the current level of defence spending is acceptable.