A little more than a year ago, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland rose in the House of Commons to deliver a self-congratulatory speech touting Canada’s commitment to upholding the postwar international order as the United States retreated into isolationism.
“The fact our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Ms. Freeland insisted in a prelude to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s announcement, the following day, that Canada would boost its military spending by 70 per cent within a decade.
For anyone who had been following the back and forth between U.S. President Donald Trump and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the justification given by Ms. Freeland for the unprecedented peacetime increase in Canada’s defence spending appeared to have it backward. Yes, Mr. Trump had shown little interest in upholding the international order, unlike every U.S. President since Harry Truman. But he had also been slamming the United States’ NATO allies right, left and centre for failing to spend the equivalent of 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.
Ms. Freeland’s speech, then, was a clever attempt at appearing to set a bold new course for Canada in the world when, in reality, the Trudeau government was merely bowing to U.S. pressure to uphold our share of the NATO bargain. At the time, our defence spending barely cracked 1 per cent of GDP, and our military procurement program was in tatters.
Yet, a year after Ms. Freeland’s speech and Mr. Sajjan’s announcement of a new defence policy, Canada has barely moved the needle on military spending or procurement. To their credit, the Liberals produced a coherent and meticulously costed blueprint for future defence spending. But analysts remain skeptical that this government, or any future one, will actually follow through with the plan, which calls for $62.3-billiion in new military spending over the next 20 years.
“The more immediate point of concern with the new policy’s spending plans … is whether they can be achieved as outlined,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute vice-president David Perry wrote in a January report. “Over the last decade, [the Department of National Defence] has faced significant difficulty in spending its annual allocation of annual funding, and spending on capital in particular has been declining in recent years.”
Sure enough, in the most recent fiscal year, DND failed to spend $2.3-billion of the $6-billion Mr. Sajjan promised would be spent on new military equipment in 2017-2018. February’s federal budget, meanwhile, provided no meaningful increase in operational defence spending. Even if Ottawa were to meet its goal of a 70-per-cent increase over 10 years, Canada’s defence budget would still only amount to 1.4 per cent of GDP.
Indeed, Mr. Trump reiterated his criticism of Canada’s defence spending in a letter sent last month to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He sent similar missives to other Western alliance leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, in advance of next week’s NATO summit in Belgium, suggesting both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Trudeau are in for a dressing down by the U.S. President in Brussels.
Canada’s failure to meet the commitment of 2 per cent of GDP spending, made in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, “undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also are not meeting their defence spending commitments,” Mr. Trump wrote in his June 19 letter to Mr. Trudeau.
Granted, coherence is not Mr. Trump’s strong suit. He berates NATO allies for failing to spend more on defence, all while playing down the threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose efforts to undermine the Western alliance are well-documented. Mr. Trump came to office with little appreciation for why U.S. troops have been stationed for decades in Western Europe and the Pacific, or why their continued presence there remains a pillar of global security.
Still, rather than attacking the messenger, the Trudeau government needs to take Mr. Trump’s criticism seriously. Before the summit in Belgium, the Prime Minister plans to visit Canadian troops stationed in Latvia to underscore Canada’s leadership of the NATO operation there. But beyond the photos of him posing with the troops, what, if anything, will Mr. Trudeau bring to the summit table?
A year after Ms. Freeland’s speech, the grandiose vision she set out remains confined to words on paper. Canada is not responsible for the threat the postwar international order faces in the Trump era. But high-minded speeches alone won’t save it.