David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Sometimes it is amazing what it takes to make Ottawa wake up. This time it is the aberrant, erratic and outright strange behaviour of Donald Trump. The President has shown an almost boundless capacity to attack long-term U.S. allies, undermine American leadership of the Western democratic world, withdraw from international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord and generally play bull in the china shop in international systems that date back to before the end of the Second World War.
What's next, Canada may ask? Withdraw from NATO? Destroy the North American Aerospace Defence agreement? Flush the North American free-trade agreement down the drain? Who knows, when Mr. Toad is driving the White House.
And thus we come to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland's tough speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Echoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ms. Freeland declared that with the possible cratering of who-knows-what-next international institution, we are seeing the United States entering its greatest isolationist phase since the end of the First World War. If we and other Western countries cannot rely on the United States in the age of Mr. Trump, who can we rely on?
We must, she declared, rely far more on ourselves than we have for many decades. And that means, to begin with, a start at a significant rebuild of the Canadian Armed Forces.
How and why should we do it? Would the U.S. ever really allow harm to come to Canada which is, after all, the Americans' front porch?
Let's take an obvious example: When Canada first joined the NORAD agreement back in 1959, we contributed about a third of the assets of the bi-national command. Canadian fighter squadrons, radar stations, navigation stations and control centres covered more or less all of Canada's air space. Today that contribution has slipped to under one-sixth of NORAD assets. Everything else is done by the United States. We contribute about as little as we can get away with. Why? Because we take U.S. protection for granted.
What if we can't? What if Mr. Trump comes up with some new, ridiculous notion that if we don't do more, the U.S. won't cover the slack. After all, he has more or less threatened to do just about the same thing in relation to NATO. And in his meeting with European NATO leaders last week, again failed to give his assurance that the mutual defence article of NATO – Article 5 – was not an unconditional guarantee as far as he is concerned.
Does Mr. Trump actually have a plan to kick-start NATO defence spending to get it to the 2 per cent of GDP that NATO agreed on several years ago? Is all this clever negotiating tactics as far as the self-proclaimed "greatest negotiator in the world" is concerned? Or is Mr. Trump an aberration who knows little about international affairs, is apparently entranced by Russia, and tweets according to whatever he had for dinner the night before or how many hours of sleep he managed before reaching for his smartphone at 4 or 5 a.m.?
Who can tell? But then again, who can gamble?
What is clearly now happening is that Germany, France and Britain are beginning to wake up to the reality of Donald Trump and are starting to take him very seriously indeed. And now, apparently, Ottawa is beginning to do the same.
But there is a massive inconsistency between what Minister Freeland declared and the signals the government has been putting out through Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has taken every opportunity to declare that Canada can't be depended on to increase its defence budget and that Canada's contributions have to be seen within the context of what Canada actually does, and not on how much it spends. That message has been repeated over and over again even though the Defence Policy Review that is to be released Wednesday is bound to call for increased defence spending.
The basic matter at issue is money. A significant increase in the defence budget – say so much per year over five or ten years – will be necessary to close the ever widening gap between what we ought to do and what we do. At a time of growing budget deficits that sort of action will take no less than a serious commitment from the government to place defence spending high on the priority list. From what we have seen so far from this government on defence matters, such a commitment is a long way away.
We know that Mr. Trump has a great deal of trouble telling the truth about almost everything. We will shortly find out whether Ms. Freeland is any more of a straight arrow.