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Prime Minister Stephen Harper was heading into tomorrow's NATO summit in Wales stubbornly isolated from other alliance members on defence spending targets until a last-minute change.

The United States and Britain, along with a couple of smaller North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, already spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. They wanted other countries, including Canada (which is way down the NATO list for defence spending), to commit to lift spending to 2 per cent, knowing that it will not happen.

In the past few weeks, a draft communiqué has circulated that would allow countries to pledge higher defence spending, using some fuzzy language that would give them plenty of wiggle room – not only would they not actually have to reach 2 per cent, they might not even have to significantly boost spending at all. After all, Europe's beleaguered governments would be hard-pressed to find money for defence.

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But, as has often been the case, Mr. Harper refused even that kind of compromise – until Tuesday night, when his office announced he had agreed to an "aspirational target" of 2 per cent.

Mr. Harper has cut defence spending hard in the past two years, attempting to balance his budget so that he can offer Canadians tax cuts and targeted spending in next year's pre-election budget. He's not going to take on any potential spending commitments, however vague, that might be used against him politically.

Traditional allies are getting accustomed to Canada being an outlier under Mr. Harper's leadership. But they are especially frustrated at the gap between the Prime Minister's rhetoric about countering Russian aggression and Mideast terrorism while his government slashes military spending.

For his part, Mr. Harper might reply that while some other countries talk a good game about increasing defence spending, they do not match deeds to words. As a self-described man of principle, he isn't going to play that hypocritical game.

Mr. Harper's isolation could be read indirectly into the reporting of last week's phone call between him and U.S. President Barack Obama. Whereas the Canadian "readout," or report, of the conversation made no mention of defence spending, the White House reported that "the President stressed the agreement on increased defence investment in all areas is a top priority at the NATO summit."

A "top American priority" is always to cajole NATO allies into spending more on defence. That priority is certainly not Mr. Harper's. He has developed an ambivalent and somewhat contradictory attitude toward the military, and it toward him. The Prime Minister and his advisers and the top military brass circle each warily, harbouring their respective reservations about each other.

To put matters aphoristically, Mr. Harper's government likes the idea of the military more than it likes the military itself.

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The idea of the military means history, monuments, medals, ceremonies, parades and repeated rhetorical praise. The military itself means buying equipment, deploying it, dealing with veterans and wrestling with a budget that always seems to go up unless the political masters get tough.

The military has produced some nice headlines to an image-obsessed government, notably from the Afghanistan mission, but it has also delivered headaches and bad headlines, especially over procurement. Delays and problems have beset such purchases as the new generation of fighter aircraft, maritime helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, ships and some smaller gear.

For this government (as for previous ones), the military seems always set on a permanent "ask," but for the military, this government like previous ones, promises more than it delivers and takes on missions that stretch the military's means of delivery.

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