It is galling that Justin Trudeau will speak truthfully about Canada’s defence spending plans to NATO officials in private, while continuing to mislead the people he serves when speaking in public.
The Prime Minister gets away with this deception because Canadians have become used to deceiving themselves about the lamentable state of our armed forces. Only when we get called out by our allies are we forced to admit our hypocrisy.
That hypocrisy was laid bare last week by The Washington Post, which has been publishing leaked Pentagon documents.
One document revealed that the Prime Minister had told NATO officials that Canada will never keep a promise made in 2014 by all NATO countries to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
The document went on to say that Canada’s inadequate military and lethargic commitment to NATO had damaged relations with its allies.
When asked about the Post story, Mr. Trudeau offered one of his all-too-typical non-answers: “I continue to say and will always say that Canada is a reliable partner to NATO, a reliable partner around the world.” There was more, but none of it mattered.
The Pentagon document “says what we very well know of what the U.S. and other allies think of us,” said Thomas Juneau, a professor at the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, in an interview. “There is absolutely nothing surprising or new.”
Peter MacKay, who served as defence minister and as minister of foreign affairs under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, found the Post’s revelations “a bit of a cringing moment.”
“It sounds like a capitulation,” he told me, “to be throwing in the towel on such an important issue. It’s an embarrassment for our country.” The Harper government committed Canada to meeting the 2-per-cent figure in 2014. But the Conservatives were defeated the next year.
Canada currently spends 1.29 per cent of GDP on defence, one of the lowest per capita levels in the alliance. The government has no plans to increase annual spending by the more than $20-billion needed to reach the NATO target of 2 per cent.
Mr. Trudeau’s remarks to NATO officials were “the perfect example of what not to do,” former American ambassador David Jacobson told an audience in Cleveland, adding that Canada’s unwillingness to bolster defence spending undermined its relations with allies.
“There’s a cost to having influence and input and benefits,” said Mr. MacKay. “You have to pay to play, and to brazenly say we will never get [to 2 per cent] to me sounds like quitting, or being a freeloader.”
Things weren’t always like this. Until the late 1960s, Canada’s military was respected by friend and foe alike.
But Pierre Trudeau believed “Canada’s present military establishment was determined not to impress our enemies but rather to impress our friends,” as he told cabinet in 1969. On his watch, the Canadian contingent in NATO was cut by half.
Subsequent prime ministers cut and trimmed and reversed and delayed. One example: Brian Mulroney announced a replacement for the aging Sea King helicopters in 1987. The first operational replacements entered service in 2015.
Things have deteriorated to the point, says Prof. Juneau, that a first priority must be to develop the administrative capacity of the Canadian Forces. Personnel shortages are reaching critical levels. The Americans are pressing for new and very expensive investments in upgrading NORAD. The Europeans are pressing Canada to enlarge its battle group in Latvia.
Justin Trudeau dismissed Canada’s defence commitments “in an environment of China threatening Taiwan and Russia invading Ukraine and Arctic sovereignty becoming a more and more critical issue,” observed Mr. MacKay.
Prof. Juneau wondered what might happen if an isolationist Republican wins the U.S. presidency in 2024. How would Canada defend itself without the American umbrella?
We need an honest talk about our defence needs and spending intentions. The defence review under way needs to publish its findings quickly. Mr. Trudeau needs to stop bafflegabbing. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre needs to tell us whether and how he would bring Canada’s defence spending up to 2 per cent.
And Canadians need to confront the truth of this country’s military unpreparedness, and what must be sacrificed so that we can defend ourselves.