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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's party has a 15-point lead in the polls over the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A Conservative government would “restore” Canada’s military and “work towards meeting Canada’s NATO spending commitment,” Pierre Poilievre’s office says, days after U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump says he once warned of abandoning members that don’t reach the alliance’s defence spending target.

Mr. Trump, who is widely expected to win the Republican nomination for president this year, made the comment at a campaign rally Saturday, referring to a conversation he had with the leader of an “unnamed big country.” He said he had told the leader that he would not defend NATO allies who failed to spend enough on defence – referring to the alliance’s 2-per-cent target – and would even encourage Russia to attack them. The NATO treaty contains a provision that guarantees mutual defence of member states if one is attacked.

Mr. Poilievre, whose party has a 15-point lead in the polls over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, has yet to lay out a comprehensive plan for a Conservative government’s foreign and defence policy, as such documents are normally released during an election campaign. The Globe and Mail, however, asked the Official Opposition Leader’s office if it would commit to meeting the 2-per-cent NATO target.

“Justin Trudeau has made Canada weak, poor, and defenceless,” said Sebastian Skamski, director of media relations for the Opposition Leader’s office, in statement Tuesday. He said Canada’s “military is gutted” and allies do not take the country seriously, leaving Canadians “to depend on Joe Biden or Donald Trump to secure Canada for us.”

Mr. Skamski said the Conservatives support NATO and believe Canada should “once again be a strong partner.” To that end, he said, a Poilievre government would “restore our economy and our military, and will work towards meeting Canada’s NATO spending commitment.” It would also “restore Canada as a reliable partner to our NATO allies.” He confirmed the spending commitment meant the 2-per-cent target.

Canada has not spent 2 per cent on military spending since the late 1980s – including under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper – but the increasing prospect of another Trump presidency has once again drawn attention to Canadian shortcomings on the file.

Canada and its allies in 2014 agreed to spend the equivalent to 2 per cent of each country’s annual economic output on defence. They said a NATO member whose contribution was below 2 per cent “must move toward” it over the next decade.

Trump’s threat to ‘encourage’ Russian attacks on NATO allies that don’t pay enough sparks concern

Almost 10 years later, however, in the summer of 2023, NATO released estimates saying Canada was only spending 1.38 per cent on defence. However, it also noted that about two-thirds of the alliance was still below the 2-per-cent target, including Germany, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark.

Germany has embarked on a major increase in defence spending and plans to meet the 2-per-cent target this year, partly thanks to a special €100-billion fund established in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank, said Mr. Poilievre’s pledge does not seem like a hard target but instead echoes the loose commitment made in 2014. It would take roughly $18-billion in additional annual spending to reach the 2-per-cent target.

Asked whether the Liberal government would meet the target, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Bill Blair did not directly answer the question.

Diana Ebadi, press secretary for Mr. Blair, noted that Canada signed the renewed defence investment pledge at the 2023 Vilnius summit. This undertaking said all signatories would “make an enduring commitment to invest at least 2 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually on defence.”

Ms. Ebadi said defence spending has increased year-after-year under the Liberals and that Canada has committed to the third-biggest increase of all NATO countries in real terms since 2014. She said the Department of National Defence’s budget is expected to more than double over 10 years to $39.7-billion in 2026-27 from $18.6-billion in 2016-17.

A leaked Pentagon document obtained by The Washington Post last year said Mr. Trudeau has told NATO officials privately that Canada will at no time meet the military alliance’s defence spending target. When this was reported last April, the Prime Minister declined to confirm he had made that statement.

Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said Canada should be spending 2 per cent of annual economic output on the military. But, she noted, Canada in recent years has committed to numerous major capital projects, including F-35 fighters, P-8 maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as nearly $40-billion over 20 years to help upgrade joint North American defences against airborne threats.

Canada has NATO targets to meet but also its obligations under North American Aerospace Defence Command, and to that end, Mr. Trump during his first time as president agreed with Mr. Trudeau to the list of NORAD modernization projects. Prof. Charron said it will always be important for the United States to co-operate in defence of Canada because this country is a “territorial buffer zone” between Russia and the majority of U.S. territory.

Mr. Perry said another Trump White House, coupled with debate over whether to extend the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement beyond its six year renewal date, could put more pressure on Canada to increase military spending.

Mr. Perry, however, said Canada’s underperforming military procurement system make it very hard for Ottawa to spend money faster even if it increases defence expenditures.

With files from Reuters

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