Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will seek to deflect questions about Canadian defence spending when he meets with fellow NATO leaders starting Tuesday by pointing to Canada’s numerous other contributions to the military alliance.
Leaders from all 29 NATO member states have started to gather in London to celebrate the 70th birthday of the alliance, which was created at the start of the Cold War to defend North America and Western Europe from the Soviet Union.
More recently, the alliance has fought in Afghanistan, ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, patrolled for pirates off the Horn of Africa and established a line of defence in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression.
Canada has been involved in all those efforts and more, including leading a NATO training mission in Iraq and contributing fighter jets to patrol Romanian airspace and frigates to patrol the Mediterranean and Black seas.
The prime minister will repeatedly highlight those contributions starting with a round table discussion with his Dutch counterpart on Tuesday, before leaders formally meet behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss NATO’s future.
“We are going to talk about the things we are already doing and why those things matter and why the contributions we are making are real and are concrete,” a senior government official said during a background briefing on Friday, given to reporters in Ottawa on condition the participants not be identified.
Yet the message will have an air of defensiveness about it as Canada has been facing pressure from NATO and the U.S. to spend more on its military.
All NATO members agreed in 2014 to move toward spending two per cent of their national gross domestic products – a measure of a country’s total economic output – on defence, a target to be reached within a decade. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has described this as “burden-sharing.”
Yet Canada is set to about 1.31 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence for the second year in a row. While that is more than several years ago, it still ranks in the bottom half of alliance members, at 20th out of 29 countries.
Canada’s spending levels, which are expected to peak at 1.4 per cent of GDP in 2024-25, come despite strong pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to spend more, with the Americans having previously sent letters to Ottawa demanding Canada step it up.
The senior government official would not say whether the U.S. sent a letter ahead of this week’s summit in London.
“But I will say that our investments in the military and our contributions to NATO are significant and we will make that very clear and we will continue saying that whenever these types of questions are raised,” the official said.
Such arguments are unlikely to sway Trump or other NATO allies who are doing more.
The threat is that the U.S. at some point might no longer see Canada as serious about defence and start to take unilateral steps to secure the Arctic, the border or other shared areas of concern – with its own forces, on its own terms.
NATO itself has faced a number of pressures in recent years, with members grappling over how best to deal with Russia and China even as Trump has raised questions about his country’s commitment to the alliance.
Last month, France’s President Emmanuel Macron kicked off a sharp debate over NATO’s future when he suggested the military alliance was suffering from “brain death” due to a lack of co-ordination and communication among members.
He specifically cited the U.S. military withdrawal from northeast Syria and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of the area – both without any consultation with fellow NATO members – as examples of breakdowns in the alliance.
Trudeau is not expected to make any announcements at the NATO summit before he returns to Canada on Wednesday night in time for the resumption of Parliament on Thursday.
Rather, he will seek to underscore the importance of the alliance, which has been seen as pivotal to ensuring relative peace, security and prosperity for North America and western Europe since the end of the Cold War.
China is set to figure prominently during the discussions as it has become more assertive in its neighbourhood and around the world, and because of U.S. demands that Canada and others ban Chinese technology company Huawei from supplying equipment for new “5G” wireless communications networks.
The alliance is also at odds over the best way to deal with Russia, with some members suggesting more dialogue while others such as Canada take a hard line with it over its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
There are also broader concerns about Turkey, beyond its move into Syria. It’s a NATO member but has become close to Russia under its increasingly autocratic president, and sits in a strategically important location bridging Europe with Asia and the Middle East.
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