The Canadian government is defending itself against accusations from U.S. President Donald Trump that Canada is falling short on defence spending, saying there are big military expenditure increases planned in future years and that this country always contributes to NATO deployments.
This rejoinder from Canada comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to the Baltic country of Latvia to showcase a Canadian military deployment aimed at deterring Russian aggression.
One military analyst, however, says Canada is dodging, rather than answering, justified criticism by changing the subject to deployments from funding levels.
The Prime Minister will visit Latvia for two days, starting on July 9, before proceeding to a NATO meeting of heads of state and government in Belgium on July 11 and 12 – a gathering that promises to be fraught with tension over Russia.
Mr. Trudeau’s Baltic visit comes after Canada, and several other NATO allies, received letters from the Trump administration complaining they are not meeting a NATO commitment to undertake military spending equivalent to 2 per cent of annual economic output.
The Globe and Mail confirmed that Mr. Trudeau received a letter from Mr. Trump. Letters were also sent to Germany, according to The New York Times, and Reuters confirmed letters were sent to Britain, Belgium and Norway.
In the letter to Britain – the Americans’ staunch partner in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Trump administration went further. U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, the author of this letter, warned London it risks losing the ability to project power worldwide if it doesn’t boost military spending – despite the fact Britain already meets the 2 per cent target.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Moscow separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine have disrupted relations between Moscow and the West and have revitalized the NATO military alliance.
For the past year, Canada has been leading a NATO battle group in Latvia that includes 450 Canadian soldiers, part of a significant buildup of troops and assets on the easternmost flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter Russian expansionism. Canada’s leadership of the battle group represents Canada’s largest sustained military presence in Europe in over a decade.
After the annexation of Crimea, NATO allies agreed that year to end defence-budget cuts, to start spending more as their economies grew and move toward a goal of 2 per cent of GDP for defence spending within a decade.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan defended Canada’s military commitment in the face of this latest criticism from the Trump administration, noting that the Trudeau government has promised to boost spending.
“In 2017, as part of a comprehensive review of Canadian defence spending, the Government of Canada committed to increasing [the Department of National Defence]’s funding by more than 70 per cent over the next decade,” Renée Filiatrault, director of communications to Mr. Sajjan, said in a statement.
“This plan has been rigorously costed, is fully funded, and serves Canada’s defence needs. It also upholds our long-standing role as an active contributor to global peace and security,” she said.
The Sajjan spokeswoman also underlined Canada’s long-standing contributions.
“The Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force are among the most engaged, agile, deployable and responsive armed forces within NATO. Canada is proud to have contributed to every NATO operation since the founding of the Alliance more than six decades ago,” Ms. Filiatrault said.
However, Charles Davies, a research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, said that even with new budgetary commitments made in recent years, Canada is still not on track to hit the 2 per cent defence-spending target.
“The Canadian government obviously sees itself being on the wrong side of this discussion … because it refuses to engage in a direct conversation about the issue,” Mr. Davies said. “Instead, it continues to play bait-and-switch, trying to divert attention towards the entirely different subject of the politics around the commitment of forces to NATO operations. This is an intellectually dishonest response to valid criticism.”
This week, other NATO allies also pushed back at U.S. criticism.
In an e-mail on July 3 to the Associated Press, Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said, “Norway stands by its decision of the NATO Summit in 2014 and is following up on this.”
Norway has spent “far beyond” NATO’s target on new military equipment, he added.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday, “We stand by the 2-per cent-goal we’ve set.” She added that “we’re on the path there. And we’re prepared … to take substantial responsibility within the alliance.”
When faced with the suggestion that such German explanations for not spending 2 per cent of GDP yet might not make an impression on Mr. Trump, she retorted: “We don’t want to impress anyone.”
Mr. Trump’s pre-NATO meeting letter-writing campaign is further ratcheting up geopoliticial tensions in the 69-year-old NATO alliance. The U.S. President is planning a controversial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin for immediately after the NATO meeting. Mr. Trump, who has previously defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in recent days has left the door open to recognizing this land seizure.
Mr. Trudeau’s visit to Latvia follows a January, 2018, trip by Governor-General Julie Payette. He will be accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Mr. Sajjan and General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff.
With files from Reuters and Associated Press