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Canadian soldiers wait to meet Canada's Minister of Defence in Adazi, Latvia, on Feb. 3, 2022.GINTS IVUSKANS/Getty Images

Most Canadians may not appreciate the hard choices that lie ahead as Canada prepares to meet its NATO commitment of devoting 2 per cent of this country’s gross domestic product to defence.

Politicians are shielding voters from that harsh reality. They won’t be able to shield them much longer.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared this week that Canada must provide a hard date for meeting the 2-per-cent floor that all NATO members committed to last summer.

“Canada has not conveyed a precise date but I expect Canada to deliver on the pledge to invest 2 per cent of GDP on defence, because this is a promise we all made,” Mr. Stoltenberg told CTV.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the collective security of the Western alliance at risk. In response, most NATO members are rapidly increasing their defence spending. They expect Canada to do the same.

This country is making a meaningful contribution to NATO through the presence of its battle group in Latvia. And the Liberal government has contributed generously to the defence of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, at 1.4 per cent of GDP, we are near the bottom of the pack when it comes to defence spending among NATO countries. Canada will need to increase its military budget by about $20-billion annually to meet the 2-per-cent commitment.

The Liberals currently have no plan for that. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he would meet the goal by reforming defence procurement, which is wise, and eliminating “wasteful foreign aid,” which is nonsense.

Canada says it spends about $8-billion on foreign aid; eliminating it completely would deprive people in need of food and development assistance in places such as Ethiopia and Sudan, while failing to meet the 2-per-cent target.

No, the $20-billion will have to come from some combination of increased taxes and cuts to spending. And yet the federal government is pursuing the very opposite course.

Ottawa is on tenterhooks while we await the results of negotiations between Liberals and New Democrats to introduce a new national pharmacare program. The Liberals have already launched a national dental care program, along with a $10-a-day child-care program.

Much of this will need to be scrapped or severely cut back. Or the government will have to cut back on the $100-billion health and social transfers to provincial governments by about a fifth.

The other alternative is to substantially increase taxes. Taking the GST from 5 per cent back up to its original level of 7 per cent would fund much of the increase.

And even more sacrifices may be needed going forward. Increasing defence spending to 3 or 4 per cent of GDP may be required to deter Russia in Europe and China in the Pacific.

The United States has warned that the Russians may be developing a nuclear-powered device that could disable Western satellite systems. NORAD will need to respond. The Americans will be expecting Canada to pay its fair share of that response.

There used to be plenty of laggards in NATO. But that was yesterday. Mr. Stoltenberg says that 18 of the 31 NATO members will hit the 2-per-cent target this year.

Germany, which once rivalled Canada as a laggard, will join the 2-per-cent club this year. So will France. Italy is struggling, but trying hard, to reach 2 per cent.

Spain, one of the few NATO countries that typically spent even less on defence than Canada, has massively increased its military budget – by 26 per cent in 2023 – and is progressing quickly toward 2 per cent.

Hanging back at 1.4 per cent of GDP is simply no longer an option. If we refuse to comply, Canada will gradually be frozen out of the counsels of our allies. In times as dangerous as these, that is not a good place to be.

Both the Liberals and Conservatives must tell Canadians how they will get this country to 2 per cent within the next few years. There is going to be pain. Canadians need to know how each party would inflict that pain.

The years of dodging and deferring and delaying are over. It’s time to get serious. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s not going to hurt.

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