Opinion: Trump is right about Canada’s spending

Canada is a welsher state.

I am speaking specifically about this country’s financial contribution to NATO, the international alliance formed after the Second World War, constructed around the principle of collective defence. Article 5 of the establishing charter declares that “an attack on one is an attack on all.”

Originally and for four decades the thrust of NATO’s raison d’être was deterring Soviet aggression. With the end of the Cold War, NATO shifted toward helping former Soviet-bloc countries embrace democracy and the market economy.

But now it’s come full circle. Once again, under the militancy of President Vladimir Putin – annexing a chunk of Ukraine, sending troops into the Georgian civil war, intervening on the side of the Assad regime in Syria – Russia is a regional belligerent.

With leaders of the 29 member nations meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, the agenda includes countering that Russian bellicosity, introducing a new training mission in Iraq and counterterrorism support for Afghanistan, Jordan and Tunisia.

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, clearly intends to pick up where he left off at their last confab a year ago – knocking ally heads together to shame them into meeting dollar commitments made three years ago: contributing 2 per cent of GDP toward spending on national defence within a decade.

The whole world was bracing for grenades Trump was expected to toss at the summit, against some of America’s staunchest friends. Before leaving Washington on Tuesday, the president got in a couple of pre-emptive shots across the bow. “NATO has not treated us fairly but I think we’ll work something out. We pay far too much and they pay far too little.”

Meaning Europe and Canada.

Less antagonistic than previous declarations Trump has made about NATO allies, such as last month characterizing the U.S. as “the piggy bank that (NATO) likes to take from.” He also recently sent hectoring letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other NATO leaders complaining that too many countries were not humping their fair share of the collective cost and investing too little in their own militaries, a commitment of tax dollars that just doesn’t square well with domestic populations.

Trump wrote that it will “become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments.”

It’s painful to say this but Trump is essentially correct.

The U.S. provides most of the NATO muscle in funding and troops, shouldering nearly three-quarters of the alliance’s operating budget. NATO’s current annual operating budget is $1.38 billion, $252 million for the civilian budget, and $704 million for its Security Investment Program.

Canada, sturdy participant in combat and security operations, including a 12-year boots on the ground campaign in Afghanistan and a Canadian lieutenant-general who directed the air campaign that toppled the Gadhafi regime in 2011, is in the middling middle of defence spending, currently at 1.29 per cent of GDP, with a projected target of 1.4 per cent by 2026.

On his way to Brussels, Trudeau doubled down on his Trump resistance by reiterating that Canada has no plans to almost double-up on its defence budget, maintaining that the 2 per cent target is “an easy shorthand” but also “a limited tool” for measuring a nation’s commitment to NATO.

Trudeau made his remarks whilst visiting Canadian troops at a military base outside Riga, Latvia.

It should be noted, though, that even president Barack Obama urged Parliament: “NATO needs more Canada.”

European leaders were bracing for a showdown with Trump, amidst crises in Britain (Brexit) and Germany (migration and refugees).

Just as intriguing, from a Canadian perspective is how Trudeau and Trump will contend with each other in their first face-to-face since the disaster of the June G7 summit in Quebec City, wherein the president first agreed to a group communique on trade and then withdrew from it, calling the PM “dishonest” and “weak” in a Twitter tirade.

In any event, Trump seems more dazzled about his one-on-one sit-down in Helsinki next week with Putin. Putin he respects, NATO leaders he doesn’t. He’ll be travelling to the U.K. in between.

“I have NATO. I have the U.K., which is in somewhat turmoil. And I have Putin. Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”

Who indeed.

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