National Column: Trump is right about Canada’s spending

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by Rosie DiManno

Canada is a welsher state.

(Hold your outrage, that adjective has nothing to do with the Welsh.)

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 NATOís raison d’etre 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. Global even, in an era of cyber meddling and mischief and electoral interference.

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 (actually the target was first set in 2002): 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 weíll 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 allianceís 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.

The president somewhat misleads by conflating national defence spending with NATO support. But the point is fundamentally well taken. The combined defence budget of NATO nations has grown by $14.4 billion since 2016, with all but one of the countries increasing their spending and 26 contributing troops to NATO missions. “Sixteen – but not Canada – are on track to spend the NATO target of two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence by 2024,” notes a primer for the summit released by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

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.

In his usual rhetorically obtuse way, Trudeau said: “There are always perspectives on doing more, and that’s fine, that’s an important conversation to have. But the reality is, the way NATO has been having a meaningful impact wherever it goes continues to be a really important thing, and that’s certainly at the heart of the message Iíll be bringing.”

Trudeau made his remarks whilst visiting Canadian troops at a military base outside Riga, Latvia. A clever photo-op moment, jamming that drop-in on the eve of the NATO summit. Canada has 455 troops deployed to NATOís mission in Latvia – the alliance’s buffering response to Russia’s annexation in Ukraine – and heads the seven-country battle group. Trudeau further announced that Canada is extending its Latvia mission for another four years, through to 2023, and boosting troop numbers to 540. The prime minister can burnish Canada’s international engagement by pointing to the new Mali mission, which is a UN peacekeeping operation.

Still, there is treasure in blood, potentially – which the Trudeau government has tried mightily to avoid – and treasure in hard dollars defence spending. And if Canada, an original NATO founding member, truly values the alliance in a turbulent contemporary world, then it needs to pony up its proportional share, along with the rest of the laggards. Canada loves multinational alliances; Trump, not so much. Only a year ago he called NATO “obsolete,” though heís back off that rash dismissal. Itís ironic that some commentators with little appetite for NATO, even less stomach for military interventions – recoiling from Western geopolitical “interests” – actually found an unlikely ally in Trump’s initial NATO skepticism. The president has threatened to reduce the 70,000 American troops currently deployed on the continent if NATO members donít live up to their spending avowals.

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 – insofar as weíre allowed a look-in – 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. Heíll 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.

Twitter: @rdimanno
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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