National Column: More than one way to pull our military weight

by Paul Wells

At the end of a week of high international diplomacy, it is only natural that Justin Trudeau would be stuck handling questions about who pays the bill.

The prime minister spent Monday in Washington visiting Donald Trump. By mid-week he was in Strasbourg, doing a victory lap on Canada-EU trade as he addressed the European Parliament. Then on to Berlin to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he is sometimes lumped in the broad category of “world leaders who aren’t much like Trump.”

Nor was Trudeau the only high-profile pol travelling this week. The Trump administration’s big guns – Vice-President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis – were en route to Munich for the German city’s big annual security conference. Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defence minister, was en route to Munich, too, after having met with Mattis and two dozen other defence ministers at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.

So it was inevitable that questions about military spending would arise. Trump has often said the United States is sick of paying other countries’ share for collective defence. Even Mattis, a career military officer who has a NATO Meritorious Service Medal, said this week that the U.S. might “moderate” its contribution to NATO if other members don’t pull their weight.

Trump defines pulling one’s weight by a common yardstick: The notion that each country in the alliance should devote at least 2 per cent of its gross domestic product to military spending. Canada doesn’t. In recent years, the Harper and Trudeau governments have spent about 0.99 per cent of GDP on the military. Canada has company. Germany spends about 1.2 per cent. Norway spends 1.54 per cent, Turkey 1.56 per cent, Spain and Belgium even less than Canada. Only the United States (at 3.61 per cent) and four other countries meet or exceed the target.

Trump seems to think the 2-per-cent target is like the membership fees at Mar-a-Lago: If you don’t pay, you shouldn’t get in. And if not enough countries pay, the U.S. may not back them in case, say, Russia invades NATO’s eastern flank.

There are problems with Trump’s analysis. First, there is no membership rule regarding spending. The 2-per-cent target dates from 2006, when everyone was realizing the Afghanistan war was a huge suck on resources – as was George W. Bush’s side project, the Iraq War. At the NATO summit that year in Riga, Latvia, the 2-per-
cent goal was mentioned for the first time, as an incentive to other members to shoulder more burden and give Bush’s overworked armies a break.

But even then the goal was aspirational. “Let me be clear, this is not a hard commitment that they will do it,” the alliance’s spokesperson at the time, James Appathurai, said in Brussels in mid-2006. “But it is a
commitment to work towards it.”

Member states promptly failed to work towards it. Most members’ military spending declined after 2009, when Barack Obama replaced Bush as U.S. president. Germany’s went nowhere for most of the decade Merkel has been chancellor. (Finally in 2014, another NATO summit repeated the 2-per-cent goal, and Merkel has lately started to boost German military spending at a rate I doubt it can long sustain.)

So the 2-per-cent goal is no formal rule. And it’s a shaky guide to any member state’s utility. Greece spends 2.38 per cent of GDP on its military – mostly to pay soldiers generous wages, prep for a war with Turkey that everyone hopes will never happen and procure lots of German and French equipment in what amounts to an intra-European protection racket.

Everyone likes Greece, but Europe will not be safer if everyone’s military becomes more like Greece’s.

Canada, on the other hand, took a brutal toll in soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan and is on the verge of shouldering a heavy burden in Latvia, to help dissuade Vladimir Putin from getting any bright ideas. Canadian soldiers, going back more than a century, are welcome when they show up in a battle space because they do what’s needed with little fuss. That’s why Mattis said, when he welcomed Sajjan in Washington earlier this month, that he was “hugging and kissing every one” of the Canadians he met in Afghanistan.

The 2 per cent is a classic Trump target: it does not mean what he thinks and is not a useful measure of anything.

Hurrying to meet the goal would mean hefty commissions for consultants and big margins for arms manufacturers. Maybe once all that is taken care of, military capability might increase a bit, too. All to please a guy who gets his policy ideas from cereal boxtops. Trudeau, like Stephen Harper before him, should guard jealously Canada’s right to make its own decisions on these matters.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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