NATO is getting ready to twist Canada's arm on defence spending

NATO leaders' summits tend to be polite affairs — but Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg may have been needling Canada when he told foreign ministers recently the alliance sees the 2 per cent of GDP defence spending target "not as a ceiling but a floor."

The two per cent target is the bare minimum, says Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg walk during their visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, Tuesday, March. 8, 2022.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg walk during their visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, on March 8, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press)

As the old saying goes, there are some things one must never discuss in polite company. Politics and money usually top the list.

If you've ever been to a NATO leaders' summit, you know these gatherings are the epitome of polite company (with the exception of Donald Trump).

NATO leaders — at least in public — sometimes go far, far out of their way to avoid criticizing other leaders and nations, especially those who are perceived as not pulling their weight.

A military alliance looking to present a solid front to an uncertain outside world hates any real or perceived signs of division.

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There was, however, one cringe-worthy moment at the 2019 NATO leaders' summit that's worth noting in the context of storm clouds building over this year's planned event in Vilnius, Lithuania. A bullish President Trump turned to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — in full view of the cameras and after being questioned about the adequacy of Canada's defence spending — and asked, "So, what is your number anyway?"

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He was asking how far off Canada was from achieving the alliance-driven benchmark of spending two per cent of national gross domestic product on defence. Members of the Canadian delegation accompanying Trudeau, seated to one side of the two leaders, began barking out numbers, some of them conflicting. (The consensus they landed on at the time was 1.39 per cent of GDP).

It was a made-for-TV moment that almost never happens at the kind of highly stage-managed summit NATO is used to presenting.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk prior to a NATO round table meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. As NATO leaders meet and show that the world's biggest security alliance is adapting to modern threats, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is refusing to concede that the future of the 29-member alliance is under a cloud.
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talk prior to a NATO roundtable meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

As he welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken along with the alliance's newest member, Finland, to this week's regular foreign ministers meeting, NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg casually rolled a verbal grenade across the floor when talking about the agenda.

"We will also address how to ensure that allies are investing enough in defence, and we will start preparations for the summit in Vilnius, where I expect allies to agree a more ambitious pledge, to regard 2 per cent of GDP for defence not as a ceiling but a floor, a minimum, that we should all meet," Stoltenberg said.

Canada has no plan to meet NATO's target

In late March, NATO published an annual report that shows Canada's defence spending amounted to just 1.29 per cent of GDP in fiscal 2022-2023.

It's not much of a stretch to say Canada has no plan to meet that 2 per cent target. There wasn't one when the previous Conservative government signed on to the notion at the 2014 NATO leaders summit (when the goal was for allies to reach 2 per cent by 2024).

The Liberal government's 2017 defence policy tiptoed around the subject. Whenever they've been asked about it since, Trudeau and his ministers have bobbed and weaved and talked about what Canada delivers in terms of capability.

Their latest talking points are that Canada has the sixth largest defence budget in NATO and the country is among the top contributors to the alliance's $4.8 billion common fund, the budget that pays for the headquarters, joint operations and major construction investments.

The pressure on Canada to focus on funding the needs of its own military, as opposed to the overall alliance, is growing — especially since Russia's full-on invasion of Ukraine last year.

In a French-language speech delivered in Montreal last Tuesday, France's Ambassador to Canada Michel Miraillet trumpeted his country's recent boost in military spending and proposals for deeper European military cooperation.

A 'weak defence effort'

He suggested Canada needs to demonstrate a similar commitment to global security.

"The same goes for Canada and its weak defence effort, nevertheless, somewhat forgetful of the memory of its past commitments, of the courage shown in all major conflicts, as in peacekeeping operations," Miraillet said in remarks quoted by The Canadian Press.

In an interview with the London bureau of CBC News this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was asked point-blank about Stoltenberg's assertion that allies would soon consider the two per cent benchmark the floor, not the ceiling.

She responded that Canada recognized the world changed with the war in Ukraine and that tensions in the Indo-Pacific mean "we need to make sure that we step up our game and that's what we'll do."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, left, speaks with Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly during a round table meeting at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on June 29, 2022. Joly is headed back to the U.S. capital to talk about Ukraine with Blinken. It will be the pair’s second meeting in just over a week, coming on the heels of the UN General Assembly in New York.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, left, speaks with Foreign Minister Melanie Joly during a roundtable meeting at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, on June 29, 2022. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

"Step up our game" may be a relative term, because Joly went on to say that the government is engaged "in a very important defence policy review, which is required before announcing any further investments."

That defence policy review was announced in the 2022 federal budget. A year later, shortly after presenting its latest fiscal plan, the government announced there would be public consultations on how best to defend Canada in a more uncertain world.

The best-case scenario, according to several experts, is the defence policy being delivered next year and the necessary investments being made at some indeterminate point in the future.

A U.S. F-35 fighter jet flies over the Eifel Mountains near Spangdahlem, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. The U.S. Armed Forces moved stealth fighter jets to Spangdahlem Air Base a few days ago. The aircraft, built by the U.S. company Lockheed-Martin, is considered the most modern stealth fighter aircraft in the world.
A U.S. F-35 fighter jet flies over the Eifel Mountains near Spangdahlem, Germany, on Feb. 23, 2022. When pressed about military spending, the federal government sometimes cites its plan to buy fighter jets. (Harald Tittel/The Associated Press)

In fairness, the Liberals have committed to spending $19 billion on new fighter jets, starting in 2026. They have agreed to put $4.9 billion toward modernizing continental defence through NORAD.

But ahead of President Joe Biden's recent visit to Ottawa, the Americans were expressing their impatience with Canada's habit of kicking defence expenditures down the road and publicly pressed for projects to be moved forward more swiftly.

The Liberal government's answer was to put a price tag on modernizing airfields and infrastructure to accommodate the new F-35s. The timeline for delivery, however, remained the same. The only project to hit the fast-track, according to defence experts, was an Arctic over-the-horizon radar station.

Two different government sources said the matter of meeting the two per cent defence spending target wasn't even raised when Biden and Trudeau met.

The Americans, it seems, have slipped back into polite company mode.

Asked this week on CBC's Power & Politics about Canada's defence spending, U.S. Sen. (D) Chris Coons politely deferred.

"I think that's a decision for Canada and the Canadian people to make, but I am satisfied that we have a close partnership, an alliance, that we are making progress towards improving our security," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.