Politics

Canada can't change Trump's 'one-track mind' on defence spending: former NATO official

Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general, tells Power & Politics that he fears Canada's argument that NATO burden-sharing is about more than just money won't sway Donald Trump ahead of the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels.
Former NATO deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow tells CBC's Power & Politics that he doesn't think Canada's argument on defence spending will persuade Donald Trump ahead of next month's NATO summit in Brussels. (The Associated Press / Mindaugas Kulbis)

Canada's argument that NATO burden-sharing is about more than just defence spending probably won't change U.S. President Donald Trump's mind, says a former NATO deputy secretary general.

"I fear it won't have much effect," Alexander Vershbow said in an interview with host Vassy Kapelos on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Wednesday.

"Trump is really seized with the spending issue. He's been talking about this for a long time — before he was president — that our allies are freeloaders.

"It is a one-track mind when it comes to defence spending and I just hope someone can widen President Trump's horizons," added Vershbow, who also served as a U.S. ambassador to NATO, Russia and South Korea.

On June 19, Trump sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claiming that there is "growing frustration" in the United States with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies like Canada that have not increased defence spending as promised.

NATO member countries agreed in 2014 to move toward an overall defence spending target of two per cent of GDP.

In 2017, Canada's defence spending amounted to 1.29 per cent of GDP. The government's new defence policy pledges to increase the defence budget by $32 billion per year by 2026-27, but that would still bring Canada's defence spending to just 1.4 per cent of GDP.

On Wednesday, National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told Power & Politics that when it comes to having an impact on NATO missions, money isn't everything.

"As we look at modernizing our military, we are actually taking a leadership role. We have a frigate consistently working with NATO. We have air policing ... and we are leading the enhanced force battle group," Sajjan said.

"More importantly, we are also in Ukraine. That is not part of the NATO mission, but sends a very significant message to Russia where Canada stands on this."

National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan tells Power & Politics that NATO burden sharing is about more than just investments. 3:44

Verhsbow said Sajjan's point about contributions in Ukraine is very important.

"Ukraine is still under Russian attack. Every day there is shelling and artillery dropping. And we need to help them to improve their military so that they can deter the Russians from taking more territory.

"So that doesn't count against the NATO balance sheet but it is very important."

The Trump-Putin summit

Officials from the U.S. and Russia struck a deal Wednesday to hold a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump. No date has been confirmed, but it's expected the summit will take place next month after Trump attends the NATO summit on July 11-12.

Vershbow said that while the meeting with Putin is important now — because the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is at rock bottom — there are pitfalls ahead.

"The danger is we give Putin what he wants — the international acceptance that he is back at the top table again, he is no longer isolated — but he doesn't really change his behaviour one whit," he said.

"Unfortunately, Putin made that clear again today with (U.S. National Security Adviser) John Bolton, who was there preparing the meeting, when he said that all of the problems in the relationship reflect U.S. domestic politics. He takes no responsibility for what's gone on in Ukraine, for interference in our elections. In fact, he ... lies through his teeth on those issues."

Vershbow said he is hoping President Trump doesn't make one-sided concessions like he did with the North Koreans, when he agreed to suspend military exercises in South Korea and got nothing in return.

"God forbid that he should do that at the NATO summit, where we really need to have exercises to ensure that our forces can really deter and defend against an aggressive Russia."

Watch the full interview below.

Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow tells Power & Politics that he doesn't think Canada can sway Trump on his defence spending demands. 6:18

With files from The Canadian Press

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