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U.S. Senator: Canada's a freeloader on defence and it's getting tiring

A U.S. senator derided Canada as a freeloader on defence during a high-profile congressional hearing and he suggested he's getting fed up with it. As American politicians prepare to send billions more to Ukraine, this one says the U.S. is shouldering too much of the burden.

As American politicians prepare to send billions more to Ukraine, one says allies aren't doing enough

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan said he's ready to send billions more to Ukraine in military aid but asked: Why is the U.S. doing so much more than its allies? (Greg Nash/Pool/Reuters)

This item is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians. 

What's new

A U.S. senator derided Canada as a freeloader on defence during a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday in Washington — and suggested he's getting fed up with it.

It happened during an exchange about the anticipated $40 billion US in additional help for Ukraine that the U.S. Congress is expected to imminently pass.

Alaska's Dan Sullivan said he still supports American funding for Ukraine but he also expressed exasperation that so much of the military-assistance burden is falling on the U.S. He asked the witnesses whether they see U.S. allies stepping up and getting closer to reaching NATO's historic military spending target of two per cent of GDP.

Sullivan specifically mentioned Canada twice, and referred to Germany once in passing over the course of his broadside.

"Are you seeing a shift in our NATO allies to say, 'You know what? It's time for us to pull our own weight here. The Americans are doing it — once again," the Alaska Republican asked. 

"[Because] $40 billion [more for Ukraine] — that's a lot of money. My constituents have got a lot of needs, too. 

"We still have NATO allies, Canada one, who just freeload. And it's getting a little tiring." 

The U.S. spends much more on the military than its allies, despite mounting debt, which is noted in this so-called National Debt Clock seen here in 2017 in New York City. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

What's the context

Sullivan was speaking at a hearing featuring two top U.S. intelligence officials as witnesses: Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, and Lt.-Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

The U.S. Congress appears to be racing toward approving another new spending package for Ukraine with massive bipartisan support. In fact, the Congress is likely to provide even more, billions more, than the $33 billion President Joe Biden requested for military and humanitarian aid.

Opponents of more Ukraine aid on the left and right argue that it's more than the U.S. can afford, with its nearly $24 trillion national debt and unaddressed problems at home.

The U.S. currently spends more on its military than all other NATO countries combined — in fact twice more than all others combined, including more than 30 times Canada's spending in total dollars and nearly triple what Canada spends as a percentage of GDP.

Like the vast majority of Congress, Sullivan is likely to vote for the latest Ukraine aid package. He added a caveat, however, and a message to allies.

"It's a lot," the Alaska senator said. He asked the witnesses for their view on foreign allies' recent military spending promises.

"If there was ever a time countries had to kind of wake up and say, 'You know what? For 40 years we've promised to hit two per cent (of GDP). The wolf's at the door. Maybe the bear's at the door, or the dragon's at the door. Whatever metaphor you want. …

"My understanding is Canada still won't even hit one per cent of GDP."

Canada in fact currently spends 1.36 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on the military, according to the latest NATO figures.

The recent federal budget promises that spending will grow to about 1.5 per cent while Canada has also provided more than $1 billion Cdn to Ukraine in military and non-military aid and loans; that assistance includes eight armoured vehicles and some howitzers.

The Trudeau government is also promising to modernize NORAD's Arctic radar systems after repeated urging from the U.S. 

Others in Washington have been much more complimentary of Canada. That includes the U.S. defence secretary during a recent press conference at the Pentagon.

Lloyd Austin thanked his Canadian counterpart Anita Anand for stepping up with the armoured vehicles and other contributions to Ukraine: "That's just what we've come to expect from Canada, and from your own leadership, and sense of moral purpose."

What's next

Intelligence officials say they'll be watching to see whether U.S. allies keep their recent military spending commitments.

"I think that is something we're going to see them follow through on, at least in part," Haines replied during the exchange with Sullivan.

Berrier said the invasion of Ukraine had indeed been a wakeup call: "I think this has had a galvanizing effect on our NATO partners. I think most of them will come around [on spending]."

One of Washington's immediate priorities is seeing a concrete plan from Canada to replace the aging warning system in Canada's Arctic.

Biden's ambassador to Ottawa, David Cohen, recently told CBC News he's had some candid conversations on the topic with senior Canadian cabinet members.

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