Defence spending: The note Trudeau should give Trump at the NATO Summit

NATO leaders will be meeting in Brussels July 11-12, where it is expected President Trump will make a point of chastising Allies on their defence spending. In the lead-up to the Summit, the President sent letters to several of the NATO leaders expressing the hope they would make a strong commitment to achieving the Alliance target of 2% of GDP spent on defence.   

Prime Minister Trudeau was the recipient of one of these letters. We do not know whether he responded or in what manner. Below is our suggestion for a note he might hand the President in Brussels on this issue. 

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Mr. President,

In your letter of 19 June 2018, you made three points:

  • At the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, Allies agreed NATO was under-funded to meet the challenges it faces;
  • They committed to ensuring NATO has the resources it needs;
  • Many continue to spend less than NATO’s goal of 2% of GDP on defence, including Canada.

Each of these points is incontestable. Where I take issue is with the implication that (a) Allies have not been stepping up, and (b) Canada’s failure to achieve the 2% goal “undermines the security of the Alliance”.

In March of this year, NATO published a detailed set of numbers on Allies’ defence spending. There is no way these numbers sustain the case that NATO Europe and Canada have not been making a major effort to increase defence spending. Since the Wales summit, i.e. in the last three years, Allies posted cumulative spending increases of 1.84% (2015), 3.08% (2016), and 4.87% (2017) totaling some US$46 billion.  As a percentage of GDP, only 6 of 28 member countries did not increase defence spending over that period (the United States was one of them). This is not yet success – NATO Europe and Canada are only at 1.45% of GDP – but it is not failure either.

As for Canada, we are at 1.29% of GDP, but that represents a substantial jump since 2014 when we were at 1.0%. Significantly, much of the increase is accounted for by spending on new equipment, whose share of total Canadian defence spending last year was 19.42 %, only a fraction below the NATO target of 20%.  What this means is that Canadian defence spending now ranks 5th in NATO, after the US, UK, France and Germany. The defence policy we released in 2017 and the defence investment plan announced a few weeks ago attest to the seriousness of my government’s determination to continue to build up the military capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces.

One other consideration. If less weight were placed on financial input and more attention paid to military output, it would help to see Canada’s defence effort in a different light. Your letter referenced Canada’s contributions to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and United Nations peacekeeping operations. But it overlooked the important military contributions Canada is making to the defence of Europe. Few allies can match what we have been doing practically for the security of the Alliance.

Canada is one of four NATO lead nations defending the Alliance’s eastern flank. The others are the US, UK and Germany. When many European members were reluctant to take on such a dangerous frontline mission, Canada stepped up and deployed a 450-person infantry brigade to Latvia to head up a multi-national NATO battle group of seven countries. Earlier, we had an army task force in Poland for three years. Canadian F-18s have contributed to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, and Canadian warships have patrolled the Baltic Sea. In Ukraine, 200 Canadian soldiers have so far trained 7680 Ukrainians.

Mr. President, we have disagreements to resolve, but I trust this note will help to dispel any notion that Canada has not stepped up when it counted.

Americans question the United States continuing to spend scarce resources to help defend a populous, wealthy and fully capable Europe.  Canadians have questions too about why their troops should once again have to be stationed in Europe. It is something we have done a lot in our history. Many would like the government to put a great deal more resources into Canada’s trans-Pacific relationships. In these unsettled times, however, I believe we should both stay where we are as you pursue your commendable goal of improving relations with Russia.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister

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Feature Image: The new NATO headquarters building in Brussels, Belgium (Source: Belparts) 

The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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