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Face to Face: Should Canada meet NATO’s funding minimum?

Aaron Kylie says No

In the councils of government, we must guard against…the military-industrial complex,” said U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address in January 1961. Yes, the famed general, Second World War supreme allied commander in Europe and supreme commander of NATO himself warned of the perils of the relationship between a country’s military and its defence industry and the subsequent influence on public policy.

Still, today the U.S. leads the world in military spending—more than $800 billion in 2023. Some argue its entire economy is tied to its military. So, it’s little wonder the Americans led the charge to have fellow NATO members spend a minimum of two per cent of each country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, as they all agreed to do in July 2023. But while Ike’s nation ignored his warning, Canada shouldn’t. It can’t simply pour money into its military to appease a NATO complex.

Why? For starters, competing with the Americans here is a lost cause. In 2023, the U.S. devoted 3.49 per cent of its GDP to its military, according to NATO. Canada spent just 1.38 per cent. Most NATO members, in fact, allocated under two per cent. Just 11 of 30 were above the threshold—eight of them Russian neighbours. Coincidence?

Also of note: how NATO members calculate defence expenditures isn’t consistent. What one country considers operations maybe another’s personnel. “These differences demonstrate the difficulty of using this type of measurement to determine real levels of military investment and financial support,” wrote Colonel John Alexander in the Canadian Military Journal in 2015. “A target of 2 percent of GDP for defence spending is a crude measurement.”

“A target of 2 percent of GDP for defence spending is a crude measurement.”

Alexander also wrote that “a percentage target in no way addresses how the money is being spent. Canada…has long contended that it is not strictly about how much the military is funded, but…how efficiently those funds are being expended.” Indeed, Canada has historically provided NATO with what it has requested. Greece, meanwhile, which spent 3.49 of its GDP on defence in 2023—ranking third among NATO members—contributes little to the alliance’s missions.

Canada should spend more, of course. But the NATO minimum is a red herring. To meet it, the country would have to more than double its current budget to some $55 billion. This while its deficit is already $40 billion. Plus, spending that money isn’t simple.

“It would require a fundamental rethink; it is a massive influx,” retired lieutenant-general Mike Day, a former special forces commander, told the Toronto Star in 2022.

The influx would demand more personnel, this at a time when Canada’s forces are already struggling to fill the ranks, short an estimated 16,500 personnel. It could mean new equipment, too, but military procurement issues continue to dog the forces. It seems likely that more money would mean more problems.

“You don’t have that surge capacity,” Craig Stone, an emeritus associate professor of defence studies at the Toronto-based Canadian Forces College, told CBC in July 2023, “because you don’t have the workforce to do it.”


J.L. Granatstein says Yes

Does it matter if Canada fails to meet the NATO funding minimum? Does it matter if the Canadian Armed Forces are understrength, ill-equipped and saddled with a failed procurement system? Yes, it matters.

First, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed at a NATO meeting in Lithuania in July 2023 that Canada would meet NATO’s two per cent threshold. Still, that Trudeau had previously said privately Canada would never honour that pledge took away the credibility of his signature to the agreement.

Second, when Anita Anand was defence minister, she seemed to be pressing for more money for the military, but now as president of the Treasury Board, she cut $1 billion from the defence budget. This resulted in angry, frustrated speeches from defence chief General Wayne Eyre. It must have shocked Canada’s NATO partners, too.

Indeed, the state of Canada’s military has already hurt the country’s international standing. Ottawa was excluded from the Australian-American-British deal on nuclear submarines and research. It was left out of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. And in November 2023, Ottawa couldn’t join U.S. President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework of 15 trading partners to, among other things, lower carbon emissions, a subject close to Trudeau’s heart.

In other words, Canada’s allies and trading partners are shutting it out. And while the country’s military shortcomings may not be the only reason, it certainly ranks high with allies concerned about increasing tensions with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The Trudeau government’s view [is] that its military is more of a social project than a fighting force.

How did Canada get into this mess? Historically, wartime aside, Canadians have always preferred social programs to defence spending. The current government has concentrated on dental care benefits, housing programs, funding for journalism organizations and reconciliation with Indigenous groups, all worthy causes and initiatives that might appeal to voters across the country. But facing a slowing economy and a rising deficit, there doesn’t seem to be enough money for defence.

But for any government, the first national interest must be the security of the country and its people. Canada’s second national interest should be to get along with the U.S. But when it comes to Canada’s military, the Americans are concerned. “Widespread defence shortfalls hinder Canada’s capabilities,” said a Pentagon document leaked in April 2023. “It is straining partner relationships and alliance contributions.”

In July 2023, The Wall Street Journal was even more blunt in an op-ed piece: “the Trudeau government’s view [is] that its military is more of a social project than a fighting force.” Canada has “long been a free-rider off the U.S. military, which it knows stands guard over North America…. Canada’s military is so degraded that even its role in peace-keeping missions has waned.” Ouch.

The newspaper added that “NATO needs members that keep their commitments, and the nations of the G-7 have an obligation to lead the way. If Canada [won’t], then the G-7 should consider a replacement. Poland, which now spends 3.9% of GDP on defense, would be a candidate.”

This mess must be cleaned up. The place to start is by honouring Canada’s financial commitments to NATO.


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