This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Jonathan Berkshire Miller and Balkan Devlen, July 11, 2023
As NATO leaders meet this week in Vilnius, the alliance is faced with profound geostrategic challenges — primarily from Russia and China. These challenges amount to the greatest test to NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Amidst this backdrop, we have seen profound shifts within the alliance.
How are our allies responding? First, we have seen the landmark decisions by both Finland and Sweden to accede to NATO (the former has joined, while it is expected the latter will follow shortly). Second, there has been a marked pivot for several states to commit to greater defence spending. Poland has pledged to double the long-established NATO commitment of two per cent of GDP spending on defence to reach four per cent. Meanwhile, despite its uneven approach to Russia’s war in Ukraine, Germany has shaken off complacency of the past and agreed to meet the two per cent target through its announced Zeitenwende or “turning point.”
This is not just limited to partners in the alliance. Our most trusted Asian allies — Japan and South Korea — are also stepping up. In perhaps an even more significant shift than Berlin, Japan announced last year its aim to double its defence spending to the two per cent threshold within the next five years. Meanwhile, South Korea, a country that has long spent on national defence due to the constant threat from North Korea, has been one of the most reliable backfillers of arms to Europe outside of the United States.
Meanwhile, where has Canada been? Ottawa remains stuck at approximately 1.3 per cent of GDP on defence, despite these tectonic shifts in the geopolitical landscape. Making matters worse, according to recently leaked documents, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that not only will Canada not commit to meeting the two per cent spending target, but that the country may never reach that amount. This lines up with Canada’s long-delayed defence policy update and the fact that defence spending was buried deep in the past federal budget.
With this context, the Vilnius summit is sure to be uncomfortable for Canada as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks for firm commitments from NATO allies to commit to a new defence investment pledge where two per cent spending is viewed as a floor rather than a ceiling.
Critics may argue that the two per cent threshold is not a particularly useful metric, and they are partially right considering the roles and responsibilities allies are willing to take on. Canada, for example, has taken key leadership roles in Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently in Latvia, bolstering NATO’s Eastern Flank. Yet, while the metric is not perfect, it has been agreed to by the allies since 2014 and it is time to stop complaining and start getting to work.
Even if the two per cent spending target is not achievable in the short term, Ottawa is also lagging in terms of unique capabilities so cannot make the argument that we are delivering superior capabilities to contribute to the alliance as a counter to the falling behind on raw defence spending. Moreover, there will be pressure coming from allies who are putting forward credible plans to reach the target by pledging necessary resources to be able to fulfil their commitments. There is a strong push to make two per cent the floor and not an aspirational target in Vilnius. Canada will be among the few who stand out for its lack of support on this issue.
The lack of capabilities — both in qualitative and quantitative terms — was on clear display with our inability to participate in the recent NATO Air Defender 23 exercises in Germany. The capability crunch has also hurt our capacity for Air Policing missions in Europe for the foreseeable future and will limit our ability to commit to naval missions in Europe/Atlantic and in the Indo-Pacific at the same time. This comes on the heels of a new Indo-Pacific strategy where Ottawa pledged more defence resources for Asia.
Canada will also struggle to upgrade its NATO presence in Latvia to a brigade-level and, until recently with the Prime Minister’s announcement to bolster Canadian presence, no clear plans were being made about how Canada will fulfill its pre-existing commitments on this issue. The plan is notable, but whether it is sustainable in the longterm remains in question.
Finally, it’s a red herring to claim that Canadians are unsupportive of a stronger defence posture. Trudeau has recently dismissed calls from several experienced Canadian experts and former defence officials to urgently meet the spending targets by implying that national security and defence spending is not a top-tier priority requiring a drastic re-think. Yet, this attitude manifestly does not represent the views of Canadians. A recent poll from Nanos shows that approximately two-thirds of Canadians understand the global security environment is changing and Canada needs to meet its targets on defence and do more.
Canada has a host of challenges that it needs to take care of in the coming years to protect Canadians and support our allies. We need more robust investment in public-private partnerships and defence innovation, as well as research on over-the-horizon capabilities. These investments will come in addition to our own continental responsibilities for Norad modernization, shoring up our Arctic and ensuring we procure modern and capable submarines. None of this will be possible on the cheap.
Next year, NATO will mark its 75th anniversary with a landmark summit in Washington, an ally that has long permitted — albeit with cyclical criticism — our defence free-riding. The days of hoping that the U.S. will overlook our lowballing commitments are over. Canada has finally recognized that the world has changed, and security threats are building. Now it is time to spend and invest in our future to ensure we protect Canadians and do our fair share to promote liberal values and the rule of law.
Jonathan Berkshire Miller is Senior Fellow and the Director of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, and National Security at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Balkan Devlen is Senior Fellow and the Director of the Transatlantic Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.