Trudeau heads for the hotseat at NATO summit as allies question Canada's defence commitments

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to Washington today for a meeting of NATO nations — where he's widely expected to hear some tough talk from allies behind closed doors about his government's refusal to deliver a clear plan to meet the alliance's defence spending targets.

Twenty-three of 32 NATO member nations are expected this year to meet the alliance target of spending a minimum of two per cent of their gross domestic products on defence. Canada is among a handful of NATO countries that don't meet that benchmark.

Former Canadian ambassador to NATO Kerry Buck said her experience of these summits suggests that the naming and shaming goes on behind closed doors at individual bilateral meetings.

When all the leaders gather together in formal sessions, however, names are not mentioned. Instead, statistics showing each country's contribution are flashed up on a screen.

"It's used as a political club," Buck said of the two per cent benchmark. "And no doubt, unless there's a signal before the summit, Canada will get beaten about the head and shoulders with that club."

Canada currently has a plan to get its military spending up to 1.76 per cent of GDP.

The Liberal government has vowed that planned military spending which has not yet been approved will push the country over the two per cent line. But those statements fall short of the clear plan NATO is expecting to see.

"If the government is smart, they should announce two per cent with a date and a plan before Washington. Because the longer we hang out there as the outlier, the bigger target space we're giving to whoever the next American president is," Buck said.

In a background technical briefing, senior government officials insisted Friday that the federal government's new defence policy represents Canada's commitment to getting to two per cent. One senior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, insisted the whole debate has been overblown.

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau climb a small staircase following their meeting in Ottawa March 24, 2023.
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau climb a small staircase following their meeting in Ottawa on March 24, 2023. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"Over time when we had these summits with Americans, or meetings, observers often expect the Americans to be critical of us, and frankly, it never happens," said the official, who pointed to U.S. President Joe Biden's spring visit to Ottawa, during which the defence spending target wasn't raised.

"The discussion going into that was, he was expected to come in and criticize Canada for not doing its part. In fact, the opposite happened. They see the contribution we're making. And they recognize it. And I expect nothing different next week."

That remark appears to ignore the fact that a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers wrote to the prime minister last spring urging Canada to meet the renewed benchmark, which was agreed to by all allies at last year's NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he holds a press conference ahead of NATO Defence Ministers' meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 14, 2024.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the two per cent benchmark is a floor, not a ceiling. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

On Friday, soon-to-retire NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underlined the two per cent commitment and said that allies are expecting more.

"We agreed last year that two per cent was the minimum," Stoltenberg said. "So of course we have more to do and I expect that at Washington we will then also strengthen the message about defence spending, or make sure that allies are delivering."

Some NATO nations want a 3 per cent benchmark

Also on Friday, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that some allies, such as Poland, are pushing for the benchmark to be increased to three per cent.

"Obviously, different allies have different circumstances," said the official, who spoke at a background briefing in Washington.

"We're going to continue to press for equitable burden sharing and for credible plans from all allies that haven't yet met the two per cent commitment to be able to reach that commitment as soon as possible in the coming years. And I think a number of allies will come to the table with credible plans for achieving that benchmark in the near-term future."

Another defence analyst said Prime Minister Trudeau is no doubt braced for whatever he hears from other NATO leaders — in private or in public.

"I'm sure he's prepared to be politely bombarded," said Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior official at the Department of National Defence (DND) who once ran the department's Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy. "I don't think anyone's going to strip the skin off over that."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind National Defence Minister Bill Blair as they hold a press conference on Canada's new defence policy at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont. on Monday, April 8, 2024.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind Defence Minister Bill Blair as they hold a press conference on Canada's new defence policy at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont. on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Bill Blair and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly will join Trudeau in Washington. In interviews and public statements over the past month, both ministers have hinted that Canada might have something more concrete to show allies in Washington — but government officials dialled back those expectations on Friday.

Blair said last month that Canada, Germany and Norway are discussing the possibility of a trilateral defence and security partnership covering the North Atlantic and the Arctic — one that would give Canada access to submarines the two European nations are jointly constructing. But officials attending the background briefing had nothing to add, saying the federal government was talking to a range of partners and those sensitive talks are ongoing.

Trudeau will meet with senior U.S. Senate officials and American business leaders about trade and economic files ahead of the summit.

Blair is also scheduled to speak to an influential foreign policy magazine and participate in a NATO policy forum on northern security.