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Trudeau Promises Not to Meet NATO's Defense Spending Minimum

09 May 2023
By Dr Jane Boulden
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau. Source: NATO/

Canada will commit only minimal resources to ensuring collective security. At a time of war in Ukraine, and high alert in NATO, such promises are unwelcome and deeply dismaying to all others who have committed to minimum spending goals. 

It’s hard to know what’s worse from the Canadian perspective: the fact that the Discord leak revealed that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff were writing about Canada’s military capabilities in a less than positive light or the fact that the Washington Post picked up on the leaked memo and ran it as an exclusive story. The memo refers to an apparent statement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a recent NATO meeting that Canada would never meet NATO’s benchmark defence spending goal of 2 percent of GDP.

What is remarkable is not so much what Trudeau said, but the fact that he said it. Canada’s failure to come close to NATO’s 2 percent goal is longstanding. The fact that the government anticipates being in that position for some time is also not a surprise. To tell close allies that we never intend to get there is something different.

The memo makes clear that Canada’s allies, including and perhaps most especially, the United States are unhappy about this, using words such as concern, strain, frustration, and disappointment. More worrying still, the memo states that Canadian military leaders “perceive that politicians do not care about supporting them.” A military struggling to fulfill its obligations in the face of financial stricture is one thing. A military struggling under financial constraint while feeling politically unsupported is quite another.

In response to the Post article, the prime minister stressed that Canada is a “reliable ally.” He and other officials pointed to Canada’s commitments and roles on the international stage, including the deployment of approximately 700 Canadian troops to Latvia, where they lead a NATO battle group. But this isn’t about the roles Canada plays. It’s about what it doesn’t do. And what it doesn’t do, and hasn’t done for many years, is to prioritise or even maintain military spending at a level that ensures its own capacity for basic defence, and also its capacity to support allies in a way commensurate to their commitment to us.

The memo revelations are unlikely to shame the Canadian government into change. Indeed, if the Canadian people were going to see a change, one of the most likely recent opportunities was in the government budget of April 2022. At that point, and against great odds, the Ukrainians had successfully pushed the Russians out of the north of their country and were making gains in the south.

Canada is home to the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine and Russia. Canadians of Ukrainian heritage are deeply entrenched in every aspect of Canadian society, including at the highest levels of government. Beyond the diaspora, Canadian public support for the Ukrainian cause, and dismay at the violation of territorial boundaries, is strong and widespread. If ever there was a moment when the Canadian government could have announced a major increase in defence spending, that was it. It did not happen.

At NATO’s core is the Article 5 collective security guarantee, the certainty that each will come to the other’s defence. The iron clad nature of that commitment is central to the organisation’s strength, as witnessed by President Joe Biden’s warning to Russia of the commitment to defend “every inch” of NATO territory when Russia began its advance into Ukraine. It’s what keeps the organisation together and makes states like Finland and Sweden want to join. Saying Canada won’t meet the 2 percent target is not the same as saying Canada won’t come to the defence of its allies if needed. It is, however, the equivalent of saying Canada won’t even try to match the commitment everyone else has made to a baseline of preparedness.

The attention on Canada’s dismissal of the 2 percent goal reflects a larger issue – that Canada’s military capacities are limited; that it is incapable of more than one major commitment at a time; that its support for its allies is thus also limited, and that this situation is unlikely to change in the near to medium term. Although allies have been suitably diplomatic in their responses to the memo’s revelations, to say Canada has no intention of meeting the 2 percent goal is a signal of disrespect that has surely not been missed by them.

Canada is in a unique position geopolitically. Canada and the US share the longest undefended border in the world. The second largest country on the globe, more than 80 percent of Canada’s population lives within 150 kilometres of the US border. Canada makes a vital contribution to US national security by its simple presence on the US northern border, not just as a firm ally, but as a total non-national security threat. The reverse is also true. Much of the explanation as to Canada’s approach to defence spending can be found in those facts. Canada minimises its defence spending because it can, because it knows that any serious threat to its own territorial integrity will be seen by the United States as an equivalent threat to its own territorial integrity. This implicit “free ride” on defence is both a fact and a choice. And, it is all the more reason to do more, or at least to aspire to do the minimum.

So why put up with it? Canada’s strong international reputation has its historical roots in the two world wars. In each case, Canada raised a military that was among the strongest of the allies, and its performance on the battlefield exceeded all expectations. NATO allies know that in a crisis Canada will do its best to support them. The problem is that its best won’t be as good as it could be without sustained and truly substantial increases in defence spending.

Jane Boulden is a Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. From 2004-2014 she held a Canada Research Chair in International Relations and Security Studies. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy. From 2000 until 2004 she was a MacArthur Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.