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Trump win puts pressure on Ottawa to boost military spending

A Canadian soldier stands on board of the HMCS Fredericton ship docked at Constanta harbor in Constanta, Romania, on March 13, 2015.

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump's ascension to the White House is expected to play havoc with Canadian defence policy, putting heavy pressure on the Trudeau government to increase Canada's modest military spending.

The presidency of Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly professed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, casts doubt on the future of the NATO military alliance, which has been a bedrock of Western foreign policy for close to 70 years.

As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Canada has committed, on paper at least, to boosting military spending to 2 per cent of annual economic output. Right now, however, Ottawa spends about 1 per cent of this country's Gross Domestic Product on defence.

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U.S. leaders have tried to nudge Canada to do more for decades. Even President Barack Obama tried, diplomatically, during his speech to the Canadian Parliament in June, where he said NATO would be "more secure when every … member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security."

Mr. Trump is not expected to be so gentle. During the U.S. election campaign, he suggested pulling out of NATO, or failing to come to the aid of member states not paying their full dues. "It's possible that we're going to have to let NATO go," he said in April. "When we're paying and nobody else is really paying, a couple of other countries are but nobody else is really paying, you feel like the jerk."

Fen Hampson, distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said it would be wrong to assume that Mr. Trump was merely playing to the cameras and will revert to more standard policies on allies' military spending or on NATO.

Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute predicts Canada will face "huge pressure" from a Trump administration, backed by a Republican-controlled Congress, to increase defence spending. "We've benefited since the Second World War from a whole number of co-operative arrangements with the United States on defence where the U.S. carries a disproportionate share financially."

He noted that Canada, for instance, has to replace the North Warning System chain of radar sites that provide surveillance against aerial incursions. This will cost billions of dollars and the United States picked up the majority of the tab for past installation construction, he said. "I think he's going to be expecting Canada to do a lot more of its own heavy lifting in its own backyard."

Canada is already gearing up to mount a defence of its military commitments, with David MacNaughton, Canada's ambassador to the United States, telling reporters Wednesday that critics should count deployed soldiers and not just budget figures. He noted Canada's recent commitment to send about 450 soldiers to Latvia in 2017 as part of NATO deterrence against Russian aggression.

"It's easy to throw around numbers … some people, when they want to talk about defence, send their accountants out and we tend to send our soldiers out. I think we have stepped up to the plate in terms of defence and NATO," Mr. McNaughton said.

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Former Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay said Canada is "absolutely not" spending enough on defence right now. He noted, though, that Canada has to make the case before NATO that dollars aren't all that matters – that commitments of deployments and capital spending matter, too.

He said, however, he doesn't believe the peacekeeping missions being contemplated by the Trudeau government will "cut it in the eyes of a Trump administration."

Canada has so far refused to sign on to the Pentagon's F-35 fighter-jet program and it's not clear whether this reluctance will hurt Ottawa, because Mr. Trump has attacked the plane as a waste of taxpayer money.

Roland Paris, who served as Mr. Trudeau's top policy adviser before stepping down this past June, said Mr. Trump's attitude toward NATO is worrisome for U.S. allies "This is potentially profound. America's unqualified commitment to European security has had a deeply stabilizing influence on that continent for more than 60 years. … Donald Trump seems to view NATO as a kind of protection racket rather than an alliance. We're entering a period of uncertainty, which is potentially destabilizing."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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