Canada increasingly isolated as allies pledge more military funding in response to Ukraine invasion


Years of being needled by Donald Trump didn't convince the Trudeau government to substantially increase spending on the armed forces. The war in Ukraine seems to be making a much more forceful argument.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, shake hands with members of the Royal Air Force during a visit to RAF Northolt in London, Monday March 7, 2022.(Henry Nicholls/AP)

Even as Donald Trump was making his most strident complaints about NATO allies spending too little on defence, some member nations — Canada, the Netherlands and Germany, in particular — seemed largely unmoved by the now-former U.S. president's broadsides.

Over the past two weeks, Russia's war on Ukraine — with all of its brutality and capricious destruction — seems to have succeeded where Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama failed.

At the best of times, debates about defence spending as a percentage of gross domestic product are sterile affairs that engage accountants, statisticians and those interested in the military — and almost no one else.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands presented a study in contrasts Monday when reporters asked whether Russia's attempt at regime change in Ukraine would goad allies into meeting the NATO spending benchmark of two per cent of national GDP.

Germany — perhaps the most pacifist power in Europe — overturned decades of foreign policy when Chancellor Olaf Scholz ordered weapons shipments to help prop up the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pledged to meet NATO's spending target (Germany spends 1.5 per cent of its GDP on defence).

Canada currently spends 1.39 per cent of its GDP on defence. Trudeau has long argued that his government has a plan to increase the defence budget to $32 billion over several years.

But Ottawa has never even pretended to have a plan to meet the two per cent target, despite the fact that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper committed to it in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Trudeau admits defence 'context is changing rapidly'

On Monday, Trudeau offered a sign (grudgingly, his critics would say) that his government's often-touted defence policy could be swept away by the invasion and the threat of war in Ukraine spilling over into other parts of eastern Europe.

In front of both Johnson and Rutte, Trudeau said his government recognizes "that the context is changing rapidly around the world, and we need to make sure that the women and men who serve in the Canadian Armed Forces have all the equipment necessary to be able to stand strongly as we always have as members of NATO.

"We will continue to look at what more we can do."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he meets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at RAF Northolt near London on March 7, 2022.(Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Johnson — whose country spends 2.29 per cent of GDP on defence, according to the latest NATO figures — would not criticize Canada's defence spending but agreed with Trudeau that the world is no longer the same after Russia's naked aggression.

'Things have changed'

"We've got to recognize that things have changed and that we need a new focus on our collective security," Johnson said. "And I think that is increasingly understood by everybody."

Given their place on the European continent, the Dutch haven't needed much convincing. Rutte said the country's cabinet decided in January to ramp up annual military spending by billions of euros. Right now, the Netherlands spends 1.45 per cent of its GDP on defence.

"This will bring us closer to the two per cent and probably we need to do more, particularly given what has happened over the last two weeks," Rutte said. "But the Netherlands will spent a lot of extra money on defence, and I think rightly so."

After meeting with Johnson and Rutte in the U.K. on Monday, Trudeau departed for Latvia, where Canada has over 500 troops taking part in NATO's mission to the reassure the three Baltic states being rattled by Russia's violence.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all exceed the NATO two per cent defence spending target.

Trudeau and others in his government have argued over the years that there are other ways to measure the utility of a country's military contributions — that it should be judged based on the value of its deployments of troops, equipment and expertise, for example.

A recent report from Carnegie Europe tended to agree, arguing that the two per cent target is not an accurate benchmark for measuring military capability.

After the events of the past two weeks, that argument may be moot.


Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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