Canada's defence spending hasn't made it a NATO pariah — but that could change, ex-diplomat warns


Canada’s apparent unwillingness (or inability) to meet NATO’s defence spending target has not dented the country’s reputation among its allies, one of the country’s former top diplomats told MPs recently.

But the longer the war between Russia and Ukraine lasts, the more impatient other nations are likely to become, said former Canadian ambassador to NATO Kerry Buck.

Buck made her remarks before the House of Commons defence committee on Friday — just days after a report in the Washington Post, citing leaked Pentagon intelligence documents, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told allies that Canada will not meet NATO’s defence spending benchmark of two per cent of national gross domestic product.

CBC News has not seen the documents nor verified the contents. Neither Trudeau nor Defence Minister Anita Anand have flatly denied the report.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting of allies at a U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany on Friday, and later on CBC Radio’s The House, Anand refused to comment on what she described as “an allegedly leaked document.”

Canada's Defense Minister Anita Anand talks to journalists during a press statement prior to the meeting of the 'Ukraine Defense Contact Group' at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, Friday, April 21, 2023.
Defence Minister Anita Anand talks to journalists during a press statement prior to the meeting of the ‘Ukraine Defense Contact Group’ at Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein, Germany on April 21, 2023. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

She did not clarify what she meant by “allegedly leaked” but said that defence spending in Canada is on “an upward trajectory” and Canada is making meaningful commitments.

She suggested she sensed no ill-will among allies gathered in Ramstein to discuss the next stage of military equipment support for Ukraine.

“I was in a room with fifty countries and the feeling was one of unity, one of energy, one of optimism in terms of our collective commitment to Ukraine in its time of need,” Anand told The House.

As Anand’s meeting in Germany was wrapping up, Buck was testifying before the defence committee. She told the four-party panel of MPs that she hadn’t seen the documents “but [from] what I understand is in them, I agree with some of the criticism and I really disagree with some of the other criticism.”

Kerry Buck, Canada's ambassador to NATO, addresses a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.
Kerry Buck, Canada’s former ambassador to NATO, said NATO’s 2 per cent benchmark is becoming “a very important political standard” because of the war in Ukraine. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Aside from the question of defence spending, the Post report highlighted concerns among allies about Canada’s capacity to meet its alliance obligations, which include a commitment to expand a NATO battlegroup in Latvia to brigade-size.

Buck did not elaborate on which points she agreed with and which she did not. She’s among 62 top national security, military and business figures who signed a letter drafted by the Conference of Defence Association Institute urging the Liberal government to make national defence spending more of a priority.

The debate over meeting the NATO target is largely political, Buck said.

“I actually think that our reputation in NATO is pretty good,” Buck told MPs. “But the 2 per cent goal … Canada’s been clear that it’s a goal and nonbinding through two governments.”

The 2 per cent benchmark, she said, is becoming “a very important political standard. And it’s a very important political measure that is becoming more important. It’s becoming more important because of the war.”

Other allies, notably Germany, have committed to meeting the NATO benchmark. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, is on record saying that allied leaders likely will agree at their upcoming summit that 2 per cent of GDP should be “the floor, not the ceiling” for defence spending.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Canadian troops during a visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia on March 8, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Canadian troops during a visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia on March 8, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press)

And that, said Buck, is where the peril lies for Canada — “because all of our allies are climbing higher and higher and we’re not part of it.”

She noted that part of the reason Canada’s GDP percentage is not rising is because the Canadian economy is doing better relatively than those of its allies.

Retired vice admiral Mark Norman, former commander of the Canadian Navy, said politics is undermining Canada’s national security.

“It is my own view that the problem with military and defence and security issues in Canada is that they are in fact politicized,” Norman told CBC Radio’s The House. “Perhaps it’s naive of me to say that, but the reality is that.”

He said security and defence issues should not be used as political footballs or wedge issues.

Federal prosecutors stayed a breach of trust charge against Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.
Former commander of the Canadian Navy Mark Norman says matters of national security should be divorced from petty politics. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“Canadians should not have to worry about defence and security,” Norman said.

“There [is] a vast array of issues that they’re facing on a day-to-day basis and my view is that it is the government’s responsibility to look after these issues and to not turn them into issues of popular opinion or a political agenda. Because most Canadians would not and should not necessarily be concerned about defence and security.

“They need to know that they have sufficient defence and security, not just for the physical protection of Canada … but more importantly for the protection of Canada’s interests internationally.”

To some extent, the Liberal government recognized the risk of politicizing national security when it created the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) to keep tabs on the security services.

The Liberals promised to create an independent agency to handle military procurement but never followed through. When that campaign promise was made several years ago, the idea was to take the politics out of defence procurement.

Meanwhile, Canada’s inability to buy necessary military equipment in a timely manner affects its NATO defence spending percentage — and leads allies to wonder whether this country has the capacity to respond.

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