As the NATO alliance turns 75, Russia and Donald Trump once again threaten its future

OTTAWA – Brussels welcomes foreign ministers from 32 countries this week to commemorate 75 years since the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As the alliance celebrates its anniversary, it faces the familiar threat of an unpredictable Russia.

He is also preparing for the prospect of another dangerous situation he has faced before: a Donald Trump presidency.

The front-runner in the race to become the Republican nominee recently said he warned allies while president that the United States would not protect “delinquent” countries that did not meet their spending goals.

“’No, I wouldn’t protect you. In fact, I would encourage (Russia) to do whatever they want. You have to pay. “You have to pay your bills,” Trump said.

Despite similar comments during his presidency, Trump endorsed NATO’s collective defense article. But there are concerns that things will be different if he returns to the White House after the November vote.

Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement in former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration, said there may be fewer “emergency brakes,” with many veteran Republicans avoiding involvement in a Trump White House 2.0.

And in that case, the allies will need a plan to win him over. Think big, bold defense spending ads, with Trump as the guest of honor at a military parade, Bruen said.

The key, he said, is to “package it and put a really big, shiny bow on top that makes it look like he single-handedly brilliantly reformed NATO.”

“Trump is, at the end of the day, a negotiator and a businessman who I think could be co-opted and convinced to stay in NATO,” Bruen said.

At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats wonder whether allies receive more than they give.

There is intense debate in Washington over continued support for would-be NATO member Ukraine in its war against Russia.

“I think the real question right now is whether or not NATO is at its last gasp of strength,” Bruen said.

Kerry Buck, former Canadian ambassador to NATO, said the Russian invasion has forced the alliance to strengthen. European countries “have started to take defense much more seriously,” he said.

“If the United States starts reducing its presence, I don’t see NATO falling apart immediately.”

On Wednesday, journalists in Brussels asked Foreign Minister Melanie Joly if she is worried that a future Trump administration will mean the end of US aid to Ukraine.

“I am convinced that the United States will find a way to continue supporting Ukraine,” she said.

Eighteen allies will meet or exceed the agreed target of spending a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense this year, including 20 percent of that funding on major new equipment.

This was hailed as positive news by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, but the data also shows that Canada is lagging behind, spending just 1.33 per cent of its GDP on defence.

“This is a bad public image,” said Anessa Kimball, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Laval.

While Canada is not alone, it has further to go than any other ally. To close the gap, it would need to spend about $18 billion more a year.

Defense Secretary Bill Blair told a defense and national security conference last month that the country “must and will spend” more. At the same time, his department has been asked to find $1 billion in savings in each of the next three years.

At the last leaders’ summit in Lithuania last July, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted that allies were not pressuring him to provide the money.

But Kimball said it’s increasingly clear they want to see a plan for how Canada could get there.

He said the anniversary is an opportunity and Canada could advocate for NATO to modernize its spending agreement.

For example, Canada has a lot of work to do to build critical infrastructure (roads, airports, fuel and Internet) in the North. That type of spending would not count as defense and security for NATO purposes, but Kimball said there is an argument that it should be counted.

“Other countries are better at including those things in their defense spending because they have done it legislatively,” he said, pointing to Belgium, which has designated railways as critical infrastructure for national security and defense.

Bruen said Canada will need to come up with more money, with or without Trump. “I don’t think Canada can do this cheaply.”

To gain domestic political buy-in, Kimball said Canada can be a leader on the alliance’s emerging priorities.

“The fact that NATO is addressing climate change and taking an interest in the Arctic, for example, makes NATO more relevant to Canada’s defense and security,” he said.

All Arctic countries except Russia are now members, and Sweden and Finland have joined in the last two years.

Buck said that gives NATO a reason to have a strategic interest in a region it has stayed away from in the past, a region that Canada is already focused on.

“We should use multilateral bodies like NATO to partner more with other Arctic nations and make sure we have better military readiness, better military presence and better civilian presence,” he said.

“To make sure our Arctic remains our Arctic.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2024.

– With files from The Associated Press.

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