Canada’s defense spending ‘likely wasn’t enough’ for America’s liking


WASHINGTON—For years, US administrations have wanted Canada to increase military spending. Former president Donald Trump was very vocal about it — though with Canada and other NATO allies, he often phrased his criticism of him as a matter of paying dues to the US in exchange for protection. But the same underlying issue was a persistent concern expressed by Barack Obama before him. Joe Biden’s ambassador to Canada, David L. Cohen, mentioned it during his confirmation hearings in the US Congress last year before assuming his post in December.

In response to a NATO-wide reassessment of military readiness after the invasion of Ukraine, Canada on Thursday unveiled an $8 billion increase in its defense budget — previously at $25.7 billion per year. It isn’t enough to meet the nations NATO’ pledge to spend two per cent of GDP on defense (federal officials told the Star Thursday it would bring Canada to about 1.5 per cent).

In an April 8 meeting with the Star’s editorial board, US Ambassador David L. Cohen said Canada’s $8-billion increase in defense spending “likely wasn’t enough,” but added the two countries will “continue to work together” to make defense a toppriority.

And Cohen told the Star in a visit to the editorial board Friday, it likely isn’t enough to satisfy the US government.

“I will say that an $8 billion increase in defense spending, even spread over a five-year period, is an increase. So let me acknowledge there was an increase. I will also say that it doesn’t seem like it was the kind of an increase that many in Canada were expecting, or that the United States was expecting, based on the prebudget rhetoric and conversations that were being held,” Cohen said. “For me, the headline is, it was an increase in spending. Likely wasn’t enough.”

Cohen pointed to the need to fulfill NATO commitments to protect European allies and to update the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to defend North America. He said increasing spending would be an ongoing topic of advocacy for the government he represents in Ottawa.

“We will continue to talk. We will continue to work together, we will continue to make sure that we maintain common defense and defense preparedness as a top priority for both countries.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken up the world order and caused a widespread reassessment of defense policy and spending. The European Union, for the first time, has begun buying weapons and giving them to a country at war. Germany overhauled its approach to military affairs and sharply increased its spending to meet the NATO target.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently called for Canada to essentially double its defense spending to meet the target. Canada joined other NATO leaders in recommitting to that budgetary pledge in a statement late last month after a meeting in Brussels, though at the time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wouldn’t directly say how or how soon Canada would do so. “We continue to have those discussions at home. We have a budgetary process underway right now,” he told reporters on March 25 in the wake of the NATO announcement. NATO officials are scheduled to meet again in Spain and provide updates on how its members intend to meet the targets.

On Wednesday, Parliament passed a Conservative party-sponsored non-binding motion that Canada “at least” meets the two per cent NATO pledge (governing Liberal members voted in favour, as did Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois, while the NDP and Green Party opposed it).

In any event, Canada has not approached the target in this budget, and Cohen diplomatically expressed his disappointment in speaking with the Star Friday.

But Cohen went out of his way to praise Canada’s leadership alongside the US in uniting western allies against Russia.

“Canada is very much a leader in the world movement for democracy. And I think the partnership and ally-ship between the United States and Canada has positioned Canada to say certain things to certain countries that go over better because Canada is saying it rather than if the United States was saying it,” Cohen said. “And the United States and Canada have been a very effective tag team in leading the coalition that’s been put together to isolate Russia.”

Cohen also followed his criticism of Canada’s defense spending in the budget by commending Ottawa’s recent decision, after more than a decade of delay, to purchase military F-35 jets from US company Lockheed Martin at a price of $19 billion. The jets will replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s.

“That is a very positive step for defense, not just because Lockheed Martin is a US company, but because the F-35 is an interoperable aircraft, with the United States fleet and with the bulk of the NATO air fleet,” Cohen said. “So that’s a significant component of enhanced defense that I don’t think is reflected in the budget numbers that were released yesterday.”

A senior Canadian official speaking with the Star’s Jacques Gallant on budget day Thursday implied more defense spending may be coming in the near future, after “conversations” about NATO collaborations, negotiations with the US on NORAD updates and a review of defense policy.

“The situation in the world has changed, and I agree it’s necessary to spend more,” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said in French after the budget was unveiled. “But it’s important to spend in a planned way, in an efficient way, and that is the reason we’re spending more today and saying we’re going to do a swift review of our military expenses and Canada’s needs.”

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