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Measuring Canada's defence commitment in terms of dollars a 'bad mistake': ambassador

CLEVELAND — It's an all-too-common "bad mistake" to judge Canada's commitment to global military security solely on the basis of how much money it spends on defence, President Joe Biden's envoy to Ottawa said Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the NATO summit, in Madrid on Thursday, June 30, 2022. A former U.S. envoy to Ottawa says he’s concerned about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly said about Canadian defence spending. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

CLEVELAND — It's an all-too-common "bad mistake" to judge Canada's commitment to global military security solely on the basis of how much money it spends on defence, President Joe Biden's envoy to Ottawa said Friday. 

David Cohen refused to comment on a Washington Post report this week that said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had privately told NATO officials Canada would never hit the military alliance's spending target of two per cent of GDP.

But he had a lot to say about whether Canada deserves its long-standing reputation as miserly when it comes to devoting resources to the Canadian Armed Forces. 

"I think it would be a bad mistake — and I frankly think that too many people are making this mistake … that somehow we need to assess Canada's commitment to defence by one metric," Cohen said. 

"I don't think that's right." 

Cohen was the keynote speaker Friday among several past and present U.S. ambassadors, trade lawyers and bilateral scholars gathered for the annual conference of the Canada-U.S. Law Institute in Cleveland.  

Canada makes its own decisions about priorities and budget allocation, he said. In 2014, it voluntarily agreed, along with a host of other allies, to aspire to the two per cent target originally established by NATO in 2006.

But Cohen suggested the country's support for Ukraine in its war against Russia and its plans to fortify Arctic defence should carry more weight in the policy debate than they currently do.

"Forget about the percentage of Canada's defence spend as compared to GDP. Canada has stepped up at every opportunity, whenever requested by the United States or by the UN, to provide military support to Ukraine," he said.

"Every time there's been a need, Canada stepped up." 

Cohen's defence stood in contrast to the assessment of one of his predecessors, David Jacobson, who told the previous night's awards banquet that he fears the consequences of what Trudeau reportedly said. 

Jacobson, who served as Barack Obama's ambassador from 2009 to 2013, said the Post report could make it harder for Canada and the U.S. to resolve future bilateral irritants.

"It's one of those things that causes governments to lose confidence," Jacobson said.

"It's a perfect example of what not to do in order to help solve some of the bilateral issues in both directions that are … legitimately very important to segments of the Canadian public and the American public."

Peter MacKay, who was the Canadian minister of national defence for six years under Stephen Harper's Conservative government, noted that Trudeau has not denied the report.

"It's notable that the prime minister didn't take the opportunity to clarify or contextualize or say that's simply not true. And so, the intrigue festers," MacKay said in Cleveland.

"I still hold on (to) some hope that we'll hear someone from government say, in fact, we will meet our two per cent (target), or we will continue to aspire to reach that level of spending."

The report, published online Wednesday and then Thursday on the newspaper's front page, was based on a document from a trove of Pentagon secrets leaked in recent weeks in an online chat forum for gamers. 

Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old IT specialist and member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was arrested last week and faces charges of violating the U.S. Espionage Act. 

The Post said the unsigned, undated document, which The Canadian Press has not seen, mentions "widespread" military deficiencies in Canada that are causing friction with security partners and allies.

Jacobson acknowledged a long-standing truth in the politically polarized U.S.: that public support for military missions abroad is fragile, especially when American taxpayers are footing the bulk of the bill.

While NATO has long struggled to get many of its members to meet its two per cent spending target, military spending in the U.S. is about 3.3 per cent of a GDP that is 13 times the size of Canada's.

By comparison, the federal government in Ottawa currently spends about 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence. 

"What will happen is that the American public is going to decide, 'Why should we do this? Why should we defend the world?'" Jacobson said. It's in the best interests of the U.S. to do it, he added. 

"But at some point, people are going to say, 'Well, we've got all these freeloaders' — I hate to use that term — 'we've got all these freeloaders and we're not going to do it anymore.'"

It's a turn of phrase that brings to mind former president Donald Trump, who frequently berated NATO allies for shortchanging the alliance — and who is running for president again next year.  

The Post story did not detail Trudeau's comments. But it did describe complaints from a number of allies about perceived shortfalls within the Canadian military.  

NATO, for instance, is "concerned" that Canada hasn't added to the ranks of its battle group in Latvia, part of a multinational deterrence mission in eastern Europe known as Operation Reassurance. 

Turkey was "disappointed" by Canada's apparent "refusal" to help transport aid after an earthquake earlier this year, while Haiti is "frustrated" by Canada's reluctance to mount a security mission there, the Post reported. 

"Widespread defence shortfalls hinder Canadian capabilities," the Post quoted the document as saying, "while straining partner relationships and alliance contributions."

The document appears to predate Biden's visit to Ottawa in March, which Canada capped with some showcase military spending, including on modernizing Norad, the binational continental defence system. 

"When you look at this on a threat assessment basis, and not just looking at a single data point, Canada has stood up. They have been responsible, they have been our partner, they talk to us," said Cohen. 

The "trajectory" of defence spending in Canada has also been gradually improving in recent years, he added. 

The Liberal government has committed to nearly $40 billion on Norad modernization and North American defence, along with $8 billion in military spending announced in the 2022 budget.

"In the Joe Biden view of the world, no country should be judged or assessed out there on their own for what they're doing in the defence space," Cohen said.

"The question is: what kind of a partner are you? We think of Canada and the United States as inextricably intertwined." 

As for Latvia, Canada has launched an urgent, competitive procurement process to equip troops there with anti-tank, anti-drone and anti-air defence systems, Defence Minister Anita Anand said.

The Post said the Forces warned in February that a major military operation was currently impossible, given the Latvia deployment and Canada's ongoing military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

The U.S. has been anxious to find someone to lead a multinational support mission in gang-ravaged Haiti, and officials have even name-checked Canada as a worthy option.

But Jacobson said his sense is that the question of Canada's role in Haiti is less a bilateral disagreement than a serious question about capacity. 

"One of the things I learned about military engagement is you can't do everything. You never have enough bullets, you never have enough tanks, you never have enough soldiers to do all the things you want to do," he said.  

"You have even fewer tanks and soldiers and bullets if you're spending 1.4 per cent of your GDP." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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