In an awkward exchange, Trump pressed Trudeau on Canada’s defense spending commitment. “We’ll put Canada on a payment plan,” said Trump. “What are you at?” he continued. “What is your number?” Trudeau managed a reply, first citing a 70 percent increase in spending and highlighting money spent on fighter jets and naval fleets. Asked again by Trump about the percentage, Trudeau turned to a staffer who confirmed Canada is at 1.4 percent (It’s not. It’s 1.27 percent).
“They’ll get there, they’re getting there,” said Trump. In reply, Trudeau reminded the president that Canada is leading in Iraq and Latvia. A good member of the alliance. Some members, noted Trudeau, might spend 2 percent but they don’t “step up nearly as much.”
Let’s put the 2 percent aside. It’s a benchmark. Military spending is up. Canada is building capacity. The United States has criticized Canada’s military spending before — and that of others — and it will again. The bigger question is “So what?” What is Canada to do? What is the United States to do? The two countries are so deeply entwined on defense — NATO and NORAD, for instance — that barring some epic-level catastrophe, the two are bound up together. At least for now. But forever?
The bigger concern, beyond defense spending as a percentage of GDP, is what the future of NATO and defense in North America will be and whether allies such as Canada can rely on the United States in the long run. Given traditional and evolving security threats and the havoc that climate change is already causing and will continue to cause, Canada and Europe are both right to be concerned about both their security and the health of the American republic — which is, at best, uncertain, and likely in decline.
In the immediate future, Canada must survive Trump. Wait him out and do what can be done to minimize damage. That was the play on negotiating NAFTA. Trump is undermining the Western alliance — and testing the patience of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has criticized the American president more than once and been attacked by Trump in turn. Macron has said that NATO is experiencing “brain death” and he stands by that claim. He’s right. And Canada should take note.
So what is Canada to do with an increasingly unpredictable and pathological hegemon for a neighbor? What is the future of defense policy in Canada — and must it be bound up with the United States? In Europe, there are new ideas floating around. One is the prospect of a European army. In North America, this isn’t an option (thankfully.) But is there an approach that decouples Canadian defense policy from the United States in the event of an emergency? If you ask around Ottawa, the answer seems to be no. Or a shrug.
Count me as a shrug. Or a shrug-plus. The plus is the recognition that it’s time for Canada to have a national public conversation about the future of its defense policy that puts everything on the table. Waiting and hoping for the best are tempting but insufficient. So, let the conversation begin.