OTTAWA — Canada intends to make “a substantial investment” in its military because it can no longer rely on the United States for leadership in the face of threats posed by terrorist groups or countries like Russia and North Korea, the Canadian foreign minister said Tuesday.
Echoing complaints made recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chrystia Freeland told Canada’s House of Commons that Washington is no longer committed to its position of world leadership, forcing Canada to invest in its own armed forces to defend liberal democracy.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,” Freeland said, never mentioning President Trump by name. But she said many of the voters in last November’s U.S. presidential election cast ballots “animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership.”
While setting out several areas where Canada has taken a different tack from Washington, Freeland conceded that Canada has not been pulling its weight in terms of its military spending. It’s a criticism that Trump has made of several NATO members, without singling out Canada. She promised that in the future Canada will do its “fair share.”
In 2016, Canada spent just over 1 percent of its gross domestic product on its military, half of the 2 percent level that is the goal of the NATO alliance. In fact, Canada ranks 20th of 28 NATO members in military spending. The United States is No. 1 at 3.6 percent of GDP.
“On the military front, Canada’s geography has meant that we have always been able to count on American self-interest to provide a protective umbrella beneath which we have found indirect shelter,” Freeland said. But she added that to depend totally on U.S. protection would make Canada a “client state.”
“To put it plainly, Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power,” she said.
“We will make the necessary investments in our military, to not only address years of neglect and underfunding, but also to place the Canadian armed forces on a new footing,” she added, without providing any figures. Freeland’s speech is to be followed Wednesday with an announcement of a new defense policy review.
Although Freeland was careful to say that Canada was “grateful” for the “outsized role” that the United States has played in the world, there was an undertone of disappointment throughout the speech, something seldom heard recently in Canada-U.S. relations.
The tone was in sharp contrast with the effusive mutual admiration evident in March 2016 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hosted by President Barack Obama at a White House state dinner, just months after Trudeau was elected. The Canadian prime minister said at the time that Canada and the United States were “actually closer than friends” and “more like siblings” as the two leaders shared notes on how to broaden trade links and battle climate change, issues on which Ottawa and Washington no longer see eye to eye.
Freeland said Tuesday that Canada remains “deeply disappointed” by the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Freeland noted that Canada will continue to back multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization and would seek new trade agreements as well as a modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Mexico.
Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, said she saw the speech as less a “shot against the U.S.” as an effort by Canada to reassert its voice on the international stage while continuing to be seen as a helpful ally to Washington.
She said she expects Trudeau’s government to invest significantly in new military equipment and boost defense spending but says the nation will probably not attain the 2 percent GDP threshold set by NATO. “I would be quite surprised to see a doubling of Canadian military spending,” she said.
Despite the widespread public backing for Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan, which ended several years ago, defense spending has seldom been a priority for Canadian governments, no matter their political stripe. At the same time, several large procurement programs for fighter jets and warships have been plagued by cost overruns and delays.