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Republican senator calls out Canada's 'feeble commitment' on NATO spending

WASHINGTON — A Republican senator welcomed Canada's new defence minister to the portfolio Wednesday with a pointed critique of what he called a "feeble commitment" to defence spending by America's northern neighbour. Sen.

WASHINGTON — A Republican senator welcomed Canada's new defence minister to the portfolio Wednesday with a pointed critique of what he called a "feeble commitment" to defence spending by America's northern neighbour. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) called out the federal Liberal government's consistent failure to meet NATO's two per cent spending target — and urged the man likely to take over command of the continent's defences to do the same. 

"Canada is not even close to its two per cent commitment," Sullivan said during a confirmation hearing for U.S. Air Force Lt.-Gen. Gregory Guillot, President Joe Biden's nominee to take over Norad. 

Sullivan called it "common knowledge" at this month's NATO summit in Lithuania that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was trying to "water down" the idea of establishing two per cent of national GDP as a minimum defence commitment. 

"Americans get frustrated when our allies don't pull their weight," Sullivan said. 

"With regard to NATO, Canada's not even close to pulling its weight. Can you commit to us to have those tough conversations, but important, with your Canadian counterparts?"

"Yes, senator, you can count on me to do that," answered Guillot, who if confirmed would succeed Gen. Glen VanHerck as commander of Norad, the shared Canada-U.S. continental defence system. 

The exchange came on the very day Trudeau announced a sweeping cabinet shuffle that saw former emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair take over as defence minister from Anita Anand, who held the portfolio since October 2021.

Canada's reputation on defence spending is nothing new — and recent U.S. headlines haven't helped. 

Sullivan cited a Wall Street Journal editorial earlier this month that described Canada as a "military free-rider" and the Liberal government as one that sees the armed forces "as more of a social project than a fighting force."

And in April, the Washington Post reported on leaked Pentagon intelligence that said Trudeau had privately acknowledged in meetings with NATO officials that Canada would never meet the two per cent target. 

On Thursday, Trudeau rejected the notion that Canada is a laggard on defence spending.  

Last year, the government promised to spend $38.6 billion on Norad upgrades over 20 years, including $7 billion on modern early-warning radar and $7.3 billion to prepare airfields and northern airstrips for the new fleet of F-35 fighter jets. 

"We've invested massively in Norad modernization just earlier this year, and we're continuing to step up in our NATO commitments," Trudeau said. 

Canada played a central role in securing more global support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, helped ensure Sweden would be swiftly added to the military alliance and is buttressing its presence in Latvia, he added.

"We continue to engage around the world, even as we continue to procure the kinds of equipment that the Canadian Armed Forces are going to need to continue to do their work," Trudeau said. 

"We're going to continue to step up in this time of increased concerns around security everywhere around the world."

Critiques of Canadian defence spending are often a popular talking point on either side of the border, both in Republican and Conservative circles. Former president Donald Trump was among the more scathing critics.

But Barack Obama, Trump's Democratic predecessor, also made a point of trying to shame Canada into spending more, albeit more diplomatically. 

"We'll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security," Obama said in a speech to the House of Commons during his last official trip north in 2016.

"The Canadian Armed Forces are really good and if I can borrow a phrase, the world needs more Canada. NATO needs more Canada."

Biden, however, has been largely silent on the matter, possibly to protect NATO solidarity in an era when U.S. angst about interventionist foreign policy is mounting and Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the march. 

Even past and present U.S. ambassadors to Canada have stayed true to form. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Post report in April, Obama's former Canadian envoy David Jacobson described Trudeau's private NATO musings as "a perfect example of what not to do" to preserve global solidarity.

The very next day, Biden emissary David Cohen struck an entirely different tone, rushing to Canada's defence.

"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."

During Wednesday's hearing, Sullivan also pressed Guillot on the role the Arctic — and, by extension, his home state of Alaska — will play in a new era of emerging international dangers posed by Russia, China and others. 

"When you're talking about beefing up in the Arctic, you're talking about beefing up in Alaska, correct?" Sullivan asked. 

"Yes, sir — and to your previous point, to talk to our Canadian counterparts about placing radars there as well," Guillot replied. 

"Hopefully they'll pay for that at some point," Sullivan interjected. "They're not very good at paying for missile defence either, even though we protect the whole North American continent." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2023. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press