Federal government to offer NATO a ‘timeline’ for boosting defence spending

Stung by allies’ persistent criticism of its defence spending, the federal government is expected to unveil a timeline on Thursday to meet NATO’s military investment benchmark of two per cent of alliance members’ gross domestic product, a senior Canadian official said.

The official, speaking on background with Canadian journalists on Wednesday, offered nothing specific and would only say that the timeline will be presented at the close of the ongoing NATO leaders’ summit in Washington.

The Liberal government has been under rising pressure — internationally and more recently at home — to offer allies some kind of plan for accelerating its defence spending.

Defence Minister Bill Blair, speaking before a NATO forum late Wednesday, wouldn’t go as far to say Canada will present a full-fledged plan before leaders adjourn.

National Defence Minister Bill Blair delivers a keynote address at the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries annual defence industry trade show CANSEC  in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 29, 2024.
Defence Minister Bill Blair says he hopes to present NATO allies with ‘a credible and verifiable path’ to two per cent. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“I’m hoping over the next few days that we’ll be able to articulate for our [NATO] colleagues a credible and verifiable path for Canada and the investments we have to make,” he said.

In the days before the summit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a series of high-level meetings with the U.S. business community and top lawmakers from both American parties to sound out the depths of American frustration.

The senior Canadian official said Canada’s failure to meet the two per cent target has not come up in closed-door NATO meetings so far.

But the topic has been coming up in official Washington circles.

“Canada announced in the last couple days they won’t be ponying up,” Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson said — unprompted — at a Hudson Institute forum this week.

“They’re not going to do their two per cent. Why? They have the safety and security of being on our border and don’t have to worry about that. That’s shameful. If you’re going to be a member nation, you have to do your part.”

Man with glasses
House Speaker Mike Johnson called Canada’s lack of a plan to meet the two per cent benchmark ‘shameful.’ (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Johnson did not meet with Trudeau this week.

Republican U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell did hear the prime minister out and said he was unconvinced. 

In a post on X late Tuesday, McConnell said that while shared values and close economic ties have been the basis of the U.S.-Canada relationship, “it’s time for our northern ally to invest seriously in the hard power required to help preserve prosperity and security across NATO.”

Canada currently has a plan to get its military spending up to 1.76 per cent of GDP.

The Liberal government has vowed that planned military spending which has not yet been approved will push the country over the two per cent line. But those statements fall short of the clear plan NATO is expecting to see.

And the goalposts may be moving.

In NATO’s official summit declaration, released late Wednesday, the 32 NATO leaders praised the increase in defence spending across the whole alliance — but hinted that a higher threshold may be in the offing.

“We reaffirm that, in many cases, expenditure beyond two per cent of GDP will be needed in order to remedy existing shortfalls and meet the requirements” in an unsettled international landscape, said the declaration.

A representative in Washington for Canada’s business lobby says the absence of a promise to hit the two per cent target was turning into an irritant affecting Canada’s interests in other areas.

John Dickerman, the U.S. representative for the Business Council of Canada, described going to meet U.S. lawmakers with delegations from Canada — while the Canadians want to talk about trade and economic issues, the Americans keep asking about military spending and Arctic infrastructure modernization.

“We’ll go in with the intent to speak about the trade and investment relationship and we get started and they will say, ‘Hold up for a second, we’ve got a couple of issues that we’d like to talk to you about,'” Dickerman told CBC News on Wednesday.

“We’ve been asked by different members of Congress what our plans are for the Arctic, what our plans are for defence spending, and how the private sector can influence the government to actually live up to their commitment.”

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