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Monday, April 11, 2016

Sajjan defends Canada’s military budget after Donald Trump slams NATO ‘free riders’

By: Lee Berthiaume, The National Post

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has defended Canada for bringing up the rear in terms of military spending among NATO members, after U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and a number of U.S. senators recently slammed the alliance for being full of “free riders.”

All NATO members signed a declaration in Wales two years ago agreeing to increase defence spending to two per cent of gross domestic product within a decade.

But NATO says Canada spent just one per cent of GDP on defence last year, the smallest amount since before the Second World War. While most other NATO members have also failed to fulfil their commitment, Canada is currently in the bottom third of the alliance in terms of defence spending as a percentage of GDP.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Sajjan questioned NATO’s figures. “My question back is: What formula would you like us to use?” he said. “If we use the different formulas of various other countries, we can crunch the numbers and we can move it up to 1.3 (per cent of GDP), 1.4, potentially even 1.5.”

At the same time, Sajjan said what’s important is that Canada is contributing to a large number of military operations that directly and indirectly benefit NATO. That includes sending troops to Ukraine and Poland, deploying a frigate to the Black Sea, and helping stop drug traffickers in the Caribbean.

“So when you actually look at what Canada is doing and what investment we have made to certain capabilities that supports those operations, then I would like to say: Before you talk about how much money and that percentage, talk to me about what each nation is actually doing,” Sajjan said.

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Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said NATO’s formula for calculating spending is standardized for all alliance members. And while he sympathized with the view that it’s what you do with your military, not how much you spend, he said Canada still made a commitment to spend two per cent on defence.

“That’s what we signed up to,” Perry said. “That’s the metric we’re measured against.”

The question of NATO members not pulling their weight emerged last week as a potential issue in the U.S. presidential election, after Trump called the alliance “obsolete” and accused a number of countries of being “free riders.”

While many of Trump’s comments during the Republican primary have been dismissed as absurd or worse, some U.S. analysts have said Trump’s comments on NATO reflect a growing sentiment within the American populace — and even some parts of official Washington.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg got an earful from angry senators during an hour-long, closed-door meeting in Washington last week, according to Foreign Policy magazine. The senators wanted to know why only five of 28 NATO members were spending two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.

The British government, which spent about 2.07 per cent of GDP on defence last year, also sent a diplomatic message to Ottawa and other NATO capitals in January indicating their unhappiness with the lack of progress made toward meeting the Wales commitment.

lberthiaume@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/leeberthiaume