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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

NATO without U.S. means Canada will have to do more

By: Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Canada will have to contribute more to NATO if the U.S. follows through on president-elect Donald Trump's musings on withdrawing from the alliance, says the head of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

Liberal MP Bob Nault cautions that Canada and its NATO partners need to see how U.S. foreign policy formally takes shape after Trump's Friday inauguration.

But he says Canada remains committed to the 28-country alliance and can't let it become weakened if the U.S. — its largest financial and military contributor — scales back its involvement.

"That means countries like ours will have to step up to the plate," Nault said in an interview Monday.

Nault said the upcoming defence policy review will help Canada decide where and how it should deploy its military resources. With a federal budget coming this winter that could mean an increase in defence spending, he added.

Nault and the committee are going to visit Latvia and Poland, two of NATO's eastern European members and nervous neighbours of Russia, which annexed part of Ukraine almost three years ago.

The MPs will travel to Ukraine as well as Kazakhstan on their 12-day, fact-finding mission.

The visit is timely, given Trump's frequent compliments directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin and his renewed criticism that NATO is "obsolete."

Trump also said he might end sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in return for a nuclear arms reduction deal.

Trump's latest NATO broadside sparked a backlash in Europe, while Moscow said his offer on linking sanctions relief with a nuclear arms deal should be treated with caution.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Trump's remarks "caused astonishment."

Trump criticize NATO during the election campaign, but his nominee for defence secretary, retired Marine general James Mattis, spoke in support of NATO during his congressional confirmation hearing last week.

In Ottawa, the government held firm to its current policy line, affirming Canada's commitment to NATO and its solidarity with Ukraine in the face of the "illegal annexation" of Crimea.

"Canada is a committed member of NATO; we have been a part of every single mission since its inception," said Joseph Pickerill, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Canada is one of four countries playing a leading role in NATO's military build-up on Europe's eastern flank to deter Russia with a 450-strong contribution of personnel to Latvia.

David Perry, senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said if Trump is taken literally it is bad news for the alliance, but he said it could just be a salvo by a self-styled hard-bargainer to push more countries to increase their defence spending.

That has implications for Canada, which lags at 23rd in spending in NATO, and currently contributes 0.99 per cent of GDP to defence spending — well below the alliance's two-per-cent target, he said.

The U.S. is one of only five NATO countries to meet the target and Trump wouldn't be the first president to push for more spending. President Barack Obama chided Canada to increase defence spending during his speech to Parliament last summer.

Nault said his committee will be speaking with European officials about the continuing role of NATO, whether the sanctions on Russia are effective and how the region is coping and "how this is all translating into the new world order."

The committee will report back to Parliament on whether sanctions are in fact working, or if they are an ineffective political tool, he said.

If the U.S. removed its sanctions on Russia, it would likely undermine the whole regime, Nault said.

Nault said the issue of "unintended consequences" of sanctions needs a closer look. Canada-Russia trade has fallen by half since they were imposed.

"If we're putting sanctions on as Canadians and we feel good about it, and nobody else is doing the job then really, is it to our benefit? That's the question that has to be asked."