Will Trump give Canada ultimatum on NATO?

Andrew Richter

With the surprise election victory of Donald Trump, the Canadian government will be faced with a range of difficult decisions, not the least of which pertains to defense spending.

How it approaches the issue may have a significant impact on the broader bilateral relationship the two countries will have under a Trump presidency.

Perhaps Trump’s most consistent message as a candidate was that he expects NATO members to spend more on defense, noting that the U.S. is paying a “disproportionate” share of the alliance’s costs, and that the “distribution” of these costs must change. He also suggested that several alliance members are “getting a free ride” — echoing a concern previously made by President Barack Obama — and countries that are not paying adequately for their defense may not be defended by the U.S. in a future crisis.

While Trump rarely mentioned the alliance’s spending target of two percent of GDP, his comments nonetheless drew attention to it. Canada currently falls well short, although just how far short may surprise some people. In 2016, Canadian defense spending will be less than one percent of GDP for the second year in a row, among the lowest such numbers in the alliance.

Most Canadians seem perfectly content with the country’s defense effort, as it gives the government considerable latitude in how it wishes to spend the bulk of its finances (and thus allows it to offer generous social programs). All states prefer to spend the minimum they can on defense, but most understand that there is a price to pay for sovereignty — and for ensuring that they can both defend the homeland and take part in military operations when required.

Canada is suddenly faced with the prospect of an incoming U.S. president who has made it clear that his administration will not tolerate defense free riding. While it is far too early to know what consequences countries might face if they fail to spend an adequate amount on defense, there can be little doubt that it will be one factor that the president will consider when evaluating a country’s larger relationship with the U.S.

This intrusion into fiscal decision making will be most unwelcome in Ottawa. And yet, it is worth recalling that as a long-standing and founding member of NATO, Canada played a part in the decision to adopt the spending guideline in the first place. No one forced Canada into accepting the target; it did so voluntarily, if admittedly unenthusiastically.

While there are numerous issues that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have to re-evaluate in the coming months, defense spending is certainly one of them. How his government approaches the issue may play an important role in determining how a President Trump views Canada, and more broadly help shape how his administration might view the larger Western alliance.

Andrew Richter is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.