Blair ‘not worried’ about potential U.S. withdrawal from NATO under Trump

Click to play video: 'Defence Minister Blair says feds exploring ways to hold ‘this very oppressive regime to account’ following Navalny death'
Defence Minister Blair says feds exploring ways to hold ‘this very oppressive regime to account’ following Navalny death
WATCH: Defence Minister Blair says feds exploring ways to hold ‘this very oppressive regime to account’ following Navalny death – Feb 18, 2024

Defence Minister Bill Blair says he’s “not worried” about the United States’ continued commitment to NATO and other international alliances, including NORAD, amid recent comments from Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

In an interview with Mercedes Stephenson from the Munich Security Conference that aired Sunday on The West Block, Blair said he’s “confident” not just that NATO will remain strong, but that Trump would change his tune on potentially withdrawing the U.S. from NATO if he were to see the alliance at work today.

“I’m actually confident that if former president Trump had an opportunity to see the unity of purpose, the strength and resolve of the NATO alliance to significantly increase their defense spending … I think he would have a greater appreciation of the value of NATO,” the minister said.

“I’m confident in NATO’s commitment, and I’m also confident that the United States continues to be supportive of that commitment.”

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Trump has begun repeatedly suggesting the U.S. wouldn’t defend NATO members that don’t meet the alliance’s non-binding pledge to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence — a club that includes Canada, which currently spends 1.38 per cent. Trump has falsely equated the pledge with membership dues and complains other members are leeching off the U.S. military.

Click to play video: 'How Trump’s threats could affect Canada, NATO allies'
How Trump’s threats could affect Canada, NATO allies

Some of Trump’s current advisers have floated the idea of a “two-tiered” approach to NATO, where the U.S. would still offer protections to countries that meet the two-per cent spending target if attacked by a foreign power — under the alliance’s Article 5 — and not defend members that don’t spend enough.

Blair wouldn’t commit that Canada will one day meet that two per cent threshold, but did say more investments in defence are coming.

“We are looking to do more,” he said. “Canada must do more and needs to do more. We will be doing more with respect to defence spending.”

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The minister would not provide specifics, instead pointing to previous commitments to boost defence spending through 2026 and $40 billion in investments to modernize Canada’s NORAD capabilities. He said he’s “confident” more will be announced at the next NATO leaders summit in July.

Those NORAD modernizations are already underway in Canada’s north, including over-the-horizon radar and critical infrastructure supports. Blair said his meetings with northern premiers and a recent visit to NORAD’s Colorado Spring headquarters have convinced him Canada and the U.S.’s commitment to NORAD will continue to grow — even in a Trump presidency.

“I’m not worried, but I’m highly motivated,” he said. “I’m resolved. And we’re going to do that work and get the job done.”

Blair suggested Trump would be impressed by the strength NATO has gained in the two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the alliance’s ongoing work to help in Kyiv’s defence. But Trump has openly questioned continued U.S. funding for Ukraine and called for a negotiated end to the war — something NATO and Ukraine have staunchly refused to support.

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Joly says NATO is ‘more united than ever’ after Trump threatens to abandon allies

The minister said reports of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death in prison on Friday offered a stark reminder of the importance of continuing to stand against Russia. Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya was also at the Munich Security Conference and took the stage in response to the reports, vowing Russian President Vladimir Putin must be held accountable for her husband’s death.

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“It was very emotional, I think, for very many of the participants,” Blair said. “And I think it really places a great deal of punctuation and concern on one of the main themes of this conference, which is Russia’s illegal intervention and invasion of Ukraine.”

He said Canada’s mounting sanctions on the Russian regime and those aiding or benefitting from the war in Ukraine have been successful, but that Canada and other western countries are “going to continue to explore ways in which we can hold this very oppressive regime to account.”

Concerns in Middle East

Blair was also pressed on his and the Liberal government’s positions on the conflict in the Middle East, which has come under scrutiny as Israel’s military offensive in Gaza continues.

The defence minister said he still believes in Israel’s right to defend itself and the need to eliminate the terrorist threat posed by Hamas.

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“But eliminating that terrorist threat can’t be done at the expense of the Palestinian people,” he continued. “There’s a lot of innocent people who have have suffered, and we’re very concerned.”

He also echoed the government’s public opposition to Israel’s planned offensive in Rafah, where Palestinians in Gaza that fled the territory’s north under Israeli orders are now residing, and support for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to allow the entry of aid and the release of hostages taken by Hamas.

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Blair said he sympathizes with Liberal MPs like Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs whose private comments criticizing the government’s position on Israel and Gaza — including the suspension of funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — went public last week.

“I’m sure he’s been deeply moved by the plight of those innocent civilians” in Gaza, Blair said. “One of the things I think is the strength of our government is that diversity of opinion.

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“I think that the position that the government has taken is the right one. But I understand and I have some sympathy for concerns that are being expressed by a number of my colleagues.”

Blair said he’s also focused on ensuring the safety of Canadian troops in the Middle East, particularly amid escalating attacks by Houthi rebels and other groups backed by Iran on commercial ships and U.S. and British military assets.

“I’m always concerned about the safety and well-being of members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” he said.

“We will take all the steps necessary to keep our people as safe as possible, as they do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job for us.”

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