James Bezan, Conservative MP for Selkirk–Interlake–Eastman, says the United States has fired a “warning shot” with a diplomatic letter strongly critical of the Canadian government’s failure to hit agreed-upon international targets for defence spending increases — and that it must be taken seriously.
Bezan, who served as the Conservative defence critic in the most recent session of Parliament, said the letter delivered from the U.S. government to the Department of National Defence, bluntly criticizing Canadian defence spending, should make it clear to Ottawa that it needs to step up its game if it wants to protect both itself and its core alliances in an increasingly restive world.
“I think it’s a very serious matter,” he said.
“This is a warning shot from the United States as well as from NATO that Canada needs to be spending more.
“There are some serious security risks out there that Canada needs to be a part of and if we’re going to address it seriously, then we need to figure out how we’re going to spend more.”
Bezan pointed to the Arctic as one particular area where he thinks Canada should be making a pointed effort to assert itself military in order to counter the threat of militarization by Russia, also an Arctic nation, as well as China, which has been eyeing the region for resource exploitation and commercial shipping.
He said Canada needs to invest in core alliances like NATO given the unpredictability the world currently faces.
“We can’t expect the Americans to always be the world’s policeman, and the threat environment that we’re facing from Russia, from China, from Iran, from North Korea, are playing into an unstable world — the great power struggles between the major nations,” he said.
Global News first reported on the existence of that letter on Sunday evening.
While Global News has not seen it, multiple sources have described its content and confirmed it does exist.
Canada and other NATO members pledged in 2014 to increase defence spending to the target of two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024.
That came as a result of pressure from Barack Obama, then-president of the United States.
But few countries, including Canada, have yet to live up to that pledge. U.S. President Donald Trump has aggressively gone after alliance members over the last two years in a bid to pressure them into spending what they promised.
According to NATO data from June 2019, the U.S. is the top spender on defence in the alliance, with its military budget worth 3.42 per cent of its GDP.
Greece, Estonia and the U.K. round out the top four with between 2.2 and 2.1 per cent of GDP.
Romania, Poland and Latvia are the only other members spending above the two per cent target.
Out of 29 member countries, Canada ranks 20th at just 1.27 per cent.
The Liberals in 2017 promised $62 billion in new money for the military over the next 20 years, but that would still only bring Canada to spending 1.4 per cent of its GDP on defence by 2026/2027 — three years after it was supposed to have hit its promised target of two per cent.
Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an expert on Canadian defence spending, also told Global News there’s no sign Canada is going to be able to hit those targets.
“Canada is not on a path to live up to the commitments that we were signing up for in 2014 in Wales,” he said.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson that relations with U.S. defence officials have strengthened because of Canada’s plan to increase defence spending, which would see levels rise from $22.9 billion last year to roughly $33 billion per year within the next decade.
But former Conservative defence minister Peter MacKay called it “a very serious diplomatic slap — not on the wrist, but in the face.”
“Those discussions can be forceful and frank but they took place face to face,” said MacKay about the talks with Americans about defence spending.
“Sending a démarche (diplomatic letter) is really ratcheting it up a notch.”
Bezan said if Canada wants to be taken seriously in the world and safeguard its alliances, it needs to “pick up the ball.”
“This really speaks more towards where Canada wants to be in projecting power in the world, how seriously we take our allies and how much we treasure the alliances through NATO and NORAD,” he said, calling increased spending “insurance” for Canadian defence and interests.
“You don’t sit back and not buy equipment until the whole world is starting to melt down … as long as we rest on our laurels, we’re a weak member of the defence team.”
—With files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson and Mike Le Couteur