NATO's Free Riders

Trudeau NATO.jpg

True to form, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has again ventured to Europe to inscribe his progressive values on yet another global forum, this time in a speech to Canada's NATO allies. "People around the world who are receiving the impacts of NATO don't just benefit from the security elements of it, but benefit from this story we are telling—that democracies matter and that our values and principles matter," Trudeau averred. Just for good measure, he took an easy swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump, whose ostensibly radical and rude remarks have made him, once again, the bête noire of our genteel European allies. "You can try and be a bean-counter and look at exactly how-much-this and how-much-money-that," Trudeau scolded. "The fundamental question is: Is what you're doing actually making a difference?"

He's right. That is the fundamental question.

Let's assume, just hypothetically, that NATO is a military alliance. Let's go even further and allow that its raison d'être is collective security, in accordance with Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that "the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." Let's assume as well that Canada—a vast country with a massive coastline and a tiny population—has no hope of defending its territory from external military threats and thus is even more dependent on the American military umbrella for its security and prosperity than the parsimonious Europeans. And let's agree that the one person who understands this continental reality at least as well as the Canadian prime minister is the U.S. president, who once called America's NATO allies "free riders." (If you're wondering, those are President Obama's words, not Trump's.)

Until just recently, we've had to dig deeply among the fruits of our national media to find anything resembling an honest conversation about Canada's contribution to its own national security, which currently stands at a paltry 1.23 percent of GDP. This is because we in Canada have been luxuriating for so long in our fireproof house that we now consider open debate about military expenditure and procurement to be, well, uncivilized—a relic from the Cold War era, when the Soviet threat made us all, by necessity, hard-headed realists. For as long as virtually any living Canadian can remember—i.e. since JFK scolded PM Diefenbaker in the early 1960s for being a laggard on continental defence—Canadian realpolitik about military preparedness has given way almost uniformly to Canadian rationalization. (That only five of NATO's 29 member states today contribute to NATO at the agreed-upon level of 2 percent of GDP provides us with political cover, it is true, but it does not change the fact that we are "ratting on the agreement," as an editorial in Britain's Spectator put it.)

We saw this gift for rationalization at work yesterday, as Canada's Trump-obsessed op-ed writers tumbled into line. CBC's man in Brussels, Murray Brewster, stated that Trudeau's speech about NATO's values marked a triumphant coup de grâce over Trump's "jaw-dropping inaccuracies." Veteran Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin reasoned that because NATO already spends twelve times what Russia does on its military, it is actually Trump's "enough is never enough" obsession with defence spending that is out of line. Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin exhumed an old peacenik trope, arguing that "the U.S. doesn’t spend that money to defend others too cheap to protect themselves. Military spending, or spending justified in military terms, has under-girded the U.S. economy since the Cold War."

President Trump's belligerent diplomatic style makes it well-nigh impossible for America's NATO allies to fall in behind his leadership as they did with his predecessors or, more to the point, to accede to his blunt demands without losing face to a degree that would be politically suicidal. That, among other things, was demonstrated in Brussels last week. But claims that Trump is out to destroy the alliance are, as usual, overblown; and the evidence that he is correct about how dysfunctional NATO has become in recent years is all too real.

Canadians are no more likely than the Germans or the French to ask President Trump "How high?" when he tells them to jump. Fair enough. But this should not preclude us from taking this timely opportunity to follow our European allies and embark upon a serious debate about collective security and military spending—something even our most agreeable American protectors have been urging upon us for decades.