NATO secretary-general urges Ottawa to meet its defence spending target

NATO secretary-general urges Ottawa to meet its defence spending target
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, after meeting with President Joe Biden, Monday, June 17, 2024.

Canada needs to meet NATO’s minimum defence spending target, said the alliance’s secretary general as he visited Ottawa Wednesday.

“Canada’s standing in NATO is strong, but at the same time of course we expect all allies to make good on the promise of investing two per cent,” Jens Stoltenberg said during an event hosted by the NATO Association of Canada.

“That’s no way to hide that.”

Numbers NATO released this week show Canada is expected to spend 1.37 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence this year.

NATO members have agreed to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. Last year members agreed that two per cent should be a minimum, a reflection of worries over Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Stoltenberg acknowledged it’s tough for politicians to prioritize defence over social services, but said a precondition of success in any Western country is preserving peace — and investing in security.

He said Canada faces the same challenges as “all the allied countries that have budgets. They’re concerned about the fiscal balance. They want to spend money on health, education and on the other things.”

But he argued that at the end of the day, if those countries aren’t able to prevent war, their efforts on health, education and climate change “will fail.”

READ MORE: U.S. senators write to Trudeau, urging Canada to meet NATO spending target

Stoltenberg said he is looking forward to having a plan from Canada on how it will meet the target.

His remarks received enthusiastic applause from the NATO Association of Canada, including from former defence minister Anita Anand, who snuck in the back to listen to his remarks.

A handful of protesters gathered outside a building in the parliamentary precinct where Stoltenberg spoke.

On the sidewalk in front of the building, “Canada lagging behind our NATO allies” was written in chalk, along with “Trudeau and Blair laughing stocks of the world” and “Canadians are not laughing.”

Defence spending across European allies and Canada was up nearly 18 per cent this year alone, Stoltenberg said during a speech at the White House on Monday — the biggest increase in decades.

Blair has said Canada’s defence spending will climb to at least 1.75 per cent of its GDP by 2029.

He asserted Wednesday that additional spending on a new submarine fleet and integrated air defence and missile systems will probably push the figure past the two per cent mark.

“Let me assure you that we’ve been doing a great deal of work within our Defence Department, with the government of Canada, but also with our NATO allies,” Blair said.

He said allies were “very encouraged” by a defence policy update Canada released earlier this year.

Stoltenberg said defence spending will be among a number of topics he will be raising with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Blair.

Others include getting Canada to scale up its contribution in the North and maritime operations.

Both Blair and Anand, now treasury board president, acknowledged this week that spending is delayed because of a shortage of procurement workers.

“We have the ability to accelerate spending. It does require an investment in people to get the job done,” Blair said.

The Liberal government has set aside $1.8 billion over 20 years to increase the number of workers who can purchase new equipment, recruit, train new soldiers and upgrade infrastructure.

Stoltenberg’s last visit to Canada was in August 2022, when he and Trudeau spent time in the Arctic together.

That region is the highlight of Canada’s most recent defence policy update, and it’s seen as increasingly important to NATO since Sweden and Finland joined the alliance.

NATO leaders are set to meet in Washington, D.C., next month for an annual summit and mark the alliance’s 75th anniversary.

Increasing funding for Ukraine will be an agenda priority, after Stoltenberg came forward with a proposal for all NATO allies to contribute 40 billion euros a year, Blair said.

At the White House, Stoltenberg said his expectation for next month’s meeting is to have allies agree “to step up financial and military support to Ukraine,” and reduce the burden on the U.S.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

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