Trudeau likely to face questions on defence spending at NATO summit
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers remarks at the Komagata Maru Apology reception, Wednesday May 18, 2016 in Ottawa. (Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, July 7, 2016 7:15AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, July 7, 2016 4:07PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plan to turn Canada back into a peacekeeping powerhouse is expected to bump up against the threat of a new Cold War in Europe when he lands in Poland on Friday for his first NATO leaders' summit.
Trudeau will arrive armed with a promise to have Canada take a leadership role in a 4,000-strong NATO force being deployed in Eastern Europe. That is expected to include sending hundreds of Canadian troops to Latvia, where they will serve as a deterrent against Russian aggression in the region.
Officials speaking on background during a technical briefing ahead of the trip said it will be the largest Canadian deployment since the Second World War. It is also an indication of the country's strong and enduring support for NATO, they added.
While the message is expected to be welcomed, it could also be questioned.
NATO asked Canada to take a leadership role in Eastern Europe, not the other way around. The officials suggested this was a recognition of Canada's importance to the alliance.
But the Liberal government's agreement came after significant pressure from NATO leaders, including Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. President Barack Obama, who called on Canada during his speech to Parliament last week to do more for the alliance.
At the same time, the Liberals have made no secret of their desire to have Canada do more with the United Nations on peacekeeping. It is also in the midst of developing a new Canadian defence policy. NATO leaders will want to know where the alliance fits in the government's plans.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he supports Canada sending troops to Eastern Europe to help NATO against Russia. However, he was concerned about the government's apparent hesitancy, and predicted the summit would be an "eye-opener" for the prime minister.
"He's got this nostalgic view of peacekeeping," Bezan said. "I think it's a decision that goes farther than the prime minister was comfortable with. But what NATO is dealing with, not just with Russia, but (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Afghanistan and North Africa, requires intestinal fortitude."
NDP Defence critic Randall Garrison also welcomed Canada's new role in Eastern Europe, saying it's important that Canada continue to be an active member in the alliance. But he questioned how it squares with the government's overall vision for the military and defence, all of which is still up in the air.
"What is our larger strategy not just for Russia, but with the wider world?" he asked. "It's our lack of clarity of where we're going that leads to the arm twisting."
At the same time, both critics questioned whether Canada is investing enough in the military to sustain the commitment and whatever other operations the government plans to undertake.
Canada's defence spending was less than one per cent of gross domestic product last year. The NATO target is two per cent, and even with a slight increase this year, Canada will sit 23rd out of 28 allies.
ISIL and Afghanistan will figure prominently in the discussions between NATO leaders. After years of resistance, the alliance will contribute surveillance planes and a training mission to help fight ISIL. Given Canada's current involvement, Trudeau isn't expected to add anything new.
But he might on Afghanistan.
Two years after the last Canadian troops pulled out of the NATO-led mission there, the country remains awash in violence. As a result, Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. would slow its troop withdrawal from the country.
While Canada won't send soldiers, more than $100 million in annual funding for Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces is set to expire next year. Officials indicated Wednesday that an announcement on Canada's future engagement could come in Poland.
NATO leaders will also dedicate a special session on Saturday to Ukraine, a country Trudeau will visit after the summit and a brief stop at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Trudeau's trip abroad comes one day after he attend a closed door meeting with investors at a ski resort in Idaho. His office declined to provide a a transcript of his remarks to gathering, organized by New York-based private investment firm Allen & Company.