POINTE-CLAIRE, QUE. -- Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is pledging that a future government would cut what he calls "wasteful foreign aid" and would not allow funding to go to "dictators, terrorists and multinational bureaucracies."

He made the comment Thursday in response to a question about his position on NATO's military spending targets, as ministers from the military alliance meet in Brussels.

Poilievre is offering early insights this week into his thoughts on defence spending, as he continues to focus his messaging on cost-of-living issues -- and as public opinion polls show Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals trailing the Tories.

The Conservative leader's office says a future Poilievre government "will work towards meeting Canada's NATO spending commitment" of two per cent of its GDP, as Ottawa continues to fall well short of the target.

Former United States president Donald Trump said at a recent rally for his re-election that he would encourage Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to any NATO member that shirks its spending commitment.

Trudeau's national defence plan hinges on the U.S. protecting Canada, Poilievre told a news conference Thursday in Pointe-Claire, Que., a municipality near Montreal.

"His plan for national defence is to rely on Joe Biden or Donald Trump to protect Canada. That puts America in charge of Canada's future -- I don't want that."

He said he would divert money from foreign aid back to Canada's military.

Poilievre's office did not immediately specify which countries or programs would be on the financial chopping block.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said Poilievre's proposal would lead to a "diminishing of Canada's influence on the world stage."

"This is shocking to me and to our government," he said Thursday. "It will mean that it is a cut against support to the most vulnerable people in the world."

Last month, Poilievre pledged to permanently stop funding a United Nations agency that supports Palestinians amid allegations some of its staff played a role in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

After the accusations emerged, the federal Liberals said they would pause funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNWRA.

The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper halted funding for the agency back in 2010, and the Liberals restored it in 2016 after coming into power. In 2010, Harper announced his government would freeze foreign aid for five years as a way to balance the budget. Spending cuts came two years later.

Poilievre has pledged to also withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and slash the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

He vowed on Thursday to find more money for defence spending by taking aim at bureaucracy and defence contractors.

The Department of National Defence boasts a budget of around $26.5 billion in the current fiscal year. That amount is expected to increase to almost $40 billion by in 2026-27.

Most of the budget for the next several years is tied up in long-term spending commitments -- for example, the purchase of 88 F-35 fighter jets.

The most recent federal budget announced plans to find more than $15 billion in savings over five years by cutting consulting, professional services and travel by 15 per cent and departmental spending by three per cent.

As of last year, Canada's defence spending sits just shy of 1.3 per cent of its GDP.

"The world is more complex, more challenging and impacting people's daily lives in ways that were hard to imagine even just a decade ago," Trudeau said Thursday when asked about Trump's NATO comments.

"Canada will, as is consistent, stand up for our interests and our values, but allow the democratic process to unfold fully in the United States without our interference."

When it comes to foreign affairs more broadly, Poilievre told a roundtable of ethic media convened in Brampton last week that his focus would be on defending Canada's interest.

"I want a foreign policy that stands up for this country, this country alone," he said. "Our own interests are primordial, are first and foremost and that's what we're going to restore."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2024.

-- By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa, with files from Sarah Ritchie.