The world appears to be drifting inexorably towards catastrophe but you wouldn’t know it from watching the House of Commons, where momentous global events are subordinated to the relative domestic trivia of car thefts and carbon taxes.
What will it take to rouse Canadian politicians from their torpor?
How about the candidate who is odds on to be the next president of the United States indicating in a speech that he will give Vladimir Putin free rein in Europe, if he is elected?
At a campaign rally in South Carolina on the weekend, Donald Trump said he would “encourage (Russia) to do whatever the hell they want” in Europe to “delinquent” countries that “didn’t pay” into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The implication is that Trump would not honour NATO’s Article 5, the collective defence agreement that has helped preserve the peace in Europe since 1945 and has only been invoked once — when member states agreed to defend the U.S. after 9/11.
Trump’s hostility to NATO is not new. At a rally in Las Vegas last month, he said the U.S. is “paying for NATO and we don’t get much out of it.”
By NATO’s own estimates, the U.S. spent $743 billion on defence last year, compared with $356 billion for the rest of the alliance.
But indicating that he would back Russia’s renewed imperial ambitions is brazen, even for Trump. Poland’s secretary of state for defence, Pawel Zalewski, told Politico that his statement is “worrying” and “completely incomprehensible.” The White House called it “unhinged.”
Trump’s comments undermine the belief that America is committed to defending its allies and will have implications far beyond Europe. All of its security alliances will be jeopardized — in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Dictators will be emboldened and democracies weakened, perhaps even forced into the arms of autocratic neighbours.
Trump’s supporters took to social media to defend the comments as a means of forcing freeloading countries to pay up. “He’s essentially saying no more free lunch,” said one poster.
That may be the case. In 2018, during his first term, Trump stormed into a NATO leaders’ meeting in Brussels, calling his allies “delinquents” for underspending in their own defence.
After a chaotic 24 hours, and a series of hastily cobbled together spending pledges, he left Brussels saying the U.S. commitment to NATO “remains very strong,” claiming sole responsibility for allied spending pledges.
It did prove to be the catalyst for some countries to spend more. NATO points out that defence expenditure by members rose 8.3 per cent last year, excluding the U.S. But Trump was deadly serious about pulling out of NATO and was only dissuaded from doing so by experienced people around him — John Bolton, James Mattis, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence. None of those people will be in Trump’s 2.0 White House. “The damage he did in his first term was reparable,” Bolton, the former national security adviser, told author Anne Applebaum. “The damage in the second term would be irreparable.”
It is still the case that only one third of member states spend more than 2.0 per cent of GDP, with Canada ranked 25th of 30 countries in 2023, spending just 1.38 per cent of its economy on defence.
Pentagon leaks to The Washington Post suggest Justin Trudeau told his allies that Canada will never hit 2.0 per cent. Other “delinquents” include Germany, Italy, Turkey and Spain.
But the difference between Canada and many countries in Europe is that the Europeans have already awoken to the prospect of being abandoned by the Americans.
The German defence minister, Boris Pistorius, said in December that Europe could face threats from Russia by the end of the decade and its defence industries need to be prepared, especially as the U.S. could reduce its engagement. “This is not just sabre-rattling,” he said.
Sweden’s military commander in chief, Gen. Micael Bydén, said all Swedes should mentally prepare for the possibility of war. “Russia’s war against Ukraine is just a step, not an end-game,” he said.
The British defence minister, Grant Shapps, said the U.K. is moving from “post-war to pre-war,” while the head of the British Army, Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders, called the British people part of a “pre-war generation” who have to prepare themselves to fight in a war against an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Meanwhile, Canada has slumbered on. I wrote last week about the government’s failure to ramp up manufacture of artillery shells. The Department of National Defence wrote back asking for a correction because it has placed a $5-million contract to build shell casings with an Ontario company.
If Trump wins, as the polls suggest, no country is going to be out in the cold more than Canada, unless, of course, we abandon NATO at the same time.
Our complacency is such that we have allowed our military to degrade to the point where it can only defend the country on the odd days of the week.
Departmental reports for the military reveal a 16,000-position shortfall in personnel and lack of equipment meant the percentage of the navy that was serviceable for training and readiness requests was 51 per cent in 2022/23. The equivalent number for the army was 56 per cent and for the aerospace fleet just 43 per cent.
The malaise is well-documented. The land forces lack the capability to defend themselves against tanks, drones or aircraft and there are not enough old Halifax class frigates to live up to commitments to NATO and the new Indo-Pacific strategy. Canada’s four Victoria class submarines are 40 years old and rarely at sea, while its CF18 jets are also four decades old and, despite upgrades, considered operationally obsolete.
This, however, is not to repeat calls to increase military spending. It is an appeal to our political leaders to recognize that epochal changes are taking place beyond our borders. It is a proposal that they should prioritize rearmament and prepare Canadians psychologically for the end of an era of relative peace and stability. All the indicators suggest we are about to enter another characterized by conflict and uncertainty.
On the eve of the First World War, British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked to a friend: “The lights are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
The lights are not about to go out but they are flickering. There is still time for those who believe in democracy and collective security to do something about it.