OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to Europe this week for the NATO and G7 summits, where global leaders are trying to figure out exactly how the world works now that U.S. President Donald Trump is at the table.
The future of military alliances, the fight against climate change and even free trade all hang in the balance as the new man in the White House sits down and lets them all know his plans — or maybe not.
“Predicting what this president does would be virtually impossible,” said David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, delivering a common answer to the question of what to expect this week.
“Fireworks would be the baseline expectation of some sort.”
On Thursday, Trump, in the midst of his first foreign trip as U.S. president, will sit down with Trudeau and other leaders at the NATO summit at the group’s new headquarters in Brussels.
Candidate Trump declared on the campaign trail that NATO had outlived its usefulness — a stance he reversed last month.
The ad hoc meeting was organized essentially to introduce the new U.S. president to the 28-nation military alliance and have Trump outline his vision for NATO’s future objectives.
Allen Sens, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia who focuses on international security, said the meeting comes at a time when the post-Second World War alliance was already dealing with competing interests that seem to be growing stronger.
The southern flank of NATO wants to focus on dealing with security in North Africa and the Middle East, and the related issue of migrants and refugees. Eastern European partners are more concerned with Russian aggression. There are also growing concerns around the relationship between Turkey and Russia and their roles in the Syrian conflict. Brexit, too, brings some uncertainty to the dynamics.
“It’s being pulled in various different directions, by often competing geopolitical forces, and at this very delicate moment, the United States — a key partner in the alliance — is led by the Trump administration with its established record of volatility, uncertainty and impulsiveness,” said Sens.
Meanwhile, the elephant outside the room is the explosive allegations and domestic U.S. investigations of close ties between the White House and Russia.
There are efforts underway to minimize the impact for some of that infamous Trump unpredictability, with foreign delegations at both the NATO and the G7 summits being advised it would be in their best interests if everyone kept presentations short and to the point.
Trump remains adamant that NATO members meet a 2014 agreement to spend at least two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.
The issue of burden-sharing is expected to be a priority on the agenda at NATO. Last year, only five of the 28 allies met the spending target. The U.S. is one of them. Canada is not.
According to a NATO estimate released in March, Canada spent 1.02 per cent of its GDP on defence in 2016, which put it in a three-way tie for 20th place.
The Liberal government continues to argue that Canada’s contribution is more complicated to measure.
The Canadian military, for example, is about to send 450 troops as well as light armoured vehicles and other equipment to head up a NATO mission in Latvia, as part of efforts to curb Russian aggression in the region.
“Certainly, part of the conversation will be about how different countries calculate defence spending, but that is very much a secondary consideration on our part,” said a federal government official, who spoke to reporters at a technical briefing last week on the condition that sources not be named.
Perry said Canada has managed to avoid being referred to as a “bad ally” by Trump, whose burden-sharing criticism has been directed more to European allies in NATO, including Germany.
But Perry thinks the Liberal government’s argument only goes so far, because while the Canadian military did play a big role in Afghanistan, it pulled out nearly three years ago.
“I think countries that have a couple of hundred or more people in Afghanistan would probably look at the comments from this government . . . with a bit more skepticism than folks in Ottawa would like to think,” Perry said.
The Liberal government originally promised to release its defence policy review, which is expected to lay out how Canada would start increasing its spending in the area, in time for the NATO summit. Now, the policy document will be released June 7.
A federal official said Canada plans to give “high-level briefings” to some of its allies at NATO.
On Friday and Saturday, Trudeau and Trump will be in Taormina, a resort town in Sicily, for the G7 Summit.
John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said this smaller forum with lots of opportunities for face-to-face talks is made for someone like Trump, who professes his passion for making deals.
Kirton said he expects the talks to focus on trying to convince Trump not to go through with his pledge to back out of the UN Paris agreement on climate change, the role of China in the world, and international trade.
But Kirton said the tenor of these talks might depend on how things go in Brussels. If things don’t go well at the NATO summit, the G7 meeting will have to be rapidly reconfigured into a repair job, he said.