WASHINGTON — The old NATO alliance has become an election issue in the U.S., as the two presidential front-runners have adopted clashing rhetoric over the organization to which Canada has long contributed.
The Republican favourite's nationalist-populist policy mix includes skepticism about whether the U.S. gets much out of the military organization — and whether it's now obsolete.
The Democratic favourite responded to that with a full-throated defence Wednesday of the Cold War-era organization, combined with a rebuke of her rival Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton warned that her rival risked antagonizing partners around the world and throwing away one of the U.S.'s greatest strategic advantages: its many allies.
In a speech on counter-terrorism, Clinton referred to the 28-country body as the most successful alliance in history and described her rival's policies as a gift to Russia's leadership.
"NATO in particular is one of the best investments America has ever made," Clinton told an audience at Stanford University in California.
"Turning our back on our alliances, or turning our alliance into a protection racket, would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike.
"(Vladimir) Putin already hopes to divide Europe. If Mr. Trump gets his way, it'll be like Christmas in the Kremlin. It will make America less safe, and the world more dangerous."
She said the U.S. needs allies as much as ever — with terrorist attacks having occurred in London, Paris, Madrid, Brussels and Istanbul. She said those partners contribute not only to military operations but also expertise in banking, and efforts to stop terrorist financing; in diplomacy and development; and in regions like North Africa.
Trump has expressed skepticism about NATO in different interviews. It's part of his broader campaign theme that the U.S. is getting a raw deal in its relations with the rest of the world.
He told The Washington Post this week that he supported NATO's continued existence — but demanded that other countries shoulder more of the burden.
He went further in another interview.
"I think NATO may be obsolete," Trump told the Bloomberg show, "With All Due Respect."
"NATO was set up a long time ago. Many, many years ago — when things were different. Things are different now. We were a rich nation then. We had nothing but money (then)."
The debate reveals a unique dynamic of a potential Trump-Clinton showdown: This could be a rare election where it's hard to tell which party is more militarily hawkish.
Trump occasionally plays the role with more aggressive rhetoric, such as talking about bombing the Middle East and taking the oil, and also by defending torture, which Clinton calls abhorrent.
But Trump's unpredictable policy palette also includes talk of retrenchment. Unlike Clinton, he speaks of reducing the U.S. military presence abroad, and letting others do the fighting where the U.S. doesn't have to.
It's likely that either, as president, would push other countries for military contributions. So has President Barack Obama. He grumbled in a recent interview about free-riders — countries that, he says, push the U.S. to act militarily without offering much of their own. That statement ruffled feathers in the UK and Saudi Arabia, and he's planning trips to soothe tensions with both countries.
Canada spends far less on its military than the U.K. It's in the lower tier of military spending among NATO members, according to figures compiled by the alliance.
Canada spends one per cent of its GDP on the military — compared with 3.6 per cent in the U.S., 2.5 per cent in Greece, 2.1 per cent in the U.K., and 1.8 per cent in France. Canada does contribute proportionally more to NATO's budget — at six per cent, compared with 22 per cent from the U.S.
When it comes to rhetoric, however, the Democrat is less inflammatory.
Clinton cast herself as a steadier actor, and her rivals Trump and Ted Cruz as dangerous, with counter-productive talk about walls, and carpet-bombing Syria, and keeping out Muslim visitors or refugees, and profiling Muslim neighbourhoods.
"Proposing that doesn't make you sound tough. It makes you sound like you're in over your head," Clinton said.
"Slogans aren't a strategy. Loose cannons tend to misfire. What America needs is strong, smart, steady leadership."
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press