Canada will be reassuring allies of its commitment to the western alliance as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to Washington, D.C., this week to take part in the NATO leaders' summit at a critical time for war-ravaged Ukraine. 

The 32 NATO countries are set to mark the alliance's 75th anniversary in the same city where the initial treaty was signed. Trudeau will be attending a dinner with NATO leaders at the White House hosted by President Joe Biden as the age and mental acuity of the United States leader is expected to cast a shadow over the historic meeting. 

“All eyes are peering down into the U.S.,” said Ferry de Kerckhove, a former high-ranking Canadian diplomat.

The world will be watching to see how Biden handles the three-day summit after a widely panned performance during the recent presidential debate.

The upcoming election and the possibility of a second Donald Trump administration is a looming concern for the long-running defensive alliance. Trump has repeatedly claimed he would not defend NATO members that don’t meet defence spending targets.

Canada is one of those members but has defended itself repeatedly for not hitting the target.

Defence Minister Bill Blair points to NATO figures which show Canada's defence spending grew 67 per cent between 2014 and 2021, and that relative to its economy, that increased spending from one per cent of GDP to almost 1.4 per cent.

Canada is expected to spend 1.37 per cent this year, well below the target but Blair has said that he expects spending to climb to at least 1.75 per cent by 2029 with additional spending for a new submarine fleet and integrated air defence and missile systems likely pushing the figure past two per cent.

The promises may not reassure Canada’s allies among worrying tensions with Russia, North Korea and China.

“Can we actually convince the people around the table and the Americans that we are going to chime in at the right time?” de Kerckhove said. 

The ongoing war in Ukraine will be front and centre and bilateral security agreements are expected to be signed. But the summit is unlikely to go as far as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes, said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.

"This summit … could be an inflection point for Ukraine: What is NATO going to do?" said Braun.

A Canadian government official speaking on background said Trudeau, who will be accompanied by Blair and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, will be making forceful comments about the need to stay resolute in backing Ukraine, as doubts about continuing the fight are growing in Europe and the United States.

NATO member companies have been spending the equivalent of C$59 billion each year on military equipment for Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday he expects heads of state and government will agree to a substantial package for Ukraine that “constitute a bridge to NATO membership.”

Members have overwhelmingly provided support to Ukraine but are cautious not to be drawn into a wider conflict with Russia. 

Hungary made an agreement last month not to veto NATO efforts at the upcoming summit to support Ukraine, as long as the region is not forced to help out. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán faced condemnation from Kyiv and some European leaders after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow Friday where he said they discussed peace proposals for Ukraine. 

Braun, who is also an associate with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, said he will be looking for more details on the promise from last year’s summit when NATO leaders agreed to fast-track Ukraine’s membership process. It is unlikely to become a reality for many years and Braun said Ukraine’s membership prospects may be linked to concessions that Zelenskyy may not be happy about.

"Are they offering a bridge or are they selling a bridge?” Braun asked. 

Trudeau will also be using his time in Washington for other meetings in the city to bolster Team Canada efforts ahead of the U.S. election to ensure the government is prepared for any outcome. He will be meeting with Republican and Democrat politicians including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky).

Trudeau, whose Liberals came to power in October 2015, was criticized for being unprepared for the first Trump presidency after the 2016 U.S. election and their relationship was notably rocky throughout the Republican leader's four-year tenure.

Experts say meeting defence funding targets will go a long way to strengthening the relationship with Canada’s largest trading partner. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2024.

-with files from The Associated Press.