by Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - As Prime Minister Paul Martin prepares for his first meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush since taking office, his defense minister has a message for the United States: you can count on us.
"The message that we want to send to the Americans is that we are in fact reliable allies -- that we have our own national interests that we intend to pursue, but that we take the defense of North America very, very seriously," Defense Minister David Pratt told Reuters in an interview.
Though the two countries have the world's biggest trading relationship and countless cultural and family ties, political ties have often been strained, particularly between Bush and Martin's predecessor, Jean Chretien.
Martin took over from Chretien, a fellow Liberal, last month and pledged to build what he called a more sophisticated relationship with the United States. He is to meet Bush in Mexico on Tuesday.
Aside from a prominent disagreement with Canada over whether to go to war in Iraq, Washington has often urged Ottawa to rebuild its military and give it a larger role.
It now has a sympathetic ear at the top of the Department of National Defense.
Pratt said there has been a 40-year decline in Canadian military spending relative to the size of the economy.
"Do we want to move that in the other direction? I would hope so, but...it's going to be subject to the resources that we have available."
In fact, with only a razor-thin surplus in the federal budget, one of Pratt's challenges will be to contain expectations of immediate major increases.
Under Pratt's chairmanship, Parliament's defense committee in May 2002 called for a 50-percent jump in military spending over three years. The current defense budget is slightly more than C$13 billion ($10 billion).
Pratt said he agreed with remarks made in 2001 by former Foreign Minister John Manley that Canada has sat at the table of the powerful nations and then, when the bill comes, sometimes stood up and gone to the washroom.
"There was a problem in my view in the late 1990s -- the money just wasn't flowing (to the Canadian Forces)," he said.
Those cuts were made under the budget knife of Martin, who was finance minister at the time, but in his campaign to become prime minister Martin pledged more resources for the military as part of a drive to take a more prominent global role.
The precise direction the Canadian military will take will depend on the major foreign and defense policy review the government is just starting and hopes to finish in the autumn.
Pratt said, however, there are two priorities that are immediately obvious: the need to be able to deploy forces to hotspots around the world more quickly, and the need for "intelligence assets" to be able to direct firepower.