OTTAWA -- America's newly confirmed defence secretary is a friend to Canada, one of two at the cabinet table who have close ties to their neighbour to the north, former top soldier Tom Lawson says.

Lawson, Canada's former chief of the defence staff, says Gen. James Mattis's appointment to U.S. President Donald Trump's cabinet is "a tremendous point for Canada."
"Jim Mattis is a great friend to Canada," Lawson said in an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV's Question Period.

Mattis "is a brilliant deep thinker. He will give good, calm, unfettered advice on all defence issues to his president. And his friendship and knowledge of Canada really suggests good things ahead for the relationship," Lawson said.
The former top soldier, who served in the role from 2012 to 2015, oversaw the end of Canada's mission in Afghanistan and served as deputy commander of NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, on Lawson's advice, in 2013 awarded Mattis the meritorious service cross for leadership in the U.S. Armed Forces and NATO in Afghanistan. The commendation notes Mattis provided unprecedented access and championed Canadian participation in critical policy and training events, and strengthened Canada-U.S. relations by demonstrating unequivocal support and unwavering commitment to Canada.
Canada has other military ties to the new Trump cabinet: Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's current chief of the defence staff, is very close to Lieut. Gen. Mike Flynn, Lawson noted. Flynn has been named Trump’s national security adviser.

"That'll be very useful to our prime minister and defence minister as they go ahead. These friendships were cast during Afghanistan.... So these are good things. They will mean there's open dialogue between these top players in defence administration."
NATO a challenge if Trump has lost faith

One point of concern, Lawson said, is Trump's stance on NATO.
"The greatest challenge will be that if Mr. Trump and his entire administration loses faith, or has truly lost faith, in NATO and starts to back off on their support, the rest of the NATO members who look to the Americans for support both financially and militarily are in a little bit riskier position as we go forward," Lawson said.
That could have an impact on Canada's coming mission in Latvia, to which the government has committed 450 troops early this year.
"This is one of four brigades that don't represent really a tripwire, but a presence, and one that would have to be taken into Russia's consideration," Lawson said.
"If that starts to fall apart, then all of this has to be reconsidered."
Trump has criticized NATO as obsolete and suggested as president he will withhold military support from members who aren't carrying their share of the burden. That's raised concerns among NATO member countries about what it could mean for the alliance, particularly with recent Russian aggression in Crimea.
"It's certainly relevant to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin [Russia's president] as he goes forward," Lawson said.

For Canada, Trump's comments suggest he'll harden American requests for Canada to increase its defence funding. NATO members agreed in 2014 to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence. Canada spends less than one per cent of its GDP on defence.

"What Canada has said is our one per cent of GDP is less about how much and more about how we use it, and every NATO operation in recent years has been supported by Canada and well-supported," Lawson said.

"That's a good defence and one that many NATO nations can't use because they haven't supported it. "
That said, he continued, "we're at one per cent. That's difficult to defend."

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