Does Canada still need NATO?
THERE has been much grumbling among NATO members in the last few years. Those, like Canada, who are fighting in NATO’s first outof-area war in Afghanistan complain about those that aren’t and those that restrict their soldiers’ roles with caveats.
Others worry that the threats of the present day — terrorism or cyber-attacks, say — are not really met best by a military alliance of western democracies that was created to check the expansion of Soviet Communism more than 60 years ago. And the new members, still fearful of Russia, cling to Washington, while some of the older members look to the European Union as far more important than the old alliance.
Because of these complaints, because of a desire to become more effective and to stay relevant, in July 2009 NATO ordered a strategic review and appointed a high-powered panel under former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright to assess what needs fixing if the alliance is to function better.
A Canadian contribution to the review process, Security in an Uncertain World, has just appeared. There is no doubt that its writers believe that NATO continues to matter to the world and to Canada; there’s also no doubt that they are not happy with the state of the alliance.
First, there is Afghanistan. While there are no direct complaints in the report that Canada is carrying the can for many of the other members, there are two telling pie charts that show that Canada has contributed seven per cent of all nonU.S. troops but suffered 24 per cent of all non-U.S. casualties. That is, of course, because the Canadian battle groups took the lead — and thus paid the price — in the very dangerous Kandahar province. The lesson: more equitable burden-sharing is needed if NATO wants to take on tasks, and if so, it needs full support from its members. All countries must accept their share of the military and materiel costs. Commitments, in other words, must be supported by resources.
In truth, Canada historically has not been the best-positioned NATO member to carp that others are not doing their part. The Trudeau government slashed its military contribution to the alliance by half — and did it without consultation. The all-but total withdrawal from Europe announced by the Mulroney government in 1993 was similarly arbitrary in its execution. But in an alliance that makes decision by consensus, the principle that all must be bound to honour alliance commitments is the right one. Canada, like the Germans and Portuguese, must do its duty.
But the real reason for NATO to continue and for Canada to remain in it is that the world is not safe. Terrorism today is sporadic, but it is dangerously effective, and it will likely grow in intensity. Failed or rogue states cannot be permitted to offer safe havens to nihilistic zealots, and only NATO, certainly not the UN, might have the will and ability to take them down. Moreover, Putin’s Russia continues to flex its (somewhat atrophied) muscles and China, rapidly becoming a military and economic superpower, remains a one-party dictatorship. Prudence demands a watchful eye on these not-quite-peaceful undemocratic regimes. Canadian national interests in peace, trade and a free international community cry out for a world without threat. NATO is the best indicator that Canadians remain willing to do their share to create and protect it.
Then there are the Americans. Without NATO, Canada would be locked into a bilateral continental military relationship with the United States. They may be our best friends, but the closeness poses difficulties because of history and the imbalance of power. We don’t want to be on our own, nor to be alone with the Yanks.
NATO offers a multilateral forum, one place we can get together with our friends to try to rein in or encourage Washington when necessary, to persuade the U.S. that others’ views must be heeded. That is worth a great deal.
But NATO needs change. It cannot continue as a Eurocentric alliance that treats with Washington and forgets Canada on policy questions and infrastructure funding. We’re here, we matter, we want to be heard. Sometimes we have good points to make and useful contributions to offer, Afghanistan being the case in point. Just as important, NATO should be looking less to countries like Georgia and Ukraine as candidates for admission, both risky choices that unnecessarily goad Moscow, and more to links, not membership, with Australia, South Korea, Japan, and India, democracies that can bring a clearer focus on ways to deal with global threats.
It is also time to put some thinking into developing the alliance’s civil support functions. Separate nationally directed provincial reconstruction and training teams in Afghanistan sometimes seem only to have fostered balkanization. Co-ordination must be the watchword. NATO admittedly is far from perfect, but it’s there. If it can be made to function better, it can continue as our best hope for peace and democracy well into the 21st century.
Canada has borne a disproportionately high number of casualties in Afghanistan among its NATO allies.