NATO’s identity crisis
The debate over Peter MacKay’s candidacy to lead NATO is just part of a larger examination of the organization’s very purpose in the post-Cold War era
The debate over whether Peter MacKay can or should become NATO’s next secretary general is about much more than whether Canada deserves exceptional recognition for its commitment to Afghanistan. At its core, it amounts to a reexamination of the organization’s purpose in the 21st century.
NATO was conceived in Europe.
In early 1948, with the United Nations paralyzed by the Soviet Union’s veto power at the Security Council, Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Brussels Treaty, a collective defence agreement that demonstrated to the United States that Western Europe would do its share to protect against the expanding communist menace.
The British used this commitment as leverage to convince North America to participate in a more comprehensive arrangement for the collective defence of the North Atlantic.
Canada was one of the three original negotiators of the North Atlantic Treaty. It was included alongside Britain and the United States in part because of its contribution to the Second World War, in part because of its strategic location in what was becoming known as the North Atlantic Triangle, and in part because of its pledged commitment to western values and ideals.
During the negotiations, the Canadians had two significant concerns. The first was that the organization had to be about more than just collective defence. It had to signify a commitment of its founding members to a greater North Atlantic community, in which member states strove to eliminate the economic and social differences among them.
Ottawa also rejected what analysts at the time called the “dumbbell” approach to North Atlantic relations.
The Europeans in particular conceived of NATO as a partnership between them (one side of the dumbbell) and North America (the other side). To the Canadian negotiators, however, if the organization was going to promote genuine collective defence, in which all members had equal obligations to come to the aid of one another should they be attacked, influence would have to be distributed more evenly. Canada could never compete for a voice against the United States on its own. It could only exert influence in a truly multilateral environment.
When the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, the Canadians won both of their claims on paper.
Article 2 committed the signatory members to co-operate in promoting not just the security, but also the well-being of the North Atlantic community. And decisions on the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political de- cision-making body, required the consensus of all.
In reality, the Canadian negotiators were less successful. In 1950, the onset of the Korean War removed any pretense that NATO would be anything but a collective defence arrangement. And the stillstanding tradition of having an American serve as NATO’s senior military commander while a European serves as the organization’s secretary general is consistent with the dumbbell approach.
Nonetheless, the organization served Canadian interests throughout the Cold War. When it ended, NATO faced a dilemma. Some members felt that the decline of the Soviet Union decreased the immediate need for a system of collective defence in the North Atlantic. At the same time, a number of newly independent Eastern European regimes expressed interest in joining the organization.
The old Canadian conception of NATO, one that viewed the organization as more than just a regional military agreement, regained traction, and since then the organization has regularly experimented with initiatives that exceed its initial mandate.
In 2009, Canada’s second original wish is also close to being fulfilled. Peter MacKay’s accession to the secretary generalship would set aside the dumbbell theory and bring NATO’s structure more in line with an organizational commitment to genuine multilateralism.
Some would call this the triumph of Canadian idealism. But it also might be viewed as yet another indicator of NATO’s prolonged struggle to define its proper role.
The organization was not conceived as a permanent substitute for the United Nations. Nor did its founders expect it to be consistently active. It was an insurance policy, a means of, in one negotiator’s words, “keeping the Americans in, the Soviets out, and the Germans down.”
The Europeans in particular conceived of NATO as a partnership between them (one side of the dumbbell) and North America (the other side).
NATO struggles when it tries to be more than its originators intended: when it insists on being active simply to prove its relevance, or when it expands its reach beyond the North Atlantic, broadly conceived, in anything but a defensive posture.
Selecting Minister MacKay as the next secretary general would justly recognize Canada for its exceptional contribution to the mission in Afghanistan, a post-Cold War engagement that has been entirely consistent with NATO’s original mandate. But it would also exacerbate an identity crisis that is already out of control.
NATO’s original purpose is not obsolete. The UN remains incapable of moving quickly in the collective defence of its members, and regional organizations continue to be relevant to the future of global security.
NATO can and should respond when any of its members are attacked anywhere in the world. To survive, however, it must recognize that the limits imposed upon it (that Canadians originally fought against) — which established NATO as a regional, military partnership between Western Europe and North America to deter attacks in the North Atlantic — were a strength, not a weakness.
teaches defence studies at the Canadian Forces College. His new book, Canada’s Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes, will be published by UBC Press in May.