Ottawa Citizen

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

- BY ADAM CHAPNICK

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.

Adam Chapnick

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.

 ?? CNSPIC ?? A flypast by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds aerobatic team marks the arrival of NATO’s Military Committee in Ottawa in September 2007. Canada could never compete for a voice against the United States on its own in NATO. It could only exert influence in...
CNSPIC A flypast by the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds aerobatic team marks the arrival of NATO’s Military Committee in Ottawa in September 2007. Canada could never compete for a voice against the United States on its own in NATO. It could only exert influence in...

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