The Hamilton Spectator

Canada’s original vision for NATO


On Thursday, NATO turned 75 and maybe we should pause to consider the nature of an alliance that has contribute­d much to our national security. Many Canadians may not realize that our country was not only a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organizati­on, but helped draft the original treaty committing each signatory to consider an armed attack against one as an attack against all.

NATO recently received some unwanted attention when Donald Trump promised that if elected, he would let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member that didn’t spend enough on its military. Trump’s portrayal of NATO as some form of protection racket from a 1970s mafia movie starring Robert De Niro — before he moved on to comedy — drew harsh criticism. Not only does the former president not appear to understand how the alliance works, but he also seems to forget its role as an associatio­n of nations bound together by shared values, principles and beliefs.

Such a view, however, has its limitation­s. Even though Canadians might die defending a NATO country thousands of miles away, that fact doesn’t help us live, work, study or trade with that country or necessaril­y be consulted on its foreign policy adventures.

Should NATO act more like a community of nations?

This is not a new question and during the drafting of the treaty,

Canada — particular­ly its then secretary of state for external affairs Lester Pearson — was adamant that NATO be more than a military alliance. The result was Article 2 of the treaty, which pledged members to co-operate non-militarily.

For Canada, an Atlantic Community would maintain its traditiona­l ties with Britain, open new possibilit­ies with Europe and balance U.S. dominance. A treaty with nonmilitar­y elements would also be easier to sell at home, particular­ly to isolationi­st Quebec. It was also a recognitio­n that the Soviet threat was not simply external. Equally important was economic, political and psychologi­cal security within countries ravaged by war.

So, what happened? Why didn’t the alliance become the foundation for a North Atlantic Community?

Timing was not on Canada’s side. Britain was more interested in seeing western Europe unite under its leadership and create a separate force equal in status to both the United States and the Soviet Union — an idea that was supported by the Americans, who were quite happy to see Europe stand on its own two feet.

The irony is that in the period following the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, the U.K. started to get its doubts about getting too close the Europe and suddenly become quite interested in the Atlantic idea. Its enthusiasm, however, ran smack into opposition from western European countries interested in forging a new community of nations among themselves.

There was also the imprecise nature of the Atlantic idea within Canada. Pearson may have spoken publicly about the new treaty forging “a North Atlantic democratic union that will be above and beyond our sovereign states.” Privately, however, nobody in Ottawa seemed to have a plan on how this would happen and officials even urged Pearson to stall for time in developing the idea.

In the late ’40s and ’50s, there were also other organizati­ons and arrangemen­ts dealing with nonmilitar­y co-operation between western countries. Why reinvent the wheel? Why interfere with other efforts?

Non-military co-operation didn’t entirely disappear from the NATO agenda. As the organizati­on developed, members often used Article 2 to call for greater consultati­on in foreign policy matters — not always with great success.

Is the Atlantic idea relevant in the current context? For Canada, would closer ties to the U.K. and Europe help balance relations with an unstable U.S.? For Britain and Europe, is an Atlantic community a way to deal with post-Brexit realities? And how many of our problems as a western alliance are internal? Would closer economic ties between NATO members create more secure supply chains? Could an Atlantic community help stabilize political systems that seem under attack from within?

There was nothing preordaine­d about the way the West developed during the Cold War. Canada put forward a vision that in some ways made more sense than what emerged and may be worth considerin­g 75 years later.

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