Canada and NATO, NATO and Canada

Steve Saideman assesses the relationship.
By: /
May 20, 2012
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a news conference on the second and final day of the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, in Wales. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As this week is the big NATO summit in Chicago, we ought to consider Canada’s role in the alliance in two ways: What does Canada get out of NATO, and what does NATO get out of Canada? Given that the primary reason for Canada to purchase the F-35 is its involvement in NATO – and the desire to maximize interoperability – it makes sense to wonder why Canada even bothers, now that the expected savings of a joint purchase have dissipated. This is not the only Canadian investment in NATO: Canada’s roles in Afghanistan and Libya were far more visible than the old days of Canadian Forces based in Europe. So, is NATO worth it for Canada? To preview my answer, yes, it is. Oh, and is Canada a worthwhile member of NATO? Yes. In a recent survey of experts, no one listed Canada as a possible country to be kicked out (Greece led that category). So, let’s unpack.

While NATO is seen as a European institution, we should not forget the NA in the name – North Atlantic. As a member, Canada gains the security guarantees that the rest of the members get – Article V says an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all. While Article V does not actually require any country to do any specific thing, the reality is that membership provides deterrence against attacks. While some people think that war is becoming obsolete (see recentposts at CIC), that new reality is partly the product of preparedness. NATO’s biggest success story has been deterrence, which is hard to prove, but matters nonetheless. While the U.S. is already committed to defending Canada via NORAD, the doubling of the commitment via NATO solidifies the enduring reality that Canada’s security rests on a combination of its geographic position and its security co-operation with its neighbour. 

NATO gives Canada the means to have influence in a variety of arenas that it could not have by itself. For instance, Canada gained leadership positions in the Afghanistan and Libya missions, so Canadians shaped the way that these important efforts played out. Whatever one thinks of the Kandahar mission, it presented a significant improvement in the ability for Canadians to control the Canadian Forces when operating in a multilateral context. When UN forces are deployed, the Canadian contingents have far less control over how they are used, which has led to some unfortunate situations in the past (e.g., in Bosnia, when the UN’s defence-only rules of engagement required that contingents be put in the line of fire so that the use of force could be permitted). NATO’s rules tend to provide more discretion for countries to operate.  Plus, the more you are willing to provide to NATO, the more influence you have. In Afghanistan, Canada had far more sway than Germany because Canada’s smaller contingent was far more active and far more productive.

Due to its status as a middle power, and due to its own inclinations, Canada relies heavily on multilateralism. Canadians tend to believe that multilateral solutions are inherently better than unilateral or bilateral ones, and that fostering more institutionalized ties binding countries together and collectively working on problems is better than doing otherwise. NATO is the premier multilateral security organization on the planet, despite whatever weaknesses it has, or complaints people may have about it. It cannot be everywhere and it cannot solve every problem, but it has managed the security relations of Europe and is fighting piracy every day. If one buys into the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), then one has to figure out who will carry the hammer when countries are irresponsible. Again, not every R2P situation will attract a NATO response, but Canada cannot compel compliance with R2P on its own. Only via NATO can Canada coerce countries to do what they should be doing anyway.

So, Canada gets security, control over its contributions, influence, and multilateral solutions from NATO. But what does Canada give to NATO? Well, that has varied over time. While the era of CANTBATs (heavily restricted Canadian battalions operating in Bosnia) gave Canada limited added value, more recently, the Canadian Forces have been far less restricted and far more capable than most of NATO’s members. In the early days in Afghanistan, Canadians running the NATO forces had to look to other contingents to be the go-to units when something needed to be done. As Canada moved to Kandahar, a generational change within the CF resulted in a far more flexible force, making it the go-to contingent for quite a while. When the British or Dutch needed help in their sectors of southern Afghanistan, the CF were the ones who were called. Given the shortage of reliable contingents in Afghanistan, Canada went from being a worthwhile member to being an essential one. Despite the withdrawal from Kandahar, Canada’s position as a key member continued when a new intervention arose near and over Libya. Canadian planes flew many strike missions, and Canada’s refuelling planes kept aloft the planes from more than a dozen countries.

At NATO headquarters, Canada is also viewed as reliable. Rather than bogging down discussion based on narrow interests (Greece would be the anti-role model here), Canada has been able to build coalitions to move NATO forward, including fostering a more comprehensive approach in Afghanistan and shaping NATO’s new Strategic Concept. Canada is seen as a voice of reason without any of the baggage carried by other countries, so Canadian Lt.-General Charles Bouchard was named head of the Libyan operation, a choice acceptable to both French and Turks who otherwise found common ground on which to agree.

Of course, there has been much complaining about burden-sharing with Canada among those bearing more casualties in Afghanistan, and NATO is unlikely to ultimately be successful in Afghanistan. The savings from the joint purchase of the F-35 are non-existent. Tussles with various allies make things harder. But what Churchill said about democracy is perhaps just as true about NATO: It may be the worst, save all the others. NATO has endured through a variety of crises (and now two decades beyond its original target – the Soviet Union) because it does provide an important forum for addressing security issues, and gives countries, even relatively small (in defense spending and size of military) and distant ones, significant influence.

 Photo courtesy of Reuters