End of a NATO era?

The Alliance has had a rocky relationship with Canada, especially after it was perceived to let us down in Afghanistan. Are we headed for a separation?
A Canadian soldier from November Company 7th Platoon of the NATO-led coalition stands early in the morinig during a mission in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan March 19, 2009. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The Ukrainian crisis has been keeping the Harper government busy. Ottawa has unequivocally condemned Moscow’s actions; at the G20 summit last November, Stephen Harper reportedly told Russian President Vladimir Putin to “get out of Ukraine.” Deeds followed words: six CF-18 fighter jets have been sent to join the NATO mission policing the airspace of the Baltic states, a frigate participated in a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea, and Canadian soldiers have trained with Polish troops.

But at the same time, the Harper government refused to heed NATO’s call to devote two percent of GDP to defence spending and stopped short of committing troops to the Alliance’s new rapid reaction force; at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, an unenthusiastic PM skipped some of the public displays of Alliance solidarity. Canada had also kept its distance from other NATO operations — in Kosovo and off the coast of Somalia, for instance — and, perhaps most importantly, had withdrawn from two Alliance-wide programs, Air-Ground Surveillance (AGS) and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).

The Harper government’s proclivity to contribute to select operations and yet shy away from wholesale commitment to NATO initiatives illustrates a larger trend of disengagement from the Alliance.

This trend, in our view, has two sources. One is a particular interpretation of morality, which sees international politics as a struggle between the good and the evil, privileges taking sides over staying neutral, using hard power over soft, and achievement of concrete outcomes to the neglect of process issues. The Ukraine crisis, with the good guys and the bad guys easily identifiable, is a good fit for the Conservative brand of morality.

This does not mean that other factors — in this case, domestic political issues — do not matter. They do. But morality influences the perception of what foreign policy priorities should be, and colours the considerations of how to achieve them. This is where NATO falls short. Ottawa’s critical view of NATO’s performance in Afghanistan — the second source of the disengagement with the Alliance — means that NATO is no longer seen as the primary vehicle that the good can use to fight against the evil.

Conservative morality and Canadian foreign policy

The morality of the Harper government has resulted in rejecting prominent elements of Canada’s middle power tradition in foreign policy: commitment to multilateralism and UN peacekeeping missions, important elements of the country’s self-perception as a neutral ‘honest broker’ in international relations. UN peacekeeping also exemplified what was seen as moral in international relations: standing in the middle and separating warring parties rather than getting into the fray.

The Conservatives, however, do not see standing in the middle as a moral option. In a 2003 speech, Stephen Harper argued that failing to take sides was not only ineffective, but also morally bankrupt. “We know where our interests lie and who our friends are, and we take strong, principled positions in our dealings with other nations, whether popular or not,” he said after the election of a Conservative minority government. Canada, Foreign Minister John Baird declared, would no longer “go along to get along,” or confuse “process with results or participation with action.” Taking sides in international relations was therefore a moral issue; the selection of international partnerships a moral enterprise; and process issues such as interacting within multilateral organizations not a priority.

The Conservatives’ vision of moral alliances excludes the UN, criticized for allowing dictators to shape its agenda. More surprising is the tepid engagement with NATO, initially praised for its role in stopping egregious human rights abuses and for a degree of military coherence. But what was seen as NATO’s failure to come to Canada’s aid during the ISAF deployment in Kandahar has undone any preference the Conservatives may have had for the Alliance.

 Backing away from NATO

The Kandahar deployment showcased Canada’s role in the world as the Conservatives saw it: leading rather than “carping from the sidelines” and standing alongside allies in the fight of the good against the evil. As the mission claimed more Canadian casualties, allies who failed to come to the aid of those deployed in the more dangerous regions of Afghanistan — especially continental Europeans — were seen as shirking their duties. This coloured the view of NATO more generally: due to its failure to share risks and burdens of the Afghan deployment, PM Harper said, NATO might be failing the test it set itself. Adding fuel to the fire was NATO’s delayed response to a Canadian request for the use of AWACS planes: due to an internal dispute over funding, a NATO official told us, these assets were not immediately available for the Canadian Forces operating in southern Afghanistan.

In the Conservatives’ interpretation, NATO as a whole failed to take the right side in Afghanistan through its failure to support Canadian troops. Because it did not do the right thing and follow the principle of allied solidarity, it became at best less relevant to the Conservatives’ foreign policy based on values and taking sides, and at worst anathema to it.

What now?

The implementation of the Harper government’s ‘moral’ foreign policy agenda combined with NATO’s fall from grace due to the Kandahar experience loosened Canada’s attachment to the Alliance. Interviews at NATO headquarters suggest that the international staff and other national delegations have noted Canada’s decreased visibility, exemplified by its 2011 withdrawal from the combat mission in Afghanistan, lukewarm commitment to the Alliance’s post-2014 Afghan mission, lack of engagement with other NATO operations, and withdrawal from the AGS and AWACS programs. One senior NATO official concluded that Canada’s approach to the Alliance had become more transactional as the current government no longer had the same reflexive belief in multilateralism as a value in itself.

Interviews with Canadian officials confirmed that there was a new set of ‘principles’ governing Canadian foreign policy, which, while making Canada more assertive in pursuing concrete goals, also harmed its image within NATO. Paradoxically, the effort to more explicitly promote Canadian self-interest through assertiveness seems to have undermined the exercise of Canadian influence among its allies, and lack of attention to process issues—which the Conservative government sees as different and separate from concrete results—diminished Canada’s ability to influence particular decisions. The Harper approach to ‘moral’ foreign policy reduced Canada’s freedom of manoeuvre, making it more assertive and more absent at the same time.

So, will Canada’s disengagement from NATO last?

With a Conservative government remaining in office, it is likely. But even if the government changes, the decisions the Conservatives have already taken — such the withdrawal from the AWACS and AGS programs, described as drivers of Alliance integration and interoperability, and non-participation in the new rapid reaction force — could institutionalize the slackening of Canada-NATO ties. A trend within NATO itself — an increasing tendency to operate within smaller sub-groups of allies — adds to that.

Depending on how quickly and effectively NATO moves, joint initiatives implemented by other allies might increase the distance between Canada and other NATO members and entrench the lessening engagement with the institution as a whole even further.

This commentary is based on an article published in a 2015 issue of the British Journal of Canadian Studies.