Four things NATO experts (still) can’t agree on

Is the alliance showing enough might against Russia? Should Turkey’s crackdown on military officials be worrying? Krista Hessey recaps this month's NATO event in Toronto.  

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October 28, 2016
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

At the Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA) General Assembly earlier this month in Toronto, political leaders, diplomats, academics and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials gathered to discuss NATO’s role in various conflicts, how to implement the decisions made at the Warsaw Summit in July, and what Canada’s contributions to the organization should look like.

The two-day conference revealed that many are still at odds over how to tackle several defence and security challenges facing the alliance.

In a speech on day one of the conference, Oct. 11, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion reiterated Canada’s commitment to NATO’s “essential role in maintaining stability and security.”

“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments,” Dion said, addressing the room. He continued by heralding the government’s efforts to make a splash internationally: Canada’s contribution to a NATO force in Latvia, announced earlier this year in Warsaw by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; the training of ground troops in Iraq; and the pledging of up to 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel for UN peace operations.

“The Cold War has been replaced by the exacerbation of tribal tensions, the clash of old nationalisms, the revolt against glaring inequalities, the corrosive impact of endemic corruption and, of course, increased sectarian extremism, culminating in globalized terrorism,” he said, calling for the international community to do more to combat extremism – sentiments he would later rouse during a special session of the UN General Assembly on Oct. 20.

Dion’s sweeping words to the audience were contrasted by concerns that arose the following day, evident in debates over defence spending and criticism that the Canadian government will have to match lofty rhetoric with real action.

Here are four of the more talked-about topics at the conference, exposing some of the deeper internal divisions plaguing the alliance.

1. Russia.

At the Warsaw Summit in July, NATO members committed to deploying troops in the Baltic states and eastern Poland to deter further Russian aggression in the region, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s incursions into eastern Ukraine.

Fen Hampson, director of the Global Security and Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said that the deployment of troops is a “step in the right direction,” but that more action is needed.

“Russia is still a nuclear nation that is playing with fire on its borders,” Hampson said in an interview.

Over recent years, Russia has charted an unpredictable foreign policy that has involved the indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo and the propping up of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, increased militarization in the Arctic and the Black Sea region, and the beefing up of nuclear capabilities in close proximity to NATO member states in eastern Europe, tossing aside a United States-Russia nuclear disarmament agreement.

Early this month, a senior Russian defence official said the military is considering re-opening Soviet-era military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, conjuring up Cold War era images of a modern day Cuban missile crisis.

With that in mind, NATO’s initial trip-wire military response did appear underwhelming to some. The resurgence of nationalism in Europe has exacerbated age-old divisions between NATO and the European Union, which have left the alliance vulnerable, said Canadian Senator Raynell Andreychuk. “There has always been that question of what can Europe do for itself and what should it do through NATO.”

This week, at a defence meeting in Brussels on Wednesday — two weeks after concerns were raised in Toronto — NATO members pledged a stronger military showing against Russia, with Britain promising to send fighter jets to Romania in 2017 and the U.S. pledging troops to Poland.

The latest announcement provides further evidence of the ongoing push to stand up to the country.

“If we were truly united it would give some pause to Russia,” Andreychuk told OpenCanada at the Toronto meeting. “[Russia] can see in this turmoil that they can gain an advantage. If they see consistent and persistent pushback they will think twice. I think Mr. Putin understands power.”

NATO has also recently joined the ensemble of actors fighting the Islamic State. On Oct. 20, NATO surveillance aircraft began flights in support of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq.

But as the Toronto meeting showed, there is divided opinion on whether increased support for NATO can also leave room for diplomacy with Russia.

During his speech in Toronto, Dion boasted of Canada’s ability to stand with NATO and strengthen ties with Ukraine while simultaneously engaging in diplomatic dialogue with Moscow. While some at the conference lauded this effort, saying that inclusion rather than isolation will better thwart the Russian threat, Andreychuk thinks this bilateral dialogue “diminishes the role of NATO.”

2. Funding.

In 2014, alliance members agreed to spend two percent of their respective gross domestic products on NATO defence. Canada falls far short of that commitment – as do all member states with the exception of the U.S., the UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland – contributing .99 percent, up .01 percent from last year.

“If you’re going to engage in missions [with NATO and the United Nations], you need the budget to do it,” said Canadian Senator Pamela Wallin, speaking at the Toronto conference.

Hampson echoed Wallin’s sentiment. “The good news is, Canada doesn't want to be in the back seat anymore,” Hampson told OpenCanada. “But, I think the government has its work cut out for it to convince and persuade Canadians that, at the end of the day, we're going to have to open our wallets. We can't simply talk about our muscles.” 

According to a 2016 NATO report on defence expenditures, in order for Canada to meet the two percent goal it would have to contribute roughly US$36 billion (or, nearly double what Canada spends now). Craig Stone, the director of academics at the Canadian Forces College, added, “Who actually thinks Canada is going to spend that today?”

“We’re trapped in what I would call a ‘70s, first-Trudeau time warp."

Meeting the two percent commitment has long been a point of contention between NATO members. While in Ottawa delivering a speech in parliament this summer, U.S. President Barack Obama called upon Canada to contribute “its full share to our common security.” Similar frustrations have been repeated by NATO heads in Brussels and by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“We’re trapped in what I would call a '70s, first-Trudeau time warp in the sense that we continue to be free riders. We continue to believe the U.S. will look after our security interests. We continue to believe the world wants more Canada. We continue to believe we can do things on the cheap,” said Hampson.

Mark Gwozdecky, assistant deputy minister of International Security and Political Affairs, called the two percent spending goal “crude” and “simplistic.” He said he would prefer that a country’s contributions were measured based on the “quality” of intervention and the extent to which a country is willing to take risks.

“Many countries in NATO do better when it comes to the two percent calculations because the way they calculate their defence expenditure is much different from ours,” said Gwozdecky. “I would rather we had a more sophisticated approach.”

3. Combating isolationism.

While the North Atlantic Treaty is most recognized for its collective security clause, Article 2 of the treaty commits member states to bolstering economic ties amongst one another – something anathema to the nativist isolationism sweeping across Europe as the continent struggles with stagnant growth and the global refugee crisis. Similar sentiments have taken hold in the U.S., where Trump declares that he will “make America great again” through an isolationist and anti-immigrant foreign policy. These trends pose a large predicament for an organization that is built upon collective diplomacy and action.

“We have to be very aware of the fact that domestic economic interests can divide us,” said Edward Christie, a defence economist at NATO. Even within Europe, tensions flare between governments as they try to grapple with security issues afflicting the continent, he said.

Canadian Senator Pamela Wallin added that Canada is not immune to the same angry, isolationist tendencies taking hold around the world: “Watch the polls and the rhetoric of the Conservative leadership race that is underway.”

“We have to face up to the fact that we are facing a crisis of liberalism,” said Christie, referring to the UK referendum vote in June to leave the EU. “The EU without the UK is likely to be more protectionist.”

Canada’s political investment in NATO is considered linked to its economic allegiances with Europe. The fate of the Canada-EU trade agreement was unclear most of this month after Wallonia, a French-speaking region in southern Belgian, expressed concerns over the deal and appeared close to shutting down negotiations. But a last-minute approval by Belgium on Thursday has put the negotiations back on the table.

Speaking to reporters Thursday at Parliament Hill, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland cautioned that while this a step forward, the deal is still not yet complete.

The ambitious trade deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), has been negotiated over seven years and would give Canada access to Europe’s single market, which is currently the largest economy in the world. Now, legislatures in each of the 28 member states must ratify CETA.

“To put it bluntly, Canadians may feel less charitable about contributing to European defence if we are snubbed in a major way on CETA, which clearly would pay big dividends to Canada economically,” said Hampson.

“CETA is a model international trade agreement,” said David S. Wright, former Canadian ambassador to NATO. “If an agreement that is this good fails, it is an extraordinarily bad sign.”

4. The elephant in the room: Turkey.

Despite recent reports of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of senior military staff serving in European and American NATO offices, the subject of Turkey’s crackdown on military officials after the attempted coup in July was not broached during the conference.  

Turkey is a powerful NATO member, which makes the problems facing its diplomatic corps and massive military all the more worrisome. In early October, Reuters reported that about 400 military envoys have been fired so far. Not only does the country have the second-largest military force in the alliance trailing only the U.S., but Turkey is critical to defending NATO’s southern flank, bordering Syria, Iran, Iraq and the South Caucasus. Its location makes it a strategically important ally, but as Kyle Matthews wrote elsewhere on this site, Turkey has begun to clash with the rest of the U.S.-led coalition over Western alliances with the Kurds. This rift, coupled with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ruling over citizens and recent efforts to develop further ties with Russia, has left relations with Western allies at an all-time low.

Faced with this challenge and others, what NATO needs now, argued Hampson, is strong political leadership, not just talk at summits and conferences.

“I think it is fair to say [NATO] is not being well led at the political level, because the political leadership can't make up its mind what the threats are and how to deal with Russia, how to deal with many nontraditional threats,” he said. “So what we're seeing is a sort of papering over of differences, and lengthy communiqués that come out of these summits [with] few tangible results.”