The Least and Most Canada Can Do

The six CF-18s Canada is sending to Eastern Europe is both an ordinary and remarkable contribution, says Steve Saideman.
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April 21, 2014
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Canada is joining its NATO partners in sending six CF-18s to Eastern Europe (with some uncertainty on exactly where despite references to a specific base in Poland) and 20 CF personnel to help staff NATO headquarters. This is both ordinary and remarkable.

It is ordinary in the sense that Canada has signed onto every NATO mission, as far as I can tell; from defending West Europe from the Soviet Union, deploying into Bosnia, dropping bombs on Kosovo, participating in various missions in Afghanistan to dropping bombs on Libya to now defending Eastern Europe from Russia. That is pretty consistent. Six CF-18s are also the standard Canadian package for NATO reassurance. Up to now, this package has been delivered, as it were, to Iceland, as Canada has taken a few turns in the NATO mission of flying fighter planes over that otherwise defenceless NATO member. Now Canada is doing the same thing but much further to the east.

However, the deployment is also remarkable in that this mission is clearly aimed at sending a variety of signals to both Ottawa’s allies and the international community writ large. It is meant to be part of a NATO effort to remind Russia that countries that are members of NATO are untouchable. As an alliance, there is no commitment to defend Ukraine, but there is a strong commitment to defend Poland, the Baltic Republics, and the rest from the “old and new” threat to the East. It is also meant as a reassurance package, to signal to these eastern members that there is a big line between them and Ukraine—and that they are on the safer, guaranteed side of this line. Sending these planes is also a signal in Canada to Ukrainian-Canadian voters that Stephen Harper and John Baird seem to have been playing towards.  These planes do little to help Ukraine but given the rhetoric of the past few weeks, it was the least the Harper government could do.

This package of planes and a small staff also makes sense when thinking about the biggest priority for this government—minimizing expenses.  This government cares most about balancing the budget to meet its 2015 election commitment, so a larger intervention is unlikely. Indeed, sending a battalion for months on end would be prohibitively expensive. 

The deployment is also remarkable in another way—it represents a reversal of sorts for Harper. Canada has pulled out of a few collective efforts at NATO—to run the AWACS plans, to develop and operate drones—and has been viewed by some Europeans as being almost hostile to the alliance. Embracing NATO now makes sense given the positions staked out by Harper and Baird on Ukraine while also serving as a shift from recent behaviour.

One of the closing lines I often give when I talk about the new book on NATO in Afghanistan is an adaptation of a quote from former British PM Winston Churchill: “NATO is the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all of the others.” In light of recent events, even the Harper government has realized this. While NATO presents many difficulties including uneven burden-sharing and the likelihood of being lost in the cacophony of members with their various complaints, it is still the best organization for most security issues. So, Canada does what it is expected to—about as much and as little as it can do.