The Limits of Promises

Steve Saideman on the empty promises made at NATO's Chicago Summit.
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May 30, 2012
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Last week, I wrote about the mutual benefits of the Canada-NATO relationship – how NATO gets much out of Canada’s participation, and how Canada gets much from the alliance. Now, it’s worth considering that relationship in light of the recent Chicago Summit. Did anything happen at the summit to alter Canada-NATO relations? There were plenty of opportunities for the mutual admiration society to engage in mutual disappointment. For its part, NATO deployed two time-honoured tactics: making empty promises and kicking various cans down the road.  Canada reciprocated by promising money, but no troops, for Afghanistan after 2014. However, no permanent damage was done to the NATO-Canada relationship, which was bolstered by Canada’s recent performances in Afghanistan and Libya.

The Chicago Summit focused on smart defence and Afghanistan’s transition. Both epitomize NATO’s keen ability to make incredible commitments that are not to be believed. Smart defence is an effort aimed at fostering the specialization and pooling of military capabilities so that members can more efficiently spend their defence dollars, which is ever more important in these times of fiscal crisis. The problem is that a more specialized military will have to rely even more heavily on allies to show up on the battlefield with the needed capabilities (helicopters, armour, etc.), and the lesson of Afghanistan is that the allies may not provide help, even – or especially – when it is needed. Canada’s most senior military officer, General Walt Natynczyck said this:

The challenge here is that when things really get tough, key enablers – such as helicopters, or intelligence, or artillery, or unmanned aerial vehicles – they all become scarce. And so we need to ensure that when we go into a theatre, that we have sufficient agility in case things, the situation deteriorates around us, that we have the means by which to be self-reliant on those operations, within reasonable means.

Canadian officers have learned that there are limits to NATO – that allies will disappoint. When asked about the problem of politically imposed restrictions (caveats) interacts with smart defence, NATO leaders essentially said that they will figure that out later – in other words, they kicked that can down the road.

Like smart defence, Afghanistan’s transition is more of a hope than a plan, as members and partners keep revising their departure dates. France’s new president, François Hollande, has announced that his country’s combat troops will pull out by 2013. Australia, too, is on a 2013 pull-out schedule, even though the NATO transition is supposed to be complete in 2014. District after district has been turned over to Afghan responsibility, even if neither the district nor the Afghan government has been ready. For instance, Kabul was supposedly turned over to Afghanistan’s security forces a couple of years ago, but security there is hardly assured. It seems that the transition schedule will be kept even if the various districts and Afghan units fall far short of the conditions that were originally established.

This is not a problem for Canada, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week that there will be no Canadian Forces in Afghanistan after 2014. He had been asked to deploy some units (special operations forces) to engage in counterterrorism and training, and the prime minister politely said no, we have done our share. This was uncontroversial both in Canada and in Chicago. It is very difficult for the secretary-general of NATO, or for American officials, to accuse Canada of not doing enough, given the toll taken by five years in Kandahar, as well as Canada’s quick deployment to assist the NATO effort last year in the skies over Libya. While the initial Kandahar decision was more than just about placating the U.S. in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, it is clear that Canada has earned a heap of credit at the alliance bank and in American eyes. As a result, Canada’s reluctance to do anything more for Afghanistan after 2014 does not harm its standing. Of course, the funny thing is that Harper’s promise not to deploy troops may be just as ephemeral as NATO’s promises: The prime minister has already changed his mind on Afghanistan a few times, and a deployment of Canadian special operators would not be visible to the public or to Parliament. 

While I raise doubts about NATO’s smart defence and Afghanistan plans, there is one can that NATO kicked down the road that I am happy to see left alone: the issue of enlargement. NATO’s agreement that an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all remains essential. That every member of the alliance showed up in Afghanistan to some degree following the attack on the United States shows that this commitment matters a great deal. Extending NATO membership to countries that NATO will not likely defend (i.e., Georgia) is most problematic, so I am glad that the Chicago Summit did not address this idea. Hopefully, when NATO does pick that can up down the road, it will quickly dispose of it.

I am hostile to enlargement precisely because the heart of the NATO is its security guarantees to Canada and to the rest of the current members.  As I discussed previously, this is the biggest added value that NATO provides to Canada.  Going to Afghanistan was as much or more about NATO and this guarantee than it was about the children and women of the country.  Canada did pay greatly for the continued credibility of NATO.  I would hate to see that one essential promise that NATO has credibly committed be watered down with the addition of countries that members are not likely to defend.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.