Monday, August 15, 2011

Canada and NATO: Irrelevant?

Granatstein, apparently the dean of Canadian diplomatic historians (I say apparently since I am neither Canadian nor an historian), has written a piece questioning the relevance of NATO.  If he were an American, I might have to make an argument.  However, for a Canadian, this is a relatively silly question to ask given the absence of alternatives

The US can and occasionally does go it alone, perhaps covering its unilateralism with a fig leaf of supporting countries.  Canada simply cannot act militarily in the world without help.  So, the choice is either go bilateral with the US or multilateral with NATO, as there is no other viable security-producing institution in the world (nope, the UN does not count).  Its military is simply too small and lacking in key capabilities to do much abroad (or defend itself). 

What about the facts in the piece?  Well, yes, the US did send 1,000 troops to southern Afghanistan, but that was part of a deal that brought a French battalion to the dangerous area of Kapisa near Kabul.  The French wanted to go East, not South, largely for logistical reasons. NATO worked in this case by facilitating the redeployment of Americans before the big surge and because Sarkozy wanted NATO to succeed.

Granatstein is also right in suggesting that Afghanistan is not a huge success story, but consider the context--is it NATO's fault or is it due to the situation?  I would not use Afghanistan as a good measure of what NATO cannot do, after countries have bled in a war far away from Europe just to support an ally a la Article V.

The piece does tend to overplay the "Europeans" didn't fight thing, as even an author of book on caveats (well, soon) would not say that Europeans didn't fight.  Not only did the Danes and the Dutch fight in the South, along with the Poles in the east, even the Germans and Italians, handcuffed by domestic politics, still bled and fought.  Yes, some countries fought harder, but Canada was hardly alone and the NATO blessing to the mission meant it was possible for others to participate.  Hard to get missions through parliaments without a thick gloss of multilateralism.

Oh yeah, true for Canada as well.  Canadians are more likely to support a multilateralism mission.  Isn't that one of the lessons of 2003?

Granatstein's final take:
And where does this leave Canada? Ottawa has been fed up with the way most NATO members hid under the bushes to avoid Afghanistan and Libya while Canadians fought and died. That ought to lead to a serious re-examination of the utility of the alliance, of its worth to us in the immediate and longer-term future. But NATO contains most of our friends in the world and, while the grumbling among the mandarins and politicians continues, there is unlikely to be any immediate interest in pulling out.
But in diplomacy as in baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. Afghanistan was strike one; Libya was strike two. And strike three? No one yet knows where the next call for action might be - Syria? - but if NATO funks it again, then the pressure from Ottawa and, possibly, Washington may be irresistible. NATO has lasted more than 60 years, but even historic alliances can become so attenuated and powerless that their irrelevance can no longer be ignored.
Convenient to ignore Bosnia and Kosovo--where the casualties have been few and the peace relatively robust.  Also strange to mention Syria as no one is really thinking of doing anything there.  Is NATO really supposed to intervene and stop all violence?  Rwanda would have meant NATO was irrelevant in the 1990s.  Or Somalia?  Oops.

As a committed skeptic of conditionality, I still see the merit NATO had in helping the democratization of Eastern Europe by both providing security guarantees and helping to develop civilian control of the militaries.  

Back to the main point: with broken submarines and a navy with few significant platforms, a small air force, and limited defense budgets down the road, how can Canada either defend itself on its own or intervene anywhere in the world without significant help?  Relying solely on the US is one way to go, but not popular in Canada and perhaps not a wise strategy to always be a mouse with little influence on the elephant.  NATO institutions give Canada some sway, especially when Canada "punches above its weight."  No institutions means that there is no place for a LTG Bouchard to run the Libyan campaign.  If the purpose of a military is just defense, NATO is necessary.  If the purpose is to have influence, NATO is still relevant as it has amplified Canadian influence in Europe, the North Atlantic, the Med and A-stan.  Not too shabby.

Yes, the institution has problems and caveats have been challenging (but Canada has them too).  But the reality is that there are not abundant choices, and NATO has done both better and worse than its critics/fans aver.

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