Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Canada and NATO: BFF's?

It used to be taken for granted that Canada and NATO were best friends forever, right?  Not so much anymore.  Despite tremendous sacrifices in and near Kandahar and the street cred Canada earned there and in the skies over Libya, NATO folks are pondering Canada's commitment.  Canada has pulled out of a few smaller NATO programs: the Airborne Warning and Control System and Alliance Ground Surveillance program. 

This topic arose today during the Q&A after my talk at the Conference of Defence Associations, which is a Canadian institution that represents defence contractors and holds roundtables to address foreign policy and defence issues.  I was presenting the findings and implications of the Dave and Steve book on NATO.  The topic of Canada's commitment to NATO came up a few times and perhaps most pointedly by a defence attache from one of Canada's best friends in NATO who noted that one has really read Canada's last defence white paper, the Canada First Defence Strategy, to see NATO mentioned anywhere.

I have heard whisperings that this government is not a big fan of NATO despite its decisions to extend the mission twice in Afghanistan (although readily agreeing to an early departure), the training mission (my reference to the Hotel California fell flat today), the Libyan mission, and so on.  There are other strangenesses over the past few years--justifying the F-35 based on Arctic Sovereignty makes far less sense than alliance interoperability, for example.

Why would Harper and his folks be less than fond of NATO?  I could not really explain why Canada was tossing away some of the credits it had won by pulling out of two relatively inexpensive NATO programs and not taking advantage of other opportunities (NATO centres of excellence).  Likely alternatives include:
  • Harper just is opposed to multilateralism. Given other foreign policy stances (IRAN), this makes some sense.
  • Harper opposes anything that the Liberals supported/built/identified with.  
  • NATO is a pain in the ass, having to bargain with a bunch of whiners.  Well, yeah.
The thing is that the reason why Canada went to Afghanistan and fought and bled was not to help the Afghans but to fulfill Canada's obligations to ... NATO.  As a middle power, Canada cannot do much on its own in the realm of security.  It can either depend on the US or on NATO.  The safe bet is to work through both multilateral and bilateral channels.  Working solely with the elephant in the south means that any sneeze could leave one trampled.  Working through NATO means binding the elephant with some webs of institutional predictability.  It is not perfect, but a country with a small military can do only so much. 

NATO has been a force and diplomatic multiplier for Canada.  Despite the criticisms of NATO and its members that Dave and I raise in our book, we find that NATO is better than the alternatives.  This government does not have to salute everytime NATO calls, but it probably should not needlessly fritter away hard won credits either.  Sure, one can save a few dollars by opting out of a few NATO programs, but such cuts are mostly symbolic, kind of like the cuts made into academic research into defence issues.  At least that latter effort makes sense if one's focus is on message management (we academics are a pesky bunch).  But the former?  I am still kind of mystified.


Mark, Ottawa said...

Actually "justifying the F-35 based on Arctic Sovereignty" http://unambig.com/so-labrador-is-now-arctic-thats-why-we-need-f-35s/

not done now https://www.google.ca/search?num=100&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&q=f-35+%22arctic+sovereignty%22&spell=1&sa=X&ei=SneeUsmZCKWp2gXp-oHgAg&ved=0CCsQvwUoAA&biw=1173&bih=580

Mark, Ottawa said...

Hope these URLs now work:

So Labrador is now Arctic? That’s why we need F-35s?/UK, Blackjack Update

F-35 and "Arctic Sovereignty"

Mark Collins