Cornerstone or stumbling block?

NATO-logo-350x150Almost ten years ago, when we, in the broad ‘military community’ were quite occupied with Afghanistan, some friends on suggested that Canada needed to take a new direction in foreign policy, something like a pacific strategy, and they asked a question: is NATO still a cornerstone of our foreign policy, as it was from about 1950 until, arguably, 1970, or has it become more of a stumbling block?

Two items caught my eye, yesterday, first an article in the Toronto Sun in which Anthony Furey suggests that Prime Minister Justin Trudeaube would be “wise to listen closely to the type of non-partisan moral clarity [former Prime Minister Brian] Mulroney articulated” in a speech he gave a few nights ago to honour the NATO Association of Canada’s 50th anniversary.

Now, I agree that Prime Minister Trudeau lacks moral clarity. He lacks a lot of things that we normally expect to find in leaders … even in ordinary grownups. He is quite deficient, in my opinion, in clarity of thought, in strategic vision, gravitas and, above all, in what the Brits call “bottom,” which is a mix of gravitas and maturity and integrity, and, and, and … but I’m not fully persuaded that he’ll gain much in the way of any sort of clarity, moral or strategic, in the hallways and offices in NATO’s HQ outside Brussels.

The next article was by Prof Stephen Saideman in the Globe and Mail, and in it he says that “While the government of Justin Trudeau is focused on winning votes to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council, this NATO effort would advance other objectives.” Amongst those other objectives are:

  • Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. This would be, in the parlance of these things, big bang for the buck.
  • Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. It will be hard to criticize Canada at meetings in Brussels if it answers the call.
  • The members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.
  • Compared to the UN hotspots currently imagined as possible destinations for the Canadian Armed Forces, this would be a relatively low-risk, low-expense effort. The whole idea of this effort is to prevent conflict, and prevention always costs less than actually conducting warfare. For the UN missions in West Africa, for instance, the troops would face far higher risk. So, in terms of risk/reward calculations, the persistent-presence mission is a better bet.

I actually agree with Prof Saideman on a point-by-point basis, and I have said, before that we should be going to Eastern Europe, not Africa, but none of that obviates my main concerns about NATO itself:

History_of_NATO_enlargement.svgFirst, I believe the Russians have some good, valid reasons to be suspicious of NATO. I think that there was a commitment circa 1990 when the Warsaw pact and USSR collapsed ~ never formally stated ~ that NATO would stay out of the former Warsaw Pact nations. But what I suspect President George HW Bush ‘promised.’ albeit not formally, did not appear to constrain President Bill Clinton or President George W Bush because in 1999 and again in the early 2000s NATO gobbled up the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland and then Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Second, NATO is less than well suited for out of area operations.

Now, my first concern is a lot like crying over spilled milk and my second doesn’t matter because, thanks to the problem created, in some part, by my first concern, it is an “in area” operation.

Thus, while I support Canada providing, for a fairly long term it must be understood, a large battle group for NATO ~ for real peacekeeping ~ in Eastern Europe, I think we must, also, be looking West, to Asia and trying to develop a better “tool” than NATO to do robust peacekeeping on the UN’s behalf when, as has been the case since the 1980s, that becomes more and more necessary.

NATO is too big, too cumbersome, too formal and bureaucratic to be an effective “framework” for the sorts of “coalition of the willing” (and the able) that the United Nations needs to be its “prime contractor” for robust peacekeeping/peace making/peace enforcement operations. What’s needed is a smaller, more agile, less formal grouping which might have some American, some European, some Asia-Pacific and other military staffs working in cooperation – nor in a formal alliance – to develop command, control and communications (C³) and logistical standards and protocols that would enable coalitions of the willing to come together more easily and work together more effectively.

downloadI would start with the existing Australian, British, Canadian, New Zealand and US groups that already do a lot of the C³ planning that is adopted by NATO  and publish the ubiquitous Allied Communications Publications that are used by NATO and many other nations, and that also do a lot of materiel/logistical standarization work, and I would add a few more countries to that mix and establish a smallish combined military staff in or near a friendly capital (not Washington) that has good global physical and electronic links … someplace, perhaps, like The Hague or Singapore. This relatively loose and informal organization, not constrained and hamstrung by e.g. a treaty, would become the UN’s “prime contractor” for robust peace restoration missions. The US would, of course, be central to this but a mix of, say, nine or ten other countries would dilute US influence somewhat and give it broad international ‘respectability.’

I’m not suggesting that we disband NATO … just restrict it to the role for which it is well suited: countering direct military threats to Western Europe. Russia, right now, poses just such a threat and Canada should be playing an active, even leading role in NATO to counter it. To that end one can only hope that Prime Minister Trudeau might show some moral and strategic clarity but David Akin, also writing in the Toronto Sun, is not too sure that will happen. The prime minister, he notes, has said that, ““One of the commitments that we made was to Canadians over the course of the last election — and we have been delivering on — is to re-engage Canada in the world in positive ways,” … [and] … he hinted that he will arrive at the Poland summit with other news for Canada’s NATO allies, many of whom have been pressing Canada to commit to sending troops to Eastern Europe as a check against Russian aggression.

So what is it to be, I wonder:

  1. Strategic and moral clarity in Eastern Europe; or
  2. Sunny ways and peacekeeping in Africa?

My guess is that Prime Minister Trudeau’s definition of “re-engage in positive ways” is likely to be aimed at UN, not NATO, operations.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

4 thoughts on “Cornerstone or stumbling block?

  1. Re: the “commitment” about former WP countries not joining NATO …
    1) there’s a case to be made that there was no promise, at least according to Gorbachev
    2) the Russians signed a piece of paper saying, “we’re OK with Ukraine’s borders if the nukes go”, but we saw how THAT went – and if one uses the “well, that deal was with a different Ukrainian government”, then the same could be said of any similar deal between NATO & the then-Soviet Union.
    Nonetheless, agree 1000% in NATO over ANYWHERE in Africa.

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