In The Media

J.L. Granatstein: The end of NATO?

by J.L. Granatstein

National Post
March 4, 2013

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the most successful military alliance of the modern era. Set up in 1949 to counter Josef Stalin’s threat to Western Europe, NATO won the Cold War some four decades later without firing a shot. Although NATO had accomplished its goal of defeating the Soviets by the early 1990s, its existence didn’t end.

Perhaps it might have been better if NATO had wound itself up at the end of the Cold War. The alliance instead sought for a new role, a new strategic purpose, and it found it outside the boundaries of the alliance. Provoked by ethnic slaughter in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it conducted operations in the former Yugoslavia, involving air attacks against Serbia and the deployment of troops in Kosovo. Then came 9/11 and a long war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, followed by an air campaign that brought down the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

None of these operations were notable successes. In June 2011, then U.S. secretary of defence, Robert Gates, stated in public what many had privately acknowledged: NATO, the linchpin of European security and transatlantic relations, faced “the real possibility [of] a dim, if not dismal future … While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.” This was an affirmation of the ineffectiveness of the alliance after six decades of existence.

Matters have since worsened. NATO members have begun pulling combat troops out of Afghanistan on their own timetables, and all the troops, except an undisclosed number of Americans, are scheduled to depart by 2014. The global economic crisis has led members to cut back on defence spending. And faced with the increasing power of China, the Obama administration indicated that it was rebalancing its forces toward Asia.

The NATO alliance seemed completely unprepared for this new uncertainty. As secretary Gates stated, “the U.S. share of NATO defence spending has now risen to more than 75% — at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.” The U.S., in other words, won’t pay the bills much longer. We know Canada won’t, and the Europeans don’t seem willing to do so, either. If this continues, NATO may not be long for this world.

All of which makes a hard look at NATO essential for Canada. The alliance was at the heart of Canadian foreign and defence policy during the Cold War. But Brian Mulroney’s government withdrew Canadian forces from Europe, and the Harper government has cut-back commitments to NATO infrastructure and the airborne warning system.

NATO’s members are friendly nations to which Canadians have strong ties. But most of them are also rich, industrialized states that can readily handle the defence of their own territories with without Canadian — and American — backing. If they are threatened, they will re-invest; if they are not, they will continue to cut their military budgets. To pretend that Europe cannot defend itself with its own resources is to deny reality.

In such a situation, surely it is time for Canada to ask if NATO is really the best way for us to contribute to Western defence. We need to remember what we learned from Afghanistan. Namely, that there is only one partner who we can rely on to support our troops with capable forces, air support and good intelligence: the United States.

Does all this not imply that Canada should focus on North America and the Western Hemisphere? A focus with a primary gaze westward across the Pacific where trouble may loom, rather than across the North Atlantic?

Instead of pledging fealty forever to the increasingly hollow shell of NATO, perhaps it’s time for Canadians to begin reassessing their place in the world, and to produce a national security strategy. What we need is an analysis of Canada’s defence and foreign policy requirements for the next 20 years. Any such review will surely give primacy to Canada’s alliance with the United States. But one question that must be asked is if NATO still serves our needs.

If such an analysis says strongly that we need NATO to protect our national interests, so be it. But Canadians must ask the question. The answer might be that NATO has served its purpose well in the past, but is no longer needed as we head into a new world with different challenges. It’s time to raise the question.

J.L. Granatstein is a distinguished research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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