Canada’s NATO response: A missed opportunity

By Zachary Wolfraim:

Meetings of the Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels - Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC)
Meetings of the Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels – Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) (Source: Reuters)

Earlier this May I analysed Canada’s tentative re-engagement with NATO given its full-throated defence of Ukrainian sovereignty and its commitment of military assets to NATO’s reassurance mission in Eastern Europe. The deployment of F-18s, the participation of a Canadian frigate in NATO’s Standing Naval Maritime Group, as well as additional headquarters staff, raised the profile of Canada in the NATO alliance and is a welcome step given that Canada was seen to be somewhat disengaged after the end of the Libya campaign and its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the longest-serving leaders of one of the founding NATO member states at the Wales Summit, however there was no distinct Canadian ‘stamp’ on any initiatives adopted. Now, in the wake of the NATO Summit in Wales this past week, can this still be characterised as a significant re-engagement with the Alliance? More broadly, does this signal any kind of change in direction for Canadian foreign policy?

Over the weekend Prime Minister Harper made a number of foreign policy announcements related to Canada’s commitment to international security. He grudgingly committed Canada to spending more on defence, however, he had previously noted that increasing spending to the NATO target of 2% of GDP would be unpalatable to Canadian taxpayers. By the Harper government’s reckoning, the Canadian public is not overly keen on spending on foreign policy or defence and moreover, spending on defence has not been a guarantee of international influence. Given that Canada’s defence spending currently lies around 1% of GDP it represents a disconnect for the government with regards to its previous public commitment to supporting and investing in the Canadian military. The current government had been withering in its criticism of the previous Liberal governments who slashed defence spending during the 1990s (to a comparable 1%). This disconnect between investment and rhetoric undermines Canadian credibility as ultimately, Canada has little ability to back up its threats with actions and raises questions about the actual priorities of Canadian foreign policy.

NATO and the Afghanistan mission were paramount up until they were no longer politically tenable and Canada unceremoniously withdrew from combat operations in 2011, pushing aside the ‘in-together, out-together’ mantra. The Conservative government had been keen to stress its links with the military and a willingness to utilise ‘hard power’ in response to crises unlike preceding governments which had favoured multilateral, diplomatic solutions. Nonetheless, the current Conservative government has been willing to follow the lead of other nations when it comes to determining a response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. This however, remains a fundamentally reactive response and reflects a wider shortcoming in the current government’s approach to diplomacy. Though this government has eschewed the idea of ‘going along to get along’ it appears to be willing to do so provided some conditions and coalitions are right and as long as it allows for strong rhetoric. This has been the case with Canada’s recent deployment of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment to northern Iraq to assist multinational efforts against ISIS. That said, while a positive contribution this once again reflects a reactive response to international affairs and ultimately a solely military response.

Years of disengagement from the UN along with other multilateral partnerships mean that Canada while certainly still respected for its contributions to various initiatives, is left out in the cold when it comes to actually influencing international affairs. While content to offer ‘bullhorn diplomacy’, and making bellicose statements, it has done little of the behind-the-scenes diplomatic work to actually try and remedy these issues. This naturally absolves the government of any failures when it comes to major foreign policy initiatives. However, it also means that Canada’s influence in the world is also diminished. The government needs to acknowledge that influence in the world does not come only through military contributions and trade, but that diplomacy and development also matter.

NATO requires the diplomatic and military capabilities of all its members in the face of growing threats from Russia as well as the Middle East, on top of its current NATO commitments in Afghanistan, the Balkans and off the Horn of Africa. While the NATO Summit in Wales reaffirmed and reinvigorated the Alliance, the real work has yet to be done – namely staffing, basing and supplying the Rapid Reaction Force along with continuing to put pressure on Russia for its invasion of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Indeed, the Alliance needs countries like Canada to not only remain staunch supporters, but also to undertake vital public diplomacy and communicate the value of the Alliance in order to maintain its momentum and relevance. Given that the Harper administration has focused largely on headline diplomacy it seems unlikely that there will be a concerted effort to rebuild the NATO relationship to levels it once reached, nor to regenerate Canadian diplomacy more broadly.

Canada’s attitude towards NATO is indicative of a fickle approach to world affairs which has focused more on immediate public diplomacy rather than any kind of overarching strategic aim or narrative. The government has stressed trade but thus far its crowning achievement, a Canada-EU free trade agreement, has languished since it was signed in principle last October and has yet to be fully concluded. While the importance of trade shouldn’t be underestimated, using this as a central platform for diplomacy does not offer many avenues for future crisis management or leveraging Canadian influence in other forums. Ultimately, the current government has not articulated a clear vision of Canada’s place in the world and by failing to seize on the initiative leading up to the Wales Summit, has lost an opportunity to reinvigorate Canadian diplomacy and reinforce Canada’s international influence.


Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy in relation to NATO operations. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachWol.

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