As U.S. President Donald Trump shakes up the existing order, the ripples are causing substantial discomfort beyond American shores. Will he, for example, walk away from the decades-long American commitment to collective defence under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Canada has a long NATO history. But despite our current dismay with Trump, we haven’t always been an enthusiastic participant.
Canada’s NATO involvement goes back to the beginning. Through diplomat Escott Reid and external affairs minister and then prime minister Louis St. Laurent, Canada – along with the U.S. and the U.K. – was instrumental in the organization’s founding as a collective security counterweight to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. When the NATO charter was signed in April 1949, Canada was one of the 12 original signatories.
But Pierre Trudeau’s ascension to power two decades later marked a change in Canada’s official attitude. To quote his biographer John English, “Trudeau had always stood outside the mainstream of Canadian foreign policy. He had opposed the Second World War and, later, the American-led United Nations intervention in Korea, and he had attacked Canada’s alliance politics and Pearson’s acceptance of nuclear weapons for Canadian forces in 1963.”
Left entirely to his own devices, Trudeau would probably have withdrawn Canada from NATO. That was certainly the preferred choice of left-wing Liberals like Donald Macdonald and Eric Kierans, and it was also the stated policy of the New Democratic Party. However, faced with significant opposition from within his cabinet, Trudeau contented himself with halving Canada’s troop contribution.
So if progressives have often been less than enamoured of NATO, why is everyone so alarmed about Trump’s possible apostasy?
Is it just a matter of being opposed to anything he’s in favour of? Or is there something more substantive behind it?
Actually, it isn’t difficult to understand the source of the alarm.
Western Europe has lived under the safety of the NATO umbrella for almost 70 years, as has Canada. Being cut adrift would be inherently discomfiting, particularly for countries like the Baltic States and Poland, whose history and geography give them ample reason to feel nervous about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And like it or not, it’s always been the American guarantee that’s provided NATO’s juice.
There’s also the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage. Whether it was the critical element, NATO saw us through the darkest days of the Cold War. Abandoning or diluting something that apparently worked seems counter-intuitive.
And there’s the irony that the first time NATO invoked its collective defence provision was in support of the U.S. after 9/11. Now an American president is musing about watering that commitment down.
But there’s less to the latter point than meets the eye.
Much of the post-9/11 NATO support was distinctly token, so much so that almost 68 percent of Afghanistan-related coalition fatalities were American. And just three countries – the U.S., the U.K. and Canada – accounted for 85 percent of the fatalities. When push came to shove, the U.S. still did most of the heavy lifting and lots of countries kept their heads down.
Trump’s biggest NATO beef appears to be over free riders. To pull your weight in collective security requires that you invest in the military resources necessary. And most NATO countries, Canada included, fall considerably short of the agreed-upon target to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defence.
You can also ask why Europe can’t take care of its own security. After all, it’s not 1949, when the post-war continent was flat on its back and Stalin’s Red Army was on the prowl. Western Europe today is much more populous and far wealthier than Putin’s Russia.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: just how real are NATO members’ commitments to each other?
If Russian troops and tanks invaded Latvia tomorrow, does anyone seriously believe that NATO would wage all-out war on Latvia’s behalf? Would Canada?
More realistically, the hope is that Putin will be discouraged from ever calling the bluff. But as the countdown to 1914 and the start of the First World War demonstrated, bluffs have a way of getting out of control.
Living in interesting times, and shaking up the existing order, can be greatly overrated.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.