Canada and NATO: Doing the Bare Minimum?

David Bercuson

What do you expect will be the central areas of focus at the upcoming NATO summit?

I think the most important issue that NATO faces right now is its disunity with regard to Hungary and Turkey, both of whom joined at an earlier period—Turkey almost from the very beginning, and Hungary since the end of the Cold War. In the case of Hungary, the government is much more favourably inclined towards Russia in this war, more than other NATO members. I think Orban is not keen to have additional NATO members. The NATO member that we’re talking about right now really is Sweden. He’s not interested in Sweden, and neither is Erdogan of Turkey.

Turkey is clearly going to try to squeeze the last drop of blood that it can out of NATO without letting Sweden in. These can be considerable problems, but they can also be overcome through diplomatic means. Sweden is perfectly compatible with NATO. Different countries in NATO can make different arrangements with Sweden that would effectively add Sweden to NATO without adding Sweden to NATO. I mean, that can be done. It’d be unfortunate, but I think that’s the main problem right now.

I think for the most part, NATO countries are backing the Ukrainian situation. Lots of weapons are being donated, and really at this stage of the game, it’s up to the Ukrainians to decide how they’re going to fight this war and what the limits of their endeavours are going to be. I don’t think that NATO should be dictating to Hungary what Hungary should be doing, but I do think that NATO needs to discuss how far they can take this and what they can reasonably assume to get out of it.

How has the war in Ukraine affected NATO’s cohesion and decision-making processes? Are there any lessons for the alliance in terms of improving its decision-making mechanisms and ensuring unity among member states?

Anyone who follows the history of NATO knows that it went through certain stages depending on the state of the Cold War at any given point in time. In the beginning, when NATO was formed, and after the Chinese intervened in Korea, it began to look as if the UN forces in Korea would be totally pushed off the peninsula. NATO began to interpret that as a signal to Russia that NATO’s resolve was very weak. The sentiment was that we better build up our military forces in Europe. Some were talking about building military forces to where they had been at the end of the Second World War. That was totally unrealistic and that’s why NATO then decided that it would resort to nuclear weapons if it had to.

That’s also when Canada, the United States, Britain, and other countries began to vastly increase their military budgets. It was the largest peacetime mobilization in Canadian history and, and lasted for several years before it evened off. Then you drive it forward to the end of the Cold War, and people began to think, well, what is NATO for? NATO goes to Afghanistan—why is NATO in Afghanistan? It’s got nothing to do with NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, I think, shook everybody. Almost as much as the Chinese invasion of Korea in the fall of 1950. It didn’t shake Canada as much, that’s for sure. But we can get into that later.

What we now have is a NATO being reminded that the world could be at peace for 50 years—so-called at peace, because there were wars going on all the time anyway, but they weren’t wars that directly involved NATO or didn’t impact NATO unless NATO got itself involved—but we’re now returning to the state of the world as it normally is.

NATO has got to face up to these realities. It has to do with deterrence and deterrence means you’ve got to build your military forces to the point where the other side concludes that, not only should nuclear war never be fought, but it also cannot be fought. You must know that if it is fought, you are going to suffer as much as everybody else. One must ask: how much China has to lose in an overall nuclear exchange?

It’s just unthinkable, but NATO must keep holding that card up to countries that are clearly challenging NATO and the United States today on a wide front, from trying to take the dollar down as the international currency exchange, to building navies, to building alliances with all kinds of unlikely partners like China. NATO has got to react to that because if it doesn’t, it’s a sign that Russia or China can do whatever they want to do.

Canada has committed troops to various NATO missions, including those in Eastern Europe. How do you evaluate Canada’s contributions to NATO in terms of military capability, strategic significance, and overall commitment to the alliance’s goals?

We’re doing as little as we can get away with. This is what we always do. We’ve been doing this for a long, long time. I think you could say that when we were involved in Afghanistan, the percentage of the budget that was devoted to defence was not a heck of a lot higher than it is now. We were actively involved in an important part of the country and that’s why the military wanted to go there in the first place. That’s also why Foreign Affairs wanted to go there. The Martin government was convinced that Canada had to start elbowing its way back into world significance. That was one way of doing it. Pick a tough spot in Afghanistan and hold it. Now since we’ve left, things have gone downhill.

We’re doing the least that we can do that allows us to say to our NATO partners, we’re doing something. We gave the Ukrainians eight tanks. We bought several dozens of them when we got involved in Afghanistan, and what did we do when we were done with them? We brought them home and we stuck them in a warehouse somewhere and left a few of them out for training purposes.

The Prime Minister has just been in Ukraine promising more of this and that, but the defence budget remains where it has been now for many, many years. We’re supposed to be undergoing a defence review right now, but this government has committed so much money to non-defence matters, I don’t know where they’re going to find five dollars to increase the defence budget. Everything else takes priority over defence spending.

How justifiable is the argument that a 2% defence spending target is arbitrary and should not be the sole measure of a country’s investment in NATO? What alternative measures or criteria could be used to assess a country’s contribution to the alliance? Should the focus be solely on defence spending targets, or should NATO place greater emphasis on the effectiveness and efficiency of military capabilities?

I’ve been a long-time critic of the 2% target. The reason is that too many nations can fool around with it in too many ways. You add pensions, uniforms, brass buttons, and military bands. I mean, it’s a very arbitrary figure. But when you are very low on the scale of defence spending, as Canada is, there’s nothing arbitrary about that—not at all. Look at the aircraft that we have, look at the Navy that’s going to pieces. There’s no chance of refurbishing it any time in the next five to ten years.

Yes, they’ve opened an office to look at submarines, but nobody is serious about it. They’re still talking about keeping these four old British warships until the 2030s. We could go on and on. I think if you can show that you are making a real contribution as we did in Kandahar, then nobody’s going to complain if you’re a couple of percentage points below 2%. But it’s still a rough target and we’re still way below it. If we were anywhere close to the target, 1.8%, for example, and we were very actively involved in a lot of areas, it might be different. We couldn’t even get involved in the NATO air exercise that is going on right now. Our ships have stopped sailing with the Standing Force Atlantic. Okay, we can scrape together 4000 troops to send to Latvia, but how many more troops can we scrape together? I don’t live and die by the 2%, but I do live and die on effort, and I don’t see much effort.

Is there a point at which Canada decides to and commits to spending more on defence or do you expect more of the same going forward?

I think the prime driving force when it comes to defence, since the end of the Cold War, except for our involvement in Afghanistan, is you get away with as little as you can. You do whatever you can to keep the folks in Washington, not happy, but at least enough to leave us alone. We have major international trade between our two countries. Canada is very important. The two economies are way too closely linked for you to do anything significant. They’ll give us a break when those issues are raised, but we will get away with as little as we can. That’s always been the case.

I would say unless Ukraine is defeated and Russia goes on to Moldova and begins to threaten the NATO countries in the Baltic, I don’t see anything happening here. Part of it is the Canadian people—we are fat and happy. This is a wonderful country to live in. I love being here. Remember Senator Danurand—we live far from flammable materials, and we have nothing to worry about. We don’t care about Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. We care about the United States and Canada. That is still the issue. When it came to wars—the Second World War, Korean War, Afghanistan—we joined sometimes willingly, sometimes not so willingly. We are capable of being a fighting people when we must be but avoid it as long as possible.

A recent RAND article discussed the potential for a frozen conflict in Ukraine as an alternative to a continuation of the war. What are the implications of a frozen conflict scenario for NATO’s security and stability in the region? How would it impact the alliance’s relationship with Ukraine?

I think it continues. I think it continues though, in the way that it has continued in Korea since 1953. Somehow or other, I think both sides will come to the realization that regardless of what they’re telling the world, they can no longer continue the level of fighting that they have been sustaining for the last year and a half. I don’t know what to make of the defences that Russia has built along the territory that it grabbed from Ukraine, but the Ukrainians seem to be having a lot of trouble getting through it.

I think eventually, the Ukrainians will say to themselves, well, we’d love to get Crimea back, but it’s not going to happen. We’d like to get the rest of the Donbas back, that’s never going to happen. You can’t pour men and equipment into a war continuously. Ukraine has got a heck of a rebuilding job to be done after the bombardment that it has received from the Russians in the last year and a half.

On the Russian side, I don’t know what goes on inside Vladimir Putin’s head, but this has been one disaster after another for him. I think at some point in time, he’s got a rebuilding job that he’s got to do. At some point, I see somebody pulls a ceasefire together—maybe it’ll be China. It’s not going to be the United States, that’s for sure. A ceasefire is just that, there are no political bargains that are made, and the two sides just agree to stop fighting, and you leave the lines where they are. The future will determine what happens just as the cases between North and South Korea today.

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.