Is Canada Really a NATO “Free-Rider”?

Benjamin Zyla

Benjamin Zyla, Assistant Professor in the School of International Development & Global Studies at the University of Ottawa joins us for a recap of last week’s Vilnius summit. We discuss the major outcomes of the summit, break down the communique, and discuss Canada’s NATO contributions, the 2% defence spending threshold, and the status of Ukraine’s nato membership aspirations.

Zyla provides an overview of the recent NATO Summit and Canada’s role in supporting Ukraine’s path toward NATO membership. The promise of NATO membership for Ukraine was made in 2008 but without a clear timeline or path for accession. This ambiguity left Ukraine in a vulnerable position, which ultimately led to Russia’s aggression in 2014. The NATO Summit in Vilnius aimed to address this issue by offering a concrete commitment to Ukraine’s membership, providing a clearer trajectory for its inclusion in the alliance.

Canada’s role in NATO and the question of whether it is a “freeloader” or “free-rider” is also discussed. Zyla argues that Canada’s contributions to NATO should not be dismissed as freeloading, as it has actively participated in NATO operations and made substantial commitments to supporting Ukraine. He emphasizes the need for a balanced assessment of burden-sharing within NATO, considering both input and output metrics and recognizing the broader context and complexities involved.

Vilnius Summit Breakdown: Concrete Commitment for Ukraine, Defence Plans, 2% Target, and Canada’s Contributions

What are the most significant takeaways from both the Vilnius Summit and the 2023 Communique, more generally, but also particularly for Canada?

The offer of NATO membership for Ukraine has been on the table since 2008. At the Bucharest Summit, the heads of state and governments basically told Ukraine and Georgia that they could become members. The only problem is they did not say when and how this would happen, so both countries stayed in a grey area where it wasn’t clear what the path for them would be. This grey zone was ultimately one of the reasons for Russia to attack Ukraine in 2014, and again in 2022 because it was clear that Ukraine, in such a grey zone, not yet being a member of NATO, would be in a difficult position to completely defend itself.

The main task of the NATO Summit in Vilnius was to overcome this grey zone vagueness and to make a concrete commitment towards Ukraine. It was never about, as some analysts would have suggested before the Summit, and I say this very explicitly, to ask Ukraine to join NATO tomorrow or in a few months—the idea was to lay out a path where and when it could become a member of the Alliance. In that sense, it was quite clear that as long as the war continues, there will be no accession of Ukraine to NATO, because, at the end of the day, that would mean NATO would be part of the war.

There was a big political promise by the Allies that Ukraine could join the Alliance. In a way that concrete promise never really materialized, it was a political pledge that eventually it would become a member of the Alliance, but there was no concrete pledge that it would happen tomorrow. Having said that, Ukraine did not leave the Summit with empty hands either.

There are now long-term cooperation projects, especially by the G7 countries, as well as on a bilateral basis. What is new is that there’s now a NATO-Ukraine Council, and that is quite significant, because with that Ukraine Council, Ukraine now has permanent institutionalized access to NATO’s political leadership and bureaucracy, which it didn’t have before. Moreover, parallel to the NATO Summit there was a series of bilateral commitments of support in the G7 format—the Germans have put together a new package, the Americans have put together a new support package, and altogether 11 states have said that they finally want to put a training mechanism in place to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets. The G7, the strongest economic states, have put together a package ranging from arms deliveries to reconstruction, and so forth. There is quite a bit of support.

NATO has passed new defence plans and the heads of states of government have approved them. Of course, they have been prepared in the background prior to the Summit, and the idea was how would NATO react to a future scenario, something like the Russian attack on Eastern Europe, or Eastern member states, of the NATO alliance. Those documents are very secret, and they were prepared by the militaries, by the SACEUR, and we are told they’re about 4,000 pages long. They describe in detail how critical places in Alliance territory should be protected by deterrence and defended in an emergency such as a Russian attack on Alliance territory.

What we’re talking here about is nitty-gritty details down to the last soldier in terms of logistics, in terms of political communication, etc. For this purpose, it also defined which military capabilities are necessary and required by each member state. In addition to land, air, and naval forces, cyber and space capabilities are also included in the plan that NATO has now adopted.

The other point that was raised was the 2% target. The new language is that NATO now considers the 2% benchmark as the minimum, so there’s a slight shift in language. The third, or fourth, point to take away from the Summit is that there is new hope for Sweden. As we all know, the Turkish President agreed to ratify the application that Sweden put forward, so it seems to be a very clear path for Sweden towards joining the alliance.

And, of course, China—another hot topic. China has now been listed as a country that is challenging NATO values, and therefore, NATO and its allies should be prepared for this ‘China clause,’ if you want to put it in those terms.

It hasn’t really attracted much media attention, but the NATO heads of state and government signed a founding document for a new NATO Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence to be hosted in Montreal. This initiative is led by Canada and has been in preparation for a very long time. Canada will act as the framework nation and will spend about $40 million over five years to set up the centre and get it running. Its purpose is to enable NATO allies to understand and address some of the serious security implications of climate change. It brings together climate change issues with security issues, including the Arctic, and it will support the NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan.

The Canadian Prime Minister has pledged an additional $542 million for Ukraine. This is not nothing, this is not just pocket change. It’s quite a bit of money and it comes in addition to $8 billion already spent in multifaceted assistance that Canada has provided to Ukraine since the beginning of 2022 when the war started.

Challenging the Perception of Canada as a “free-rider”

Canada has been frequently derided lately for its NATO contributions and for failing to meet the 2% threshold. Are we really “freeloaders” or “free-riders”?

I would argue that we’re not freeloaders in NATO. That debate has polarized NATO since 1949 and has been hotly debated ever since because the Washington Treaty, which establishes NATO, does not actually outline how the Alliance should be funded. It’s a political commitment, and it’s a negotiation that takes place on a yearly basis. There’s no provision in the Washington Treaty that outlines which countries should be paying for what and how much.

If there’s no section in the Washington Treaty, why has nobody pushed to change that in its 75-year history? If it’s so contested, why has nobody dared to put a motion forward to change the Washington Treaty? As a footnote, about 50% of NATO members currently are freeloaders, so Canada in a way is in good company—but what the debate is all about is which metrics actually should count.

The literature establishes two schools. The first one is what I would call the input side of NATO burden-sharing, and that is essentially how much each member state invests into the defence as a share of their GDP. This is essentially your 2% benchmark debate. That has been going on for years now. It goes back to the birth of NATO in 1949, even though back then we didn’t talk about the 2% mark.

The second school is actually looking at a different metric, and that is what I would call the output school, that is, the commitment to NATO operations. Germany, Canada, and a number of other countries, especially Eastern European countries, tend to be in this camp. They would argue that it doesn’t really matter how much you put into the Alliance, it matters what comes out of the Alliance—they’re saying that you can invest less than other countries into NATO and yet achieve the same goal, achieve a higher output. So really, what they’re looking at is deployments of soldiers on NATO operations.

This measure not only includes an analysis of the outcomes of a particular operation and member states’ contributions but also its sustainability, for example, in a peacekeeping mission. In other words, if you deploy in a peacekeeping mission, let’s say in Bosnia, you can measure the impact of peace over a long time of, let’s say, 10-15 years. In the literature, we call this the long-lasting impact, the sustainability of somebody’s efforts. More specifically, if I want to put it in more academic terms, NATO inputs and resources are used to carry out certain activities. Inputs and activities, for example, are the financial and human resources that are used to implement a specific NATO activity, whether it’s an operation or anything that NATO heads of state and government decide on.

Allied activities then lead to collective services, which are usually a direct outcome of the NATO activity or products delivered. In other words, what we’re talking about is outputs. Over time, outputs then contribute to a certain form of change, so we would call them perhaps outcomes. And this is more of an assessment of the longer-term effect that NATO activities have, whether it’s crisis management interventions or implementing peace agreements, and their effect on a particular conflict or a particular country over time. For example, one might want to measure the demonstrable outcomes of NATO peacebuilders in Bosnia, whether they achieved a certain objective or a certain mandate that they were given.

We can speak of this final outcome as the impact, that is, when outcomes represent the raison d’être of an Alliance policy, programme, or initiative, and contribute to higher NATO strategic outcomes over a long period of time. That, in a nutshell, is when we’re looking at long-term impacts, sustainable impacts, and we’re moving beyond simple quantitative measures of Alliance burden-sharing, which is what the input and the output side have been doing. The impact assessments open the doors for the qualitative assessment of member states’ contributions to the Alliance.

I’ve argued that what we really need to look at is the practice of NATO burden-sharing. NATO as an institution has a certain process in place by which it determines how much member states should pay into the NATO pot. But there’s a long-term practice by each member state that explains why states either underperform or overperform, whether they’re freeloaders or higher achievers. There’s a holistic picture behind it. To study the practice of burden-sharing opens up an analytical perspective of things like GDP, strategic culture, historical experiences, whether it’s domestic politics—it opens a whole range of additional qualitative variables to push the NATO burden-sharing research programme, which I have argued is very static, very rationalist.

It’s very input-output driven, but it doesn’t allow a deeper causal understanding of why states behave in a certain way, or why they share a certain burden and not others. We’re missing that explanation in the literature. If we really look at the numbers, we cannot say that Canada was a freeloader in NATO operations since the end of the Cold War.

If we just quickly walk through those operations, it starts with the IFOR, or the Implementation Force, in the early 1990s. The IFOR was set up in December 1995, and it lasted one year, to December 1996. Out of the 16 NATO member states that contributed to that operation, Canada shared about 2% of the entire force share, which is around rank 9 out of 16 allies. It’s like its middle power status—it’s contributing to the operation, it’s not a high achiever, but it’s not a freeloader either.

If we fast forward to 1996, the so-called Stabilization Force, the 30,000-strong force that was implemented by NATO to be the successor to IFOR, well, Canada shared actually 5.5% of the total force share out of 205,000 troops. That is not nothing. It ranked 8 out of 29 or so member states. Same with KFOR—it ranked 11 out of 19 member states. Again, Canada ranks in the middle, but it’s by no means a freeloader. It’s by no means riding on somebody else’s back. It is contributing what it can. I mean, above all, we’re a middle power, we have very limited resources in terms of human resources, but also in terms of financial resources.

At the end of the day, we’re not freeloaders in the NATO alliance. It really depends on what metric you’re using, and what you’re trying to measure. Even if you’re measuring the outputs, I will still say this is a very incomplete picture that you’re drawing because there are about four or five things that you can take away from those numbers.

Canada is not a freeloader, nor is Europe. You will see this in American-centric, American-dominated rhetoric, but it really requires serious qualifications. In IFOR, SFOR, and KFOR, the European contributions were over time more substantial than the Americans when we just look at the force contributions. The exception is NATO’s mission to Afghanistan, which, just to complete the picture, Canada actually ranked fifth between 2003 and 2014 in ISAF in terms of its force contributions—more than 21,500 troops were deployed there over time. Again, this is not nothing.

Simply focusing on the inputs of defence spending gives rise to a picture of American largesse. If we’re looking at the outputs of the spending, the picture actually looks much different for Canada, but also for the Europeans. That inversion reflects one of the many problems of the GDP measure. Obviously, the U.S. spends significantly more on defence both in absolute terms and in relative terms than its NATO allies. But I would suggest, most importantly, that that sum reflects its global security responsibilities and not just those in Europe.

That is a big difference. The Americans are thinking globally, and most, if not all, European members of NATO are thinking in European terms. At the end of the day, most of the American defence budget at any given time is spent on non-NATO-related contingencies. It is simply misleading, I suggest, that the total defence budget of the U.S. is an accurate comparison of how the U.S. stands alongside its NATO allies. It’s just not just to use the American defence budget to compare to other NATO allies’ defence budgets.

The third point I would suggest is that—and let me be very clear, none of this is to belittle the American contributions to European security, and it remains the case that the Allies, of course, heavily depend on the U.S. for their collective defence, that became evident again at the Vilnius Summit last week—but these dependencies are not fatal to allied resolve. Looking at the specific details of NATO conflict management missions or operations is a good output indicator of how, in practice, European allies and Canada stepped up when the call from NATO and certain allies came in.

Finally, the data, I suggest, while casting an important light on operational matters still only tells part of the story. The patterns of deployment reflect the fact that the European allies and Canada were able to prioritize effects when the circumstances dictated it. Efforts towards operational deployment reflected really a combination of urgent national interest, which is more evident in the Balkan wars and Afghanistan, and American pressure, which is more evident in Afghanistan than then in the Balkans. In sum, I would suggest we really need to take a balanced look at the 2% benchmark and really be clear with what we mean by “somebody is freeloading” on the Alliance or other allies, rather than just saying “Canada is a free-rider.”

Advancing Ukraine’s NATO Ambitions: Risk Management, Strengthening Support,  Addressing Nuclear Challenges, and Canada’s Role

What specific steps can Canada and its allies take to support Ukraine’s path toward NATO membership while managing the risks of escalating tensions with Russia? How can NATO ensure that Ukraine’s security concerns are effectively addressed within the framework of the alliance? Perhaps touch on whether Vilnius helped progress Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations.

It seems to be that the message for Ukraine is that they will eventually become a member of NATO once the war is over. I think that was a clear message that was passed on at the Vilnius Summit. I think this is in our national security interests, and the security and stability interests of Western Europe, and of course, Europe as well, to ensure that the war is over as soon as possible and that Russia is not successful in grabbing foreign territory under the umbrella of its nuclear weapons. If Ukraine were to lose this war, and be partially or wholly occupied by Russia, the security situation for Western states would be extremely worse. In the same way, if the reconstruction which is already underway failed, or the democratic reform processes that are currently underway fail, it will also become more unstable in our country and for us as part of this Alliance.

Some analysts and commentators have put this idea forward: what really will be the alternative other than offering Ukraine membership in NATO? If Ukraine were to win the war and not be a part of NATO, it will be militarily strong, but the political leaders will be relatively inexperienced. Remember, Zelenskyy and his ministers, they’re not political leaders with decades of political experience or leadership.

What is important in the long term is to bring Ukraine into the Alliance because membership in an alliance has a certain control function of other allies, but also of political elites. I think this is an important point to stress, that an alliance always has an internal effect where other allies have not only access to other member states, but they also control a certain direction that is going on. Having said that, what it would actually mean today is that Western states must do everything that they can to support Ukraine militarily and financially to actually achieve this goal. Because only if Ukraine actually wins the war it can join the NATO alliance.

I think we have to lay down our own cards, because for how long Ukraine can continue to fight against Russia in its own territory really depends on us Western states. For example, if we look at how the Ukrainians are fighting against the Russian fortifications, it does so without air support. Ukraine essentially doesn’t have an air force at the moment, or very little thereof. Canada and the United States, and basically all NATO allies, would never let the soldiers fight without air support—this is way too dangerous—but Ukraine is currently doing this.

How the Ukrainians can continue to liberate their territory depends really on how much equipment they have from us. This is the supply of ammunition, this is the supply of spare parts, this is replacing destroyed equipment, and this is also the question of financial support so they can pay, for example, the wages of the soldiers, the wages of their governmental employees, to pay for social services, and so forth. This is long-term political support for Ukraine, and against this backdrop, I would suggest the announcement of the ministers of defence of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to training Ukrainian air force pilots and operating and maintaining F-16 fighter aircraft, in my personal view, is the right one.

The announcement explicitly includes the provision also to train Ukrainian soldiers on other fighter jets if this becomes necessary. There’s a clear signal to Russia that we’re not only able and willing to train Ukrainian soldiers on how to run these F-16 fighter jets, but also, if necessary, we can do more. But it’s not only training pilots—that training also includes making trainers available on our side, and training support staff, maintenance workers, those people who fuel aircraft, essentially providing all the logistics around running aircraft, maintenance equipment, etc.

Moreover, I think the G7 pledge that was made to Ukraine on the margins of the NATO summit in Vilnius is not trivial, either. In my estimation, essentially what the G7 are saying is that they are committed to a free, independent, democratic, and sovereign Ukraine that is capable of defending itself and deterring future aggression through long-term bilateral security commitments to ensure Ukraine’s security.

This is not nothing. This is actually perhaps the second-best scenario. The second-best outcome for Ukraine out of the Summit is that there is a strong commitment on paper, that the G7 would actually—worse comes to worse—defend Ukraine for a long period of time, it would ensure its security. Now this, of course, is not the NATO membership that Ukraine was hoping for, but it is a security guarantee nonetheless, and so that is the important takeaway.

Canada has a very limited stockpile of weapons and ammunition to give away, as many other NATO members do, without running low on our own stocks and without running the risk of not being able to have these capabilities ourselves. But what often gets forgotten in this discussion on supporting Ukraine militarily is there’s also the civilian side to what we can and perhaps should do to support Ukraine. This includes, for example, the financial support for the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine, and which includes monies for fuel, bridging equipment, rations, cyber assistance, and a whole range of other things. Perhaps, last but not least—and I think this is where Canada could play a political role, perhaps even should play a political role—some analysts have suggested over the past few days the so-called Israel model for Ukraine that essentially provides security guarantees until it formally joins the Alliance.

To me, this kind of Israel model is comprised of three pillars, two of which I think could be areas where Canada could make an investment. The first one is very heavily equipped, and modernly trained armed forces for Ukraine—so think of your highly trained soldiers, but also the best equipment that Ukraine could be getting. The second is equally important, is a whole network of bilateral commitments, not only made by Canada but other NATO allies as well. So there’s very close cooperation, if we go back to the Israel model, there’s very close cooperation between the United States and Israel and also between the other countries when it comes to financing arms cooperation research and development and so forth.

There’s a third component, and this is the most problematic one, and I think this is where Canada ultimately has a national interest, but also political interests to guide, not only the discussion, but also to find a solution potentially, and that is the talk about nuclear weapons. What the Israel model is all about is modern and trained forces, a network of bilateral commitments in terms of cooperation in the military realm, and a nuclear shield. These three pillars are what guarantee Israel’s security at the moment.

The problem, I think, with this Israel model is that it implies a concrete nuclear component. This means that either the United States protects Ukraine with its own nuclear weapons, or—and this is the worst alternative—Ukraine develops nuclear weapons itself, which in my opinion, would not be desirable and it is actually an enormous step backward. Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Cold War. It had given it away, and in return, it had received security assurances, including from Russia. Those security assurances were actually written on paper. Also, Russia signed it, and then a number of other countries, for example, the United States, signed it.

That kind of agreement guaranteed that Ukraine would not develop nuclear weapons. If that would come true, or if it would not come true, then Ukraine would actually develop its own nuclear weapons which it is capable of doing. In other words, either we supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons or this Israel model would require Ukraine to develop its own nuclear weapons, and therefore it will be a step back in terms of nuclear arms proliferation. I think that’s the problem with the Israel model that I would have, in terms of nuclear proliferation for Ukraine, whether it was supplied by the West or Western states, or whether Ukraine would do it itself. I think is highly problematic. It’s also highly problematic politically, because internationally speaking, we’re trying to find agreements by reducing nuclear arms proliferation rather than increasing it.

What Ukraine needs at the moment is a strong military commitment, and a strong military supply, that would provide a clear pathway for Ukraine to join the Alliance and to actually move away from problems about nuclear armament or rearmament. For Canada, I think the role must be to work with international partners and councils to make sure that we’re not switching towards nuclear rearmament and nuclear proliferation in Europe, but rather the opposite. That is, I think, where Canada, as a middle power, can play a huge role to negotiate concrete international agreements and treaties.

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