NATO at 70: A sign of the times?

Usually, every ten years, NATO member-states convene and negotiate a new Strategic Concept, a living document that gives purpose and direction to the Alliance. Since the last such discussion happened in Lisbon in 2010, when it was endorsed by NATO Heads of State and Government, one might expect that the conversation is on everyone’s lips, – but there is a deathly silence instead. No one wants to open that Pandora’s box right now. The question is whether this discomfort will pass or is it here to stay.

The alliance has always generated perennial internal questions: Are all members doing their fair share? Are we spending enough or too little? Is our deterrent effect credible? These questions have ebbed and flowed but have come to the fore dramatically since President Trump was elected. The main trouble, connected to his complaint that others are not carrying their fair share of the financial burden, is that the current measure of what constitutes an equitable contribution to the Alliance has been pegged to military investment alone (i.e., the size of a member-state’s defence budget relative to its GDP).

But defence budgets have always been a poor measure of a country’s contribution to the Alliance. For example, do those defence budgets actually generate meaningful military capability, that would enable a member-state to participate in collective defence or in Allied operations? When the chips are down in a crisis, does an Ally have the political will to contribute that capability to what might be a dangerous operation? Canada has always played a leading role in Allied operations, from Bosnia to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. Think of Canada’s sacrifices and commitment in Afghanistan alone, compared to some other more populous and wealthier nations in the alliance.

President Trump has made his point by stating that his commitment to Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty that created NATO (the collective security Article, that states that an attack against one member is an attack on all) is conditional on the commitments of all its member-states to Article 3 (the idea of burden sharing – unofficially understood as spending at least 2% of GDP on national defence). Let’s be clear: only the US has the military capability to ensure that all Allies would be defended against an aggressor. This conditionality has strongly weakened the alliance’s deterrent, because it not only showcases divisions, but also suggests that the superpower at the heart of the alliance is hesitating about its commitment to the pact.

For those Allies that are geographically closest to Russia, the country which poses the most significant military threat, US hesitancy about its commitment to collective defence is frightening. The fact that Allies have stepped up, including Canada’s OP Reassurance, by positioning troops as a forward presence in the Baltics, has helped somewhat. But those troops deployed in the Baltic states, including Canadian troops, are really only there to deter Russian aggression. They would be no match for the kind of Russian military invasion of Georgia or the Ukraine that we saw in 2008 and 2014.

NATO’s current troubles go well beyond the erosion of the shared commitment to collective defence. There is a question as to whether the Alliance would be willing or capable of carrying out crisis management operations at the behest of the United Nations. The UN effectively subcontracted its security role to NATO during the interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya, where Allied military force was used to prevent further attacks against civilians by their own governments or by external aggressors. In these cases, NATO acted to uphold international humanitarian law and international norms around the protection of civilians in situations of conflict. Crisis management operations that seek to back up international law at the request of the UN assume that all Allies are committed to the same norms and to the kind of collective security embodied in international treaties and multilateral organizations. But today, there is a question as to whether all Allies support the values that would underpin the kind of humanitarian operations that uphold international law. If the UN came knocking on NATO’s door today, how would it respond?

Moreover, there is even some question as to whether all Allies share the same commitment to rights-based democratic institutions, including such basic freedoms as the freedom of the press. Are these values equally defended by all the political leaders of the alliance, including Merkel, Marcon, Trudeau, Orban, Erdogan, and Trump?

The story here is not about how NATO may or may not be aging. It is rather a story about our times, and whether the Alliance can adapt to, or survive, those times. Politics are more splintered and fragmented than before. It is more difficult for nations to unite than before, not only in our international relations, but arguably right here at home. And yet, the world needs an alliance like NATO, a guarantor of stability and a protector of international law, especially when states like China and Russia are increasingly challenging international norms and flexing their muscles.

Canada has a lot at stake in NATO. We are the sixth largest contributor to the Alliance, and often play a leading role in operations. It is the only collective defence pact to which we belong that would ensure that Canada too would be protected against an outside aggressor. This is why it is in our interest to use our close bilateral relationship with the US to help ensure it does not close itself off from the world, but continues to play an active part in multilateral organizations like NATO. With a bit of luck, and the renewed commitment of its members, the Alliance will survive the current political turbulence and continue to project stability and security for the next 70 years. But make no mistake: without it, Canada would find itself in a world much more dangerous indeed.

(Reprinted with permission from the Hill Times – published on May 27th, 2019)

Dr Youri Cormier, Executive Director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and Adjunct Professor at Royal Military College of Canada

Amb Rob McRae, Board Member of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and Former Canadian Ambassador to NATO 2007-2011

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