Colin Robertson – Collective security comes at a cost. Canada should pay its way

NATO defence ministers meet tomorrow in Brussels to confront continuing conflicts on their eastern and southern flanks. Complicating their deliberations is the knowledge that big chunks of their populations oppose using military force if Russia attacks a fellow NATO member. For NATO leaders, making the case for why we fight is as important as having the capacity to fight.

From fir trees to palm trees, NATO forces are engaged. Simulated conflict exercises on NATO’s eastern frontier respond to what Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg describes as President Vladmir Putin’s “unjustified nuclear sabre-rattling”. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq engages in daily, deadly sorties against ISIS.

The takeaways from Afghanistan and Libya for NATO are that while armed force can bring temporary stability, enduring peace and security requires continuing diplomacy, development assistance and some means of preserving order. Call it peacekeeping for the 21st century.

NATO forces also play a key role as the first responders to humanitarian crises, such as rescuing migrants crossing the Mediterranean and helping to contain Ebola in West Africa.

Despite the NATO leaders agreeing in Wales last September to “reverse the trend of declining defence budgets” only five – U.S., U.K., Estonia, Poland and Greece – meet the NATO guideline to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence.

Canada has committed whole-heartedly to NATO missions. It took a disproportionate number of casualties in Afghanistan and were at the sharp end of the campaign in Libya. Canadian forces are actively engaged in Syria and Iraq. Canada is training Ukrainian troops and during a visit to Warsaw earlier this month Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada will station troops at NATO’s new command centre at Szczecin, Poland.

Canada’s defence spending, however, falls short of NATO’s benchmark. Despite the Canada First Defence Strategy and a refined procurement policy, former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page observes that with the Harper government “spending in real terms is even lower than when they came into office in 2006.” April’s federal budget will lift Canada’s contribution to slightly more than 1 per cent of GDP.

As the country prepares to enter its election campaign in earnest, it needs a healthy debate over its defence capacity and capability, especially around the made-in-Canada naval procurement policy.

Canada accepts the rationale of supply-chain economics for almost everything else it manufactures. Auto and aviation industries, civilian and defence, are specialized and integrated. Canada buys tanks from Germany and fighter planes from the U.S., with significant offsets creating jobs for Canadians. Why is shipbuilding different?

At the Wales summit, leaders reaffirmed that the “greatest responsibility” of the Alliance is to “protect and defend our territories and our populations against attack.” But when the Pew Foundation recently asked major NATO nations if they would use military force if Russia “got into a serious military conflict” with another NATO member, the findings revealed troubling divisions.

Most Americans (56 per cent) and Canadians (53 per cent) would support intervention. So would a plurality in the U.K. (49 per cent) and Poland (48 per cent). But, more than half in Germany (58 per cent), France (53 per cent) and Italy (51 per cent) would oppose intervention. The Spanish divided 48-47 per cent for intervention. Together these nations collectively account for 88 per cent of NATO’s GDP and 78 per cent of its population.

NATO leaders reaffirmed at Wales their willingness to “act together” and “decisively to defend” freedom, liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They have work to do in persuading their citizens that the collective defence of our shared values obliges a willingness to use armed force.

Equally troubling for the Alliance was that only 49 per cent of Americans view NATO favourably. The U.S. pays 74 per cent of NATO’s costs. President Barack Obama says the U.S. “can’t do it alone” and this plea is repeated by successive U.S. defence secretaries.

Communiques at the end of summit meetings are usually mind-numbing bromides and aspirations of good intentions. What really counts is each nation’s interpretation of the collective commitments. Success in this week’s meeting depends on each NATO defence minister saying some variation of the following:

  • First, we commit to meeting NATO’s 2-per-cent defence spending target by 2017, recognizing that, when your neighbourhood is combustible, investing in defence is smart insurance. Only when our armed forces have sufficient capability and the readiness to react, can we be confident in their deterrent capacity. The trendline is moving in the right direction with 18 allies expected to increase their defence spending.
  • Second, we commit to a national public education campaign on the meaning and responsibilities of collective security. To its credit, Germany’s leadership has begun their debate on the need for greater engagement.

Attitudinal shifts take time and constant reinforcement.

Courage, resolution and endurance are qualities not always associated with democracies or their leaders. But they are essential.

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