North America & NATO
Jul 15, 2012

Since its inception, almost 70 years ago, NATO has been a bulwark against invasion. It was intended, for the most part, to provide a military deterrent against the Soviet aggression that had occurred in Eastern Europe during the immediate post-war years. Europe’s destroyed economy was just beginning to rebuild. Even collectively, western European states could not muster sufficient military resources for their own defence. The only option was to develop an effective alliance with Britain and North America. However, since the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO has become more diversified – taking new and challenging mandates that far exceed the original. These changes have affected the basic tenets of the original treaty, leading one to wonder just where, and how, NATO will continue to respond to the world’s changing threat environment.

Perhaps it is time for the NATO partnership to examine and chart its future roles regarding military involvement and mandates. As a member of NATO, Canada will have to seriously consider its participation and determine the extent to which it would continue. A major domestic and diplomatic national discussion is, in my view, necessary to chart our future participation, if there will be any.
January 2012 – An Afghan National Army instructor delivers a lecture on Afghan culture to army recruits at the Regional Military Training Centre. CF advisors and support staff serve here as part of the contribution to the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. (Photo: MCpl Rory Wilson, Canadian Forces)
A response to the post-war problems that were facing European nations, NATO provided a credible deterrent to Russian occupation forces that remained in Eastern Europe. Major discussions were held to consider the best manner to proceed. There was a need to show the solidarity of western European states and their mutual support of one another. NATO allies made it abundantly clear to the Stalin government in Moscow that an attack on one constituted an attack on all. Thus, Russia was unable to gain control through piecemeal takeover practices. The allies had seen the Soviet military replace democratically elected governments with puppet local communist governments. Hence, the need for a concerted front to prevent any degree of Russian intervention in Western European affairs was identified. Any interference in European domestic or international affairs was “discouraged”.
While the U.S. and Britain were contemplating reducing troop levels, to lower their respective defence budgets, Western European countries, including Britain, considered it imperative to find a method of linking the Americans to the defence of their countries. As Lord Pound, the British Representative at the NATO negotiations stated, the objectives of such an agreement were designed to: “Keep the Americans in Europe, the Germans down, and the Russians out.”
The NATO Treaty addressed both American and European concerns. The final NATO membership placed a solid phalanx of allied nations to block Soviet aggressive action from the Arctic Circle to the Equator.
In subsequent years, the NATO orga­nization was a credible deterrent to any Soviet aggression. Regular exercises by all member nations ensured that the complex command structure had minimal conflicts and all member nations either kept forces in Europe or at the ready. By the 1980s, NATO had a completely modern arsenal of conventional weapons and, if required, access to nuclear weapons. This high state of readiness was maintained until the fall of the Berlin Wall which had been a symbolic demarcation line between the European West and Soviet East.
Throughout the following decade, however, it appeared that NATO was faced with redefining a reason for its existence. Diplomatic agencies debated the future (if any) of the organization and countries began reducing their standing forces. Many nations closed surplus facilities and mothballed or sold their now-surplus equipment. However, a new threat emerged – in the form of radical Islamic terrorist groups – and demands for action increased. NATO countries began to seriously identify potential threats to their population, their infrastructure and economies. In light of these new threats, countries looked to NATO-led forces as a viable means to militarily deal with non-traditional threats. It was a major departure from previous practices where military action had been confined to NATO members and their littoral regions.
Following the lead of the United States government that had deployed troops after the Islamic attack of “9/11”, European nations also felt the need to provide troops to a Coalition that was designed to destroy the base of support (providing funds and personnel) for the terrorist attacks. Accordingly, attacks within Europe became a driving force in the move to respond with military power. At that point, NATO switched its posture from considering such attacks criminal events, to now being military attacks. In response to this change of assessment, NATO members provided both combat and specialist forces designed to counter the capabilities of the terrorist movements and their government sponsors. Although tentative at first, the NATO council became increasingly involved in affairs within the Middle East region. Slowly but surely, the emphasis of the organization shifted steadily from the member-centric view to a more prosaic European view and then a more global view of world security issues that could impact future European affairs.
To achieve the ability to project NATO power, individual states changed long-standing policy to enable employment of military power abroad. In doing so, many constraints regarding the deployment of troops beyond a traditional area of operations were changed or expunged. Thus, NATO troops, when approved by their national governments, were included in joint international operations. There is a new tendency among some diplomatic agencies to think of NATO countries as now being a single entity speaking one voice, with one policy, and capable of projecting power and influence without the aid of the world’s superpowers.
March 2012 – Sapper Jamie McMurter advances on enemy position during Exercise Cold Response, a Norwegian-led, invitational military exercise involving 14 NATO nations. (Photo: Cpl Stuart MacNeil)
This change or perceived change in orientation demands that all member nations carefully consider this shift in emphasis if it is to be a permanent change in focus.
Is NATO consistent with American foreign policy or is it developing diplomatic goals that are more in line with current Euro-centric views and issues? If so, to what extent should Canadian and American involvement continue within this new NATO doctrinal framework? Will this shift result in a new organization that will seek to impose a “Pax Europa” on areas of conflict in the world to protect exclusive European interests?
Obviously, the original aims of NATO have, over time, changed to meet the challenges of a world that is no longer controlled by two giant powers that were diametrically against one another, and now faces a complex world that is plagued by nuclear-armed, possibly rogue, states.
There are now other emerging powers based on their economic potential and that have the capacity to levy significant military power, including nuclear weapons. In addition, there are a number of former Soviet “Client States” that possess technically advanced weapon systems.
Despite the increased involvement of NATO on the world stage, there is no guarantee that it would conduct operations in time of war if that conflict is outside of its mandated area of operations. Would (or could) NATO respond in a meaningful way to an attack made to the North American members of the alliance? Would North American nations support NATO forces if they are attacked while conducting military operations outside of the normal NATO theatre of operations? Do European members of NATO expect the United States and Canada to enhance the alliance’s effectiveness if and when Europe’s financial problems lead to major reductions in defence forces? Questions such as these need to be discussed in depth.
It is obvious that subtle (or major) shifts will invariably impact Canada’s policy regarding European defence. In fact, it may well force the demise of NATO as we have known it, and this will leave a major gap in the collective defence planning for decades. At the very least, the NATO Treaty would need to be renegotiated and revised to meet the new realities of the 21st Century – or an alternative plan will need to be created. One doubts that the current status quo will ultimately be acceptable to all members.
Many questions must be considered when preparing for negotiations regarding future participation in NATO. Our national discussion must examine myriad issues that are currently surfacing.

  • Should we be participate in a trans­oceanic alliance that is focused primarily on the defence of Western Europe?
  • Is a new agreement – one that will focus on a wider threat base, such as the possibility of Asian assaults on North America – required?
  • Should the current funding practices be more equitable?
  • Will current NATO members be able sustain a suitable level of well-maintained and equipped standing forces?
  • Would EU members enter into a Free Trade agreement in order to offset the costs faced by North American NATO allocated forces?

There are, no doubt, other areas which will need to be addressed, however, it should be apparent to both the United States and Canada that the current NATO treaty is approaching the end of its useful life. Therefore, it behooves us to have major discussions on the value of NATO and Canada’s continuing participation.
Robert Day is a military historian and analyst at FrontLine Magazines.
© FrontLine Defence 2012