Defence experts call warm embrace of NATO by Harper gov't an about-face
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, middle, sits in front of then Minister of Defence Peter MacKay, left, and Minster of Foreign Affairs John Baird as they take part in a meeting on Afghanistan during the NATO Summit in Chicago, Ill., on Monday, May 21, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, April 2, 2014 5:23PM EDT
OTTAWA -- The Harper government's newfound enthusiasm for NATO in the wake of the Russian seizure of Crimea has alarmed defence experts, who say Canada should be mindful it could be called upon to match its rhetoric with action.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Canada was talking with its allies "about further co-ordinated action" over the tension in eastern Europe.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird this week lauded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a "spectacularly successful alliance," an endorsement much different from the cool reception the multilateral group received following the Afghan war.
Over the last four years Conservatives have been quietly cutting Canadian ties to the Brussels-based alliance and aligning defence policy with Washington.
Participation in NATO surveillance programs was ended last year to save money, even though the decision will cost the country's aerospace industry millions of dollars in lost contracts.
In addition to withdrawing from the decades-old Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACs) program and the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) program, the Harper government has been one of loudest proponents -- behind closed doors -- of reforming NATO's bureaucratic structure.
The alliance was quietly rebuffed after it tried informally to persuade Canada to remain in Afghanistan post-2014 should there be a continued training mission for security forces there, say several diplomatic sources.
Part of the chilly attitude relates to the government's perception that NATO allies left the Canadian army hanging in Kandahar for years before the U.S. finally sent reinforcements during the brutal guerrilla war against the Taliban.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme commander, said Tuesday that Crimea represents a "paradigm shift" that requires a fundamental rethinking of where American forces are located and how they are trained.
Canada has yet to commit even token military resources to eastern Europe as other countries have done, and it's questionable how much the country can do in light of $2.1-billion in budget cuts imposed on National Defence, says Steve Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.
Ottawa can afford to be cheerleading because it's not costing anything, he said.
"This is not requiring Canada to do anything and so it allows the government to control the message and not strain the budget," said Saideman, who recently co-authored the book NATO in Afghanistan.
"This is talk -- it's not action."
Poland and other former East Bloc countries, which joined the alliance in the late 1990s, have been pushing for western troops and bases on their soil to act as a deterrent to further Russian expansion. The U.S. recently sent a squadron of fighter planes to the region, and the Germans stepped up patrols in the Baltic Sea.
"Has there been a commitment to send Canadians? That would cost a bit of money," he said. "If they don't then they're just falling on traditional Canadian foreign policy, which is asking other folks to spend more money on Canada's behalf."
Baird toured Moldova prior to this week's NATO foreign ministers meeting and told government officials there that Canada strongly believes in the country's territorial integrity.
International observers have pointed out that Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria, which borders Ukraine, may be the next Russian target. Canada has also been a big booster for Ukraine's bid to join NATO, whose founding principle is collective security.
An attack on one member state is deemed to be an attack on entire of the alliance -- something Baird underscored earlier this week.
"Article 5 is the cornerstone of the alliance," he said. "Today, countries like Romania, Poland and the Baltic republics are pretty glad they're in NATO."
Both Saideman and University of Calgary defence expert Rob Huebert called for careful, measured consideration about how military co-operation with Ukraine unfolds.
"We don't want NATO to start making commitments it has no intention of keeping," Saideman.
"I would prefer to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO because if we have to commit to their defence that might provoke the Russians. And what does that do to Article 5 if we commit to countries we really have no intention of defending?"
NATO needs to be clear about how far it's prepared to go in defending eastern Europe, said Huebert.
"It has the potential to be 1938 all over again," said Huebert, referring to Nazis Germany's annexation of German-speaking areas of the Czechoslovakia.
"The British and French did not stand up to their commitment to Czechoslovakia because they knew it meant war with Hitler. Article 5 (of the NATO charter) ultimately means the same thing."