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Why NATO is the Worst Alliance (Except For All the Others)

Steve Saideman on why NATO is still a good deal for Canada, even if we don’t always need what we pay for.

By: /
13 March, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

As a NATO critic, I find it strange to keep writing posts arguing that NATO is not going away and that we don’t want it to disappear.  But people keep predicting the alliance’s demise.  Now, we have one of the biggest fans of the Canadian military, Jack Granatstein, arguing that perhaps Canada no longer needs NATO.  So, instead of focusing on why NATO is going to survive, I consider here what Canada gets out of NATO.  While the Soviet Union is no longer an issue, the standard reasons for joining an alliance remain relevant today: security, capability, interests, influence, and values.


Sure, Canada’s security almost entirely hinges on the efforts of only one NATO member – the United States, of course.  But if Canada is concerned about the Arctic, then other players such as Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway matter as well.  To deal with various security challenges in the Far North, these countries would need more than occasional consultation – they would need coordination, exercises, and planning.  NATO already does that.  Indeed, the cooperation over the skies of Libya was impressive even if the participation rate was suboptimal.  How many planes crashed during mid-air refueling?  None.  That non-accident is not an accident. 

Canada lacks the capacity to operate militarily on its own in the world.  Its military has also found operating with and under the United Nations to be extraordinarily frustrating.  If Canada is going to operate at all in the world, it will need to do so with partners.  While the burden-sharing in Afghanistan has been less than optimal, Canada depended greatly upon its partners and vice versa.  It may not have been pretty, and it may not been as effective as we would have liked, but there is much value-added to NATO if Canada wants to be involved in the world beyond North America.

Granatstein also ignores a crucial dynamic: the U.S. (and Canada) can pivot to the east because NATO secures its European flank.  Canada has been drawn into Europe’s wars in the past.  The fact that Europe is free and secure has more to do with NATO than the European Union.  As long as the alliance exists, Canada does not have to worry about instability leading many of its most significant and reliable trading partners into conflict with one another.  One can gamble more on relations with China when the other side of the world is largely an afterthought.  But that afterthought is a product of NATO and its efforts over the years.  While Granatstein criticizes NATO’s efforts in the Balkans, it was NATO, not the UN that ended the Bosnian War and contained Milosevic’s dysfunctions.  That the wars did not spread is in part due to NATO’s efforts to keep Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Turkey apart. 

Given Canada’s finite power, how can it influence events in the world?  By itself, this is quite difficult.  As an influential member of the world’s only functional and enduring alliance, Canada can have an impact.  If Canadians want to make a difference in the world, NATO is the best mechanism to amplify Canadian influence.  Indeed, you get what you give.  When Canada under-performs, it has little influence.  The upside of the current burden-sharing problem is that those countries that contribute more and risk more have corresponding influence over how the alliance operates.  It is no exaggeration to say that Canada had more influence in Afghanistan than Germany.  How likely is it that Canada can have as much or more influence in the world than Germany if not for NATO?

Finally, one joins an alliance to work with like-minded countries to promote one’s values.  What is a key Canadian value?  Multilateralism.  Canadians support joint efforts at international problems.  This is not just because Canada cannot operate alone – Canadians prefer to cooperate to solve problems.  Cooperation is not just a means for Canada but an end in itself. 

So, the real question is not unilateralism or not, but NATO versus some other alliance or international organization.  I think Granatstein would find the UN to be a poor substitute, given how badly the UN operated in the Balkans.  What does that leave?  Well, NORAD is good for coordinating with the U.S., but it is not really expandable to include anyone else.  The Arctic Council.  Nope, it has no real military heft, and any organization that includes the U.S. and Russia is not an alliance but paralysis waiting to happen.  Sure, protecting the Baltics from Russia is not that much in Canadian interests, but defending the Arctic is not that much in Poland’s or Bulgaria’s or France’s.  There are aspects of NATO-provided security that one does not want and does not need (Balkans for Canada), but other aspects that Canada does want and need (Atlantic/Arctic cooperation).  Just as one’s taxes pay for government programs one likes but others one does not, one contributes to NATO for the security one wants and also for some security one does not need. 

Building a new alliance would be hard and the end result would likely have many of the same problems, since the membership would be similar and would face similar political constraints. What Churchill said about democracy is probably true for the democratic alliance that is NATO: it is the worst except for all the others.

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