Canada and NATO in second Vimy century

4 May 2017

Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, France on April 9th as a defining and pivotal moment in Canada’s nationhood. It is important to understand how far we have come on the international stage since that bloody battle on 9 April 1917. Over the 20th century, Canada has punched well above its weight in that regard – it was not luck, but hard work and strategic effort by Canada’s leaders, sustained over decades. 

Unveiled in 1936, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is the largest war monument in France. It immortalizes Canada’s First World War contribution and the brave sacrifices of thousands of young soldiers as they beat the odds to finally re-take the German-held Vimy Ridge. 

The Vimy Memorial has come to symbolize Canada’s commitment to peace, its stand against aggression, and for liberty and the rule of international law. During the ceremony, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asserted that “the Canadians who died at Vimy Ridge 100 years ago helped shape Canada into a nation committed to peace.”

 Another equally defining moment in Canada’s nationhood was its instrumental role in the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This article explores the important and evolving role NATO must continue to play in the second Vimy century. In 1949, then External Affairs Minister Lester B Pearson, who would later become Canada’s Prime Minister, was the key driving force behind Canada taking a lead role in the development of this organization that was created at the start of the Cold War. However, in a unipolar, post Cold War world, NATO’s role drifted somewhat. 

Today, in a complex, asymmetrical threat environment NATO has a new and expanded role – especially as Russia seeks to exert its influence and non -state players impact the global security.

NATO is both a political and military alliance. It has stood the test of time for the past 69 years and has expanded into the global commons of cyber, space, the oceans and airspace – all of which impact global security and trade. NATO remains a very comprehensive and flexible alliance and Canada is an active member. Arguably, the rise of China, an aggressive Russia, and non-state players having an increasingly greater international impact on international global affairs, have re-established the significance of the global bond between like-minded in a complex geopolitical environment.

Voicing American frustration at its seeming obligation to protect the world, President Trump has forcefully called on all NATO members to meet the defence spending goal of 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

President Trump and his Secretaries of State and Defence have made it clear that the United States is not going to tolerate anything less. At $20 Billion, Canada’s current defense budget stands at 0.9% of GDP. 

Noting that military contributions cannot be measured in a single financial rubric, Defence Minister Sajjan has ordered a review of how other countries calculate their defence spending. It’s important to examine Canada’s contribution and how this can evolve in the future. The Prime Minister has stated that his party has no plans to increase defense expenditures above present levels. In the early 1950s,  Canada spent up to 7% of its annual GDP on military-related expenditures, and more than 45% of its defence budget in support of its NATO allies. 

The principle of collective defence is at very core of NATO’s founding treaty. It remains a unique and enduring principle that binds its members together, committing them to protect each other and setting a spirit of solidarity within the Alliance. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, states that an attack on one member is an attack on all members, and binds all NATO nations together. NATO members agreed that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. They also agreed that, in the event of such an attack, each will assist “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

The NATO alliance has served as a successful deterrent to Soviet aggression during the cold war. Canada was one of the only two non-European nations’ who had a permanent military presence in Europe. There was a time when the First Canadian Air Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force flew the most capable fighter jets in the world in the defence of Europe under the NATO umbrella.

Canadian instructor signals to Ukrainian soldiers during a live fire exercise in Starychi, Ukraine (June 2016).
Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008. 
(DND Photo: Joint Task Force Ukraine)

In the Canadian context, we have not recognized or valued our contribution to NATO at a broad national level.  In the coming years, it is important in light of comments being made about NATO members contribution, Canada needs to address its national approach to this organization. The Canadian defence review is still ongoing however Canada’s approach to NATO must involve all military and defence components as well as economic and foreign policy considerations which arguably are outside of the defence review which is expected in the coming months. The Defence Policy Review (expected to be released any day now) will arguably be a high-level strategic document that can be shaped to changing geopolitical realities that Canada and the world faces. It will set out Vital National Interests. NATO is more than simply a defence alliance; it is an alliance of like-minded nations embracing cultural, economic and social elements of cooperation that has served the test of time.  

In light of President Trumps comment on NATO spending, Canada needs to examine its NATO contribution with a fresh set of eyes. We cannot simply spend our way out of this problem you to think our way out of this issue. President Obama in an address to the House of Commons on his final visit to Canada call for more Canada in NATO.  Prime Minister Trudeau and the Minister of National defence has indicated ways to measure Canada’s contribution other than solely a monetary context. This paves the way for Canada to look at NATO in a more creative fashion. One way is for Canada to lobby for a Secretary-General and in last 69 years Canada has never had the Canadian in this role. It’s time we examined this. The Vimy anniversary shows we have a long-standing unwavering commitment to Europe. Canada’s earned the right to take a leadership position at NATO. 

Another overlooked opportunity for Canada to embrace  is the NATO centres of excellence Canada is one of the few nations without any NATO centre of excellence. This presents a unique opportunity for Canada to work in specialized fields where it has long-standing expertise such as the Arctic and antisubmarine warfare which is going to grow in importance.  NATO describes these unique institutions as follows: “Centres of Excellence (COEs) are nationally or multi-nationally funded institutions that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner countries, assist in doctrine development, identify lessons learned, improve interoperability, and capabilities and test and validate concepts through experimentation. They offer recognized expertise and experience that is of benefit to the Alliance and support the transformation of NATO, while avoiding the duplication of assets, resources and capabilities already present within the NATO command structure.”

Belgium, May 2016 – Incoming NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,
and outgoing SACEUR General Philip Breedlove salute during the change of command ceremony
at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). 
(NATO Photo: stut 1st Class Stefan Hass, DEUA)

Coordinated by Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Virginia in the United States, COEs are considered to be international military organizations. Although not part of the NATO command structure, they are part of a wider framework supporting NATO Command Arrangements. Designed to complement the Alliance's current resources, COEs cover a wide variety of areas, with each one focusing on a specific field of expertise to enhance NATO capabilities. There are presently 23 COE. Some NATO members have 4 COEs. These are force multipliers and present great opportunity for Canada to showcase its technologies. Future articles will examine some of the opportunities for Canada to develop this capability for COE which arguably within Canada’s vital national  interests and will be covered by the forthcoming defence review.

It is clear that given the new threats posed by climate change and non-state players Canada’s treasures in technical expertise, academic, research and development, commercial and political resources can be put to good use. They can also become an economic engine and act as catalysts for economic and political developments as well as defence initiative. This would allow Canada to achieve financial benefits from its expenditures and lead the thinking in new areas such as the Arctic, cyber and hybrid warfare. As Sir Winston Churchill was fond of saying “ no matter how beautifully strategy one should check the results from time to time”. This is a time for Canada to both development NATO strategy and gets solid results in the next Vimy century. Canada was there at the beginning and we need to be there for the next 69 years in a complex threat environment upholding the principles of article 5-collective defense.   

K. Joseph Spears has a long-standing interest in NATO and Canada’s defense and security policy. He has acted as outside legal counsel to the Legal Advisor to the Minister of National Defence. He is the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com.