UP FOR DEBATE: Arguing Against

Is it Time for a Canadian as NATO SecGen? No

BRETT BOUDREAU  –  Apr 25, 2018

The ‘decade of disdain’ for NATO, under the Prime Minister Stephen Harper / Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay / Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier period, marked a nadir for Canada-Alliance relations. Recently, there have been earnest efforts to repair the bond, but Canada remains far from any serious consideration as the prospective source of a future NATO Secretary-General.

Last December, NATO’s 29 member nations unanimously extended Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s four-year term for another two years, to 30 Sept 2020. Of the 13 leaders since the position was created in 1952, the Netherlands and the UK have each been the source country for three Secretaries General, Belgium twice, and Denmark, Germany, Italy, Norway and Spain once each. Canada does not deserve, should not expect, and should not want to join that list anytime soon.

March 2018 – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stands outside new NATO Headquarters.

The four main reasons for this can be summed up in four Cs (capability, contributions, candidates, and continent). Canada’s real military capability is low, relative to other key, long-standing members and partners (such as Australia). Actual contributions to the Alliance, as well as filling important headquarters positions, remain overly modest. There is a decided lack of Canadian candidates with the necessary experience and gravitas. And, we happen to be on the wrong continent.

Capabilities. Canada’s senior political and military leaders have long argued, rightly, that relying solely on the NATO guideline of 2% of GDP for defence spending is a poor metric to assess a country’s military value. For example, according to the latest NATO data (March 2018), Greece has the second highest percentage-of-GDP military spend (2.36%, compared to the U.S. at 3.57%). While that large figure buys substantial military forces, these are not of much direct use to the Alliance when these capabilities are arrayed mainly along Greek borders guarding against Macedonia/FYROM and Turkey rather than being employed on out-of-country NATO operations including combat. Even at the height of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan (June 2011) with 132,000 NATO forces deployed, Greece could at best muster 162 troops to send, with Canada providing nearly 3,000. The GDP measure may be flawed, but it happens to be the main guidepost in use at NATO.

Under the Conservatives, Canada’s defence spend hovered near and even below 1% of GDP from 2012 to 2014 – a historic low and half the NATO guideline – but still translates to the sixth largest defence budget in NATO behind the U.S., UK, France, Germany and Italy.
Under the Liberals, GDP share has bumped to 1.29% in 2017, and is projected to be 1.4% by 2024-25, although some of that includes previously unaccounted costs (but in line with many other nations). Still, the Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy of 2017 sets out a budget increase of more than 70% in the next 10 years, nested in an articulation of national strategic intent that is rigorously costed. If implemented – and critics can be forgiven ‘show me’ reticence – the policy portends real investment in capability, even if back-loaded to buy time to plan to spend the funds responsibly. Let’s see where we are, then, in 2025.

As NATO Secretary-General, no self-respecting Canadian politician given our record could chastise or cajole other nations about investments in defence, though that has not deterred our own from preaching the same about UN peacekeeping. The sad overall state and decline of our own Armed Forces is such that in a three-ocean Navy, we had to rent naval resupply services from Chile ahead of converting a civilian vessel to meaningfully operate at sea; the air force will fly CF-18s well into their fourth decade of service as a new fighter competition drags interminably on; and the army, while superbly trained, features three understrength, underequipped brigades (only one of which can actually deploy abroad). Building a more meaningful Reserve Force remains a long-term wicked problem, as does major defence procurement reform. On capabilities, we don’t merit a ‘pass’.

Contributions. The recent visit of Secretary-General Stoltenberg to Canada to mark NATO’s 69th anniversary is a notable return to more convivial relations since General Hillier ridiculed the Alliance as a “decomposing corpse”, and since PM Harper said Canada “would never cut and run” from Afghanistan as long as he was leading the country – but did just that.

As an aggregated list, the type and number of Alliance operations and activities Canada has supported over the years reflects well on the country comparatively speaking. We should be cut some slack, for instance, that deploying and sustaining forces for a static mission in Kosovo or to have 450 soldiers sit in Latvian casernes is very expensive for us when it is a short road move for many NATO countries. That said, since closing its bases in Lahr and Baden-Soellingen, Germany, and especially in the last decade, Canada as a founding member and G-7 nation has punched well below its weight in NATO. Under Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Chief of the Defence Staff General Jon Vance, this is being progressively addressed.

Recently, Canada has provided forces and leadership for a mixed-nation battle group in the Baltics; trained forces in Ukraine and Iraq; and assigned a ship to patrol mainly around the Mediterranean. Canada will re-join the AWACS mission (though at lesser capability than before), and has increased its personnel complement to NATO HQs (now with lieutenant-generals in Naples, Rome and Brussels; three generals at SHAPE in Mons, Belgium; and a few other senior officers scattered in subordinate organizations). Canada has also contributed a senior executive as the Secretary-General’s representative for women, peace and security (now also responsible for issues respecting child soldiers, and civilians in conflict).

While notable, this approach lacks a deliberate strategy leading to substantive influence in critical areas of Alliance need, as compared to the efforts of France (transformation), the UK (operations), or the Baltic States (NATO Centres of Excellence). Canada’s standing on contributions is not yet up to a ‘pass’ but would be notably enhanced by a modest yet focused effort again in Afghanistan. For instance, NATO is short of senior advisors to support the development of vital Afghan capabilities in police and specialized military training, and nations would be wise to build capacity in key departments such as education, health, agriculture and veterans. A joint civilian-military advisory capability is a key Canadian equity built at great effort over the years in ISAF and would be a valuable contribution to the Alliance.

Candidates. The strongest argument against a Canadian for the top NATO job is the public’s and politicians’ long-standing general lack of interest in national defence, leading to a paucity of competitive candidates. The University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute “Think Tank” Index (2017) tells the story in an insightful metric: of the cs in the world, 26 nations are represented before Canada even makes an appearance at number 64 (Fraser Institute) and 74 (CIGI). France merits four mentions (at number 12, 14, 17, 29) before Canada, and NATO partner Australia has two (11, 52), as does Belgium (50, 51).

The number of full-time reporters in the country covering the military can be counted on one hand, and defence-related publications are modest in number. Defence study programs are limited principally to Royal Military College and the University of Calgary. The reason for some of the public apathy to defence is self-inflicted. The Conservatives under MND MacKay ended the Security and Defence Forum program that provided modest funding to support young scholars across the country: notably, a variant of the program has recently been resuscitated by MND Sajjan.
DND and the Canadian Armed Forces could do considerably better at activities to connect with Canadians and key stakeholders such as sponsoring operational examinations (try asking for any ‘Afghan­istan lessons learned’!), as well as more impactful recruit advertising, and more advanced training for communications practitioners.

The Alliance head has traditionally been drawn from experienced, high profile and widely respected Ministers of Defence and/or Foreign Affairs, and former heads of Government. Based on the last 10 years of who held those positions, a prospective Canadian list would include Foreign Affairs Ministers Lawrence Cannon, John Baird, Rob Nicholson, Stéphane Dion, and Chrystia Freeland; Defence Ministers MacKay, Rob Nicholson, Jason Kenney and Harjit Sajjan; or Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau.

Not all from this list could reasonably be envisioned as a NATO Secretary General. A trial balloon was floated years ago for MacKay, who remained a popular Minister despite huge lapses of military spending year over year, the failure of several major (competed) procurements, a near-declaration of Cold War against Canadian veterans, and ending the AWACS mission, on top of the draw-down then pull-out from Afghanistan. With more political experience, the most muscular choice given character and background would be Chrystia Freeland. On the candidates criterion, Canada does not merit a ‘pass’.

Continent. Canada’s defence circumstances have unique features. It is expensive to guard the second largest country in the world: the cost of obtaining situational awareness of the borders around the three Benelux countries or the three Baltic States is a fraction of that for a three-ocean nation. Almost all other members including the U.S. directly benefit from hosting NATO HQs, forces and benefit from Alliance infrastructure investments that Canada, in large measure, does not. With 27 of 29 NATO members in Europe, a European deserves the top position. This is especially true given the EU-NATO confluence of military effort. From that perspective, we are even on the wrong continent to be meaningfully considered.

Under PM Trudeau, MND Sajjan and General Vance, Canada has morphed from a “whither Canada” Alliance laggard to reclaiming stature again as a reliable member. Still, it will take many years of actual financial commitment and major procurement reform to repair the deep damage done to the CAF and to rebuild capability. Even if it was in our national interest to try for the job, it will require at least a decade of hard slogging to be able to make a claim that the country ‘deserves’ a shot at presenting a consensus candidate to be the Alliance’s top leader. 

Brett Boudreau (Col, Ret’d), served in SHAPE HQ and on the International Military Staff at NATO HQ during General Ray Henault’s tenure as Chairman of the Military Committee from 2005-08. Boudreau is a graduate of NATO Defence College, a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a member of the UK Guild of Public Affairs Practitioners