Saturday, June 11, 2011

US Secretary Gates: Canada’s punching above its weight

Has NATO become an alliance of unwilling partners? Has this formidable coalition that once stared down the powerful Soviet empire degenerated into a “two-tiered” alliance of those willing to go all-in and those only interested in talking and peacekeeping, as the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, suggests?

“In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance, between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions ... This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”

– Robert Gates

In a blistering attack this week in Brussels, Robert Gates accused the European members of NATO of complacency over international security. He warned that a new post-cold war generation of leaders in America—exasperated by Europe’s failures of political will and their defence funding shortfall—could abandon NATO and the 60 years of security guarantees it has provided to Europe.

Given that the US share of NATO’s military spending has soared to 75 per cent, the US Congress could rebel against spending, as Gates put it, “increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets.”

According the Gates:

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

To our credit, the US defence secretary singled out Canada, Denmark and Belgium for making “major contributions” to the Libya mission. “These countries have, with their constrained resources, found ways to do the training, buy the equipment and field the platforms necessary to make a credible military contribution,” Gates said.

NATO currently has 28 members: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Canada’s Defence Minister Peter MacKay was quick to give credence to Gates’ grim prognosis of the alliance. MacKay said Friday:

“I’ve sensed Secretary Gates’ frustration for some time about burden-sharing and the need to have 28 members of the alliance participating more actively and more fully.”

Canada has indeed punched above its weight in high-profile NATO-led military missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya.  And, since NATO’s founding in 1949, Canada has been its sixth largest contributor to it’s military and civil budgets. Moreover, Canada is the third largest financial supporter and contributor of personnel to the NATO Airborne Early Warning System and Control (AWACS).

And, even though we are among the countries whose military spending falls well short of NATO’s target for its member states, we have, at lest, stepped up to the plate with manpower and equipment and have lost lives in the process. Canada, according to NATO figures, spent 1.6 per cent of GDP on defence during the 2006-2009 period. Only five of NATO’s 28 member nations—the U.S., Britain, France, Greece and Albania—are now meeting the agreed-upon target to spend more than two per cent of GDP on defence.

It’s nice to see Canada’s operational contribution recognized. Let’s hope this will translate into more political influence at NATO’s US- and Europe-dominated conference table.

This has not always been the case, just as it never was in the two world wars, where Canada gave so much in treasure and lives and received so little recognition and political influence in return. We couldn’t even beat out Portugal for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.


© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
All rights reserved.
The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of political parties, institutions or organizations with which I am associated.


  1. The Europeans were always supporters of NATO as long as it meant Canada and the US providing the troops on the ground and paying for same. Just think how much the various countries benefitted financially when we had bases abroad.

    Even when the bases were gone, it was still expected Canada and the U S would do the heavy lifting. Now we're asking the others to pitch in, and you see the results.

    Ironically, countries like Slovakia have become really involved, while the original members hang back.

  2. What about norway?