Title: NATO in transition

Sub-title: Canadians play a major role in this global alliance, which is increasingly forced to do more with less.


Brussels - Canada’s major overseas military operations have always been conducted as part of large multilateral coalitions, often under UN auspices. However in recent years, its participation in a variety of initiatives ranging from counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Afghanistan mission, and more particularly, in the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, have stemmed from its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a commitment that is growing in importance.


Canada has long been a key player in the alliance, formed to counter the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, but which, following the fall of the Berlin Wall struggled to assert its relevance. That struggle did not last long. In 1999 NATO, at one time a purely defensive alliance went on the offense bombing Serbia in support of Kosovo, an area outside its traditional bounds of operations.


Today, with actions in Europe, Asia and Africa, NATO is truly global in reach as demonstrated in Libya, where Canadian forces are playing a vital role. “(The action) demonstrates the necessity (of the global community) to be flexible, and to quickly respond to “pop-up” missions as they occur,” said Peter MacKay, Canada’s Minister of National Defence in a chat following his appearance at the NATO defence minister’s meeting in June. “(Our participation) increases our ability to participate in several missions at once, in areas that we could not on our own.”


Struggling for a new role

However NATO is not without its challenges. In recent years, many of the organization’s members have made dramatic cuts to their defence budgets, and the organization itself has been forced to trim staff, at a time when its mandate, which now includes anti-terrorism, cyber-crime and anti-piracy initiatives, is becoming increasingly global in scale.


In recent years NATO members have taken to regarding its operations as menu items, picking and choosing which ones they want to get involved in. For example as of early June, only nine of the NATO’s 28 members were participating in the Libya mission, a situation that US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates decried at the Brussels conference.


 “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite in the in American body politic to expend funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to their own defence,” said Gates, who cited both Belgium and Canada for their “major contributions” to the Libya campaign.


Canada in NATO: punching above its weight

Canadians were among the NATO alliance’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters and by all accounts play key roles there. Canada’s contribution to the alliance’s Libya operations includes 600 military personnel, seven CF-18s, two CP-150 Auroras doing ISR work, three Canadian Forces tanker aircraft (two CC-130 Hercules and one Polaris re-fueller) and the HMCS Charlottetown Halifax class frigate.


But Canada’s contribution is not just about quantity; a Canadian, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, is commanding the overall operation, and another, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk, has been mentioned as a possible replacement for the alliance’s Chairman of the Military Committee role, when Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola steps down this fall.


Yet according to Colonel Dave Mulcair, a Canadian who is a Deputy Military Representative at NATO headquarters, Canada’s participation in the organization provides substantial opportunities for CF personnel that are lucky enough to get a chance to work there. “The issues that come across here often have both political and military dimensions,” says Mulcair, a former Air Force pilot, who rose to command Camp Mirage and then to Chief of Air Staff under General Natynczyk, before assuming his current role.


 “Canadians are highly regarded both within the NATO command structure and within the military arm,” says Tony White, a Canadian who works as a Press Officer, in the organization’s Public Diplomacy Division, for whom putting NATO in the best possible light is a big part of his job.


The Libya mission: a political and a military challenge

However White’s job, as well as those of other officers in the Public Diplomacy Division has been getting a lot harder in recent years, due to the alliance’s difficulty in rounding up resources. That’s particularly true in the Libya operations where shortages on the ISR and advanced weaponry fronts (such as the lack of available smart bombs), which are putting the alliance’s weaknesses out there for all to see.


Much of this weakness stems from America’s reluctance to take the lead on the mission, for which France and the United Kingdom were the chief cheerleaders. US military personnel such as Gates were among those who warned early that enforcement of a no-fly zone over the North Africa nation would require wholesale destruction of the Libyan air defences and a substantial subsequent commitment.


US president Barack Obama, who was already burdened with overseeing occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, stated early that he would let NATO’s European forces, particularly France and Great Britain, who are now absorbing close of half of the overall effort, take the lead in the assault.


The only problem is that European countries are nowhere near as well equipped as the United States, which accounts for close to half of global military spending. The upshot is that when things began to get tough in Libya, European nations, many of whom have cut their own militaries to the bone in recent years, soon were forced to scramble for new resources, from their increasingly skeptical publics. 


It is thus not surprising that NATO should go to great lengths to build and maintain its image, by recruiting rising stars such as White, a former Lieutenant Colonel who retired after 27 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, including close to two decades as a public affairs officer. Since then White, who beat out 150 other competitors from around the world to get his current post, has travelled the planet, visiting 26 of 28 NATO members trying to get the organization’s message out.


Hidden strengths

Yet despite current budget challenges, a brief glance at the current international context is all it takes to see that due both to its political and military capacities, NATO’s future role, will be just as, if not more important than its past one.


That’s because the alliance has long acted as an excellent political tool for members to use to justify otherwise unpopular military actions such as Libya and Afghanistan to local constituencies. For example reluctant and lukewarm participants in the Afghanistan campaign, such as France and Germany, may not have participated at all, had the alliance not existed.


In addition, even though not all alliance members are participating in the Libya attacks, those that are not at last feel compelled to keep their mouths shut. This in turn prevents opposition from breaking out. A final consideration is the fact that many of NATO’s new initiatives, such as the announcement last year of a new unit - the Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESCD) to address "terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber defence, and energy security,” deal with issues that require a softer, smarter and subtler touch than its traditional initiatives.


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: NATO of the East?

Ironically, just as NATO’s defence ministers were meeting, another quieter gathering of military and political officials took place on the other side of the world in Asana Kazakhstan, from a little known organization that could one day give the Atlantic alliance a run for its money.


NATO officials downplay the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a slapped together grouping, whose members have as many beefs with each other as with outside members. However the SCO, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last month is clearly gaining both strength and influence, in its anti-terrorism efforts, bilateral and multilateral consultative mandates and its laborious efforts to coordinate energy policies, as demonstrated by number of countries lining up to join the organization ranging from Iran to India and Pakistan.


While the Shanghai Cooperation Organization denies aspiring to be the “NATO of the East,” its structure, membership and activities are all clearly designed to be just that. For example in the Astana summit, SCO members called for a “neutral” Afghanistan, thus expressing clear disfavor for a permanent NATO military presence there. In addition SCO military chiefs pledged to boost defence cooperation, and furthermore the organization’s security drills are increasingly seeking to enhance the “interoperability” of their militaries, a term that NATO uses all the time. 


NATO insiders pooh-pooh the SCO. For example high level NATO official on background cited Russia as just “using the SCO to get better leverage in its dealings with NATO itself.” Skeptics also argue that while the SCO looks impressive on paper, its military resources are peanuts compared to those of the Atlantic alliance.


The return of balance of power poltics?

On the other hand, historians would argue that the current uni-polar world that has existed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, one dominated by a “hyper-power,” the United States, and its allies, is an anomaly.


Such situations rarely last long and when they do occur, a balance of power situation gradually evolves, as countries assemble to provide a counterweight, as they did when England, France and Russia combined in the early 20th century to counter Germany’s rise. If India does eventually join the SCO, the organization’s member countries would include what are expected to be the world’s two largest economic powers by mid-century (India and China) and the resources of the world’s second largest nuclear state (Russia).


On that score, NATO’s actions, in particular its refusal to deal with the SCO at an organizational level, despite the fact that the Atlantic alliance maintains relations with a variety of smaller and less significant military powers, speak far louder than its words.


Canada’s role

As for Canada’s role in all this? Like all NATO members, Canadian politicians too are facing tough budgetary pressures. For example in early June news emerged that the country would trim its participation in the NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) program, a decision that was said to have angered some allies.


However Peter MacKay defends the move. “We have to learn to do more with less. Budget challenges will always be there,” notes MacKay. “However defence never sleeps and (since) NATO remains the world’s preeminent defensive organization it is in Canada’s interest to support it.”


Tony White, as befitting his public affairs officer role at NATO also reasserts Canada’s continued commitment to the defence body and the Libya mission.


“We were one of the first nations to respond when the requests came out,” said White. “In fact, we were prepared even earlier. The Charlottetown frigate had already for the area before the first Libya air strikes started.”



Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is Canadian Defence Review’s Quebec Bureau Chief.



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