WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.



Nato Graphics

seductive hegemon: why nato is still important to canada

by Captain (N) Peter Avis

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

There is little doubt that the United States, the only surviving and thriving superpower, affects and influences every country in the international system when it acts. As their neighbour, it is “of vital importance for Canadians to understand that the only real imperative in Canadian foreign policy is Canada’s relationship with the US.”1 Many Canadians are coming to an understanding that our fate is so intertwined with that of the American ‘hegemon’ that they really have no choice in this era but to seek ways to support the Americans when Canadian interests and values permit. Nevertheless, as a country proud of its sovereignty and interested in making its own views known in the international community, Canada must be aware that the shadow of the hegemon is enormous. Furthermore, if the Canadian voice is to be heard, it must seek multilateral methods through which our ideas can be expressed. Even the reasonable choice of working in flexible coalitions with the US and others needs a formal basis on which to promote interoperability, infrastructure commonality, and command and control organization. NATO, which is visibly adapting to a radically new and wider strategic approach, has no current rival for fulfilling this mandate. While Canada must work hard as a priority in the post-9/11 era to cement American trust in continental security, it must also preserve certain viable existing methods of multilateral action for cases where there is a need to influence American, European or other opinion. NATO is foremost among these methods.

Canada needs to balance its commitment between continental (which includes national) security in a bi-lateral relationship with the US (using NORAD as a solid foundation), international security through multilateral organizations (such as NATO), and mission-specific coalitions that serve Canada’s purpose when formal multilateral alliances cannot. Such a balance would serve our national purposes by achieving the multi-level security that Canadians have sought throughout their history. It would place Canada once again in a useful position between the continental powers which make up the Western Alliance, and, perhaps most importantly, this position of balance would provide a channel for the Canadian ‘voice’ to exert influence in international activities.

canada, the us, and nato

Since the Second World War, the idea of counter-balance against American dominance has been a major consideration in Canada’s foreign policy. Multilateralism was an ingenious solution to finding a comfortable place for Canada in the global order of the Cold War years. One of the most important facets of the newfound multilateralism was NATO. “NATO responded to real concerns in Ottawa over American pressures for bilateral arrangements to defend the continent. A multilateral alliance was a way of being on side in the Cold War without having to stand alone with the Americans.”2 Being the neighbour of the most powerful nation in the world has always caused Canadians to reflect on the downside of such a relationship. In the context of early NATO years, Hume Wrong, the Canadian ambassador in Washington, explained: “Under such an agreement the joint planning of the defence of North America fell in place as a part of a larger whole and would diminish difficulties arising from fears of invasion of Canadian sovereignty by the US.”3 In fact, one of the initial proposals for NATO in 1948 was the two-pillar concept – the US and Canada being one pillar and Europe the other. Lester Pearson and other Canadians fought fiercely to ensure that this concept would not become reality:


US Navy photo

HMCS Toronto (foreground) and the US Navy guided missile destroyer USS Bulkeley (background) manoeuvre in the Indian Ocean as part of Operation “Enduring Freedom”, February 2004.

If North America was to be one pillar, this would in effect mean that the United States would act as that pillar. Given the asymmetrical distribution of power between Canada and the United States, Canadian views would likely be overwhelmed by American interests. The entire purpose of the alliance was to attempt to redress this imbalance by giving Canada an opportunity to work collectively with other states to counter- balance American power.4

Other multilateral relationships such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth, and la Francophonie also helped in this valid manoeuvre to have Canadian ideas considered outside the bi-national realm, where they might be allotted more weight. However, it was through NATO, and to a certain extent the UN, that Canada garnered its best results on the multilateral playing field of the Cold War years.

From the end of the Cold War to the present American administration with its recently published National Security Strategy (NSS), the US has initiated far-reaching national policies which alter the international landscape. “Never before have security issues placed higher on the US agenda – higher even than during World War II and the Vietnam War. This is because, for the first time in history, there is the perception in the US, correct, as it turns out, that their homeland security is at stake.”5 The focus is a war against strategic terrorism. In reaction to this nefarious threat, the NSS connects global terrorism to the access to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), thereby setting the appropriate conditions for a novel rationale for state offensive action:

We will disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations by defending the United States, the American people, and our interests abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.6

Top of Page

This radical and aggressive shift in superpower policy, in reaction to a radical shift in the perception of the threat since 9/11, has created a new international reality for the countries of the world, NATO, and finally Canada, to grapple with.

As the predominant threat changed and US policy transformed with it, NATO has had to adapt and recreate itself. Its initial design was a collective defence structure in the context of the Cold War. The disappearance of the Soviet threat removed the original reason for which the alliance had been created. Throughout the 1990s, NATO transformed to meet the new challenge:

Whereas the West is a collective identity that shapes the actions of certain governments on a wide range of issues, NATO has become the pivot of Western security. It institutionalizes a collective identity at the same time as it provides the military and political infrastructure for its member governments to act in concert. Following the end of the Cold War, NATO reaffirmed its identity as a collective intentionality that furnished the ends as well as means for Western security.7

As the main collective identity for Western security, NATO has published two strategic concepts since the end of the Cold War, one in 1991 and the second in 1999, “to establish a common ground between Western governments on how to conceive not only NATO’s new role but also the security environment in which the Alliance should operate.”8 These transformational documents have shown that NATO is not mired in Cold War thinking. NATO has proven with limited success that it can conduct offensive war without activating Article V or receiving a UN mandate (Kosovo), that it can carry out peace-keeping duties that are completely foreign to its original rationale (Bosnia), and it can participate in nation-building after conflict in states that are outside NATO’s traditional area of operations (Afghanistan today). “NATO has not only reinvented itself; it has provided a Western forum for reinventing security.”9 Furthermore, NATO has taken on the daunting task of expansion in the context of the new strategic concept – the redefined security environment allows this reconstruction to take place.

The enlargement process will have and has had a profound and positive effect on European security. It has done so primarily by putting in place a set of consultative and cooperative arrangements with former adversaries.... The end result has been the replacement of Cold War divisions with a common European strategy that is informed by an appreciation of the indivisibility of security.10

Not only has NATO undergone enlargement, but it has entered into a cooperative relationship with Russia, once the chief adversary. “Such a level of incorporation does not equate to a formal Article V collective defence provision, but it does constitute strategic assurance and, crucially, approximates a deterrent.”11 This acceptance of change and transformation underscores NATO’s ability to market security, starting in Europe, its principal target, and then move out as the US and global needs drive forward. This new flexibility “has increased NATO’s heterogeneity and political character, thus moving it away from a classical defense alliance.”12

So, as the world changes, NATO is attempting to catch up. This is no small feat. The creation of the ‘European pillar’ during the 1990s and hence the partner North American pillar that Pearson and his counterparts so dreaded “increasingly changed the character of the Alliance.”13 Given this quasi-separation and the understanding that the US would only use NATO as one of the many tools in its security toolbox (if indeed it decides to use any other tools than its own dominant military power), there is “a debate that continues to this day on ways in which the transatlantic character of NATO could be maintained.”14 Nonetheless, the US still considers NATO as a primary tool and one whose multilateral capability will be tapped when it suits the American requirement:

There is little of lasting consequence that the United States can accomplish in the world without the sustained coopera-tion of its allies and friends in Canada and Europe. Europe is also the seat of the two strongest and most international institutions in the world: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has, since its inception, been the fulcrum of transatlantic and inter-European security, and the European Union (EU), our partner in opening world trade.15

Transfer of de-mining responsibilities

DND photo VK2003-0116-15d by Master Corporal Roxanne Clowe

De-mining is one of the important functions monitored by SFOR in Bosnia. This photo depicts the formal transfer of responsibility in May 2003 for recently de-mined fields in the municipality of Bihac from the Bosnia-Herzegovina Armed Forces to the local civil protection agency. Monitoring the clearance of these minefields was carried out by 33 Field Engineer Squadron based in Calgary.

Aside from the interesting visibility of Canada in this powerful paragraph, it is evident that the US, even in the post-9/11 environment, still sees NATO as not only one of the tools, but the major tool in its international security toolbox. It is NATO’s ongoing and convincing adaptation to the international security landscape with the strategic terrorist threat that has kept it at the forefront of American respect.

Top of Page

security for canada

Thus, both the US and NATO have undergone a process of adaptation to a different and more complex security environment. The original reasons for Canada to remain closely engaged with the US and NATO are arguably still present. Canada desires national, continental, and international security. It wants to counter-balance US dominance in the alliance and in the North American “pillar”; and, it feels strongly that its voice should have influence in top-level, international decision-making. Canada’s current White Paper still divides its main chapters in order of priority: Protection of Canada, Canada-United States Defence Cooperation, and Contributing to International Security.16 Can these security aims be carried out in the current security environment? It remains to assess how NATO can contribute to Canada’s quest for security at all levels in the post-9/11 world.

On the national and continental levels, the direction for bolstering security is fairly straightforward for Canada. As one of the foremost examples on the global scene of state interdependence, Canada and the US boast NAFTA, the Smart Border Agreement, NORAD, and numerous security-based memoranda of understanding. However, “the focus within the Department of Homeland Security remains on the physical security of the United States, with the need for economic security, as argued by Canada, not nearly as important.”17 The domestic security battlespace has changed:

In many respects, Canada today is in virtually the same position it was during the ten years immediately after World War II; due to geography alone, Canada is once again vital for the defence of the United States itself, whether they are aware of that reality, whether they like it, or even whether they are prepared to pay for it.18

Canada has at least partially understood that national security against the current terrorist threat and its potentialities will be founded on close bilaterial relations with the US. On the national and continental level, NATO also provides its defensive support and nuclear deterrent benefits. It did, after, all, support North America with several AWACS aircraft after 11 September to assist in tracking and controlling air contacts in the North American airspace. However, the NATO relationship plays a distant second place to the CANUS relationship for security in North America. To continue these desired close bi-lateral relations, Canada will have to reverse its policy of marginalizing defence and work hard on the collaborative efforts in aid of domestic and continental security. As Dwight Mason (the former US Chairman of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence) has pointed out, “Many in Washington hope and believe that Canada will be able to strike a new balance among its national priorities, one that preserves and strengthens the Canadian-American partnership....”19

The seductive hegemon is then a huge part of Canada’s security reality, whether this is desired or not. However, on the international security level, Canada finds itself in a different but equally-altered reality from the Cold War years. As shown above, the US and NATO have evolved dramatically in the last decade because of changes in the threat to western nations. While its continental ties push it closer to integration with the American security and military apparatus, Canada has seen the US alter its reactions to threats by using not only NATO, but various other formations of international coalitions, with or without UN sanction. This has posed a dilemma for the Canadian government. The UN security apparatus has not adapted to the ever-changing security environment. Consequently, Canada has had to become more flexible in its almost religious preference for formal multilateral responses. It will have to continue this trend:

Canada’s national interests lie where they lie, sometimes by acting in concert with other nations under the umbrella of NATO, or even the UN, sometimes in ad hoc coalitions, sometimes alone, or with one or two major partners.20

In this new and more complex environment in which there are now several choices of tools that one uses for international security, Canada must come to terms with the fact that there will be times when neither the UN nor NATO will fit the requirement as a format for allied action against a disparate threat. The recent manoeuvring that Canada has done with regard to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq is a case in point. “The government’s decision to withdraw its infantry from Afghanistan, but not from the Balkans, illustrated that its commitment to multilateralism remained strong.”21 Not only was the old preference for multilateralism still alive, but the new recognition that NATO could provide valuable alternatives to US-driven action that Canada found undesirable came to the fore. It was NATO, in its new ‘out-of-area’ stance in Afghanistan, that made itself particularly useful for Canada in its dealings with the US over Iraq. Even though Canada supported the US drive to force compliance on Saddam, “Canadians did not want to wage war alongside the US without UN approval.”22 It was the NATO-supported (and UN-mandated) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that gave the Canadian government leverage in its choice between supporting the US in an unsanctioned war or supporting the US in the War on Terrorism and its aftermath of nation rebuilding. For Iraq,”Washington formed a US coalition rather than use NATO because it was believed the alliance’s decision-making process was cumbersome.”23 Canada, for reasons of its own, decided that it was better served by NATO in Afghanistan than by a US-led coalition, based on questionable rationale, in Iraq.


Canadian Forces Combat Camera photo IS2003-8109a by Warrant Officer Peter Veldhuizen

A Royal Canadian Dragoons Coyote leaving Camp Courcelette in Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina to conduct an early morning patrol.

Top of Page

Had Canada chosen to support the US in Iraq, another factor in NATO’s favour would have presented itself. While the coalitions of many new members led by the US do not hold the NATO banner, it is evident that NATO provides the underpinning for interoperability, C4ISR (command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), logistic support, and tactics between the main members of any coalition that the US puts together. Just as in the Iraq war of 1991, the recent Iraq war included a number of the “like-minded nations” that form the Western Alliance. It is this “like-mindedness” that will continue to provide a pool of actors for future coalitions, whether NATO is involved or not. Thus, the building blocks of NATO will always be involved because its longstanding experience of operating in a multilateral format has made it the foremost source of interoperability on the planet. While NATO’s transformational strategic concepts position it as the alliance of choice in many endeavours, it is not always preferred by the US in urgent, pre-emptive operations. Nevertheless, the structure and operations of the eventual coalition that forms under the US are facilitated by the shared knowledge of years of NATO doctrine and tactics.

Commodore Roger Girouard

DND photo HS034033d01 by Corporal Shawn Kent

Commodore Roger Girouard, on the bridge of HMCS Iroquois, while serving as Commander of Task Force 151 in the Arabian Gulf, June 2003.

In summary, Canada will likely stick close to its superpower partner for national and continental security. However, for international security, “as operations in Bosnia and Kosovo illustrate, NATO is the preeminent security organization in the Western world ... [which] serves a fundamental Canadian interest in a peaceful and stable European space.”24 NATO’s expansion, and expanded sphere of influence under the auspices of its new strategic concept, will make its product increasingly useful to Canada. Furthermore, Canada has benefited in a variety of coalition operations from its knowledge and experience in NATO doctrine and tactics. On the international security level, this pays off and allows Canada to not only participate, but lead in both NATO and independent coalition efforts.

canadian intra-alliance liaison

As the US has evolved in assertiveness on the world stage through its new National Security Strategy, the rest of the international community has had to reassess its relationship with the sole superpower. In the case of the European countries, it is apparent that the relationship is undergoing significant strains as the two pillars of the alliance come to understand the new security environment. While Europe has been working hard on its continental union over the last decade, Canada, and particularly the Canadian military, understood that “to play a significant role on the world stage, Canada has to get into bed withe United States.”25 Hence, the Canadian Forces, and particularly the Navy, chose policies that engaged in seamless cooperation with US forces. This was evident in all recent Gulf operations. Canadian ships (particularly the Halifax-class frigates) trained and deployed with US Carrier Battle Groups such that they became the only units in the world (other than American units) who could integrate completely in the US naval forces. At the same time, Canadian military forces continued their high level of expertise with NATO procedures during operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and on a continuous basis in the Standing Naval Force Atlantic. “For the government, interoperability was central because whenever the country went to war or participated in an intervention, it did so with a coalition.”26 Thus, despite their small size, Canada’s forces have found a particularly valuable position in the NATO alliance and in coalitions.

By spending the last decade improving capability and interoperability with both of the pillars of NATO, Canada has a particular role in that organization as a liaison state or, perhaps, a translator. When forces of the superpower and the European economic power join in a coalition, it is often up to Canada to translate (both literally and technically) the American direction to the coalition members. Canadian units are often the only units that have integrated C4ISR systems that allow the passage of American intelligence and top-level command direction. Thus, as the four Canadian commodores found out during Operation “Apollo”, Canada takes its place on a rung next to the US as a facilitator in coalition operations. During this operation, NATO had not been able to evolve fast enough to operate outside the farthest reaches of the traditional NATO area of operations – they would not allow their ships to proceed past the entrance of the Suez Canal. When the Iraq War broke out, Commodore Girouard found himself as the leader of a force of international coalition ships in the Gulf in the separate (but related) War on Terrorism. Due to the Canadian capability in C4ISR and interoperability, which was pre-dominantly between US and NATO members in the non-NATO coalition, he was able to effectively organize the coalition and achieve his support mission south of the Iraq War line of fire. It is not perhaps the seamless integration with the US that is so remarkable here as much as the Canadian capability to manage huge sections of the coalition based on NATO procedures and interoperability. This task would have given the American operational leadership significant challenges due to their preference for purely American doctrine and procedures.

Top of Page

canadian voice and balance

Even with a sterling performance in operations, Canada continues to be criticized for the low priority that the Liberal government has given to both the Canadian Forces and foreign affairs.

Canada’s ability to act militarily abroad without US logistical support is extremely limited, if it exists at all. This reduces Canada’s ability to contribute to international military activities nearly to the point of symbolism, thereby weakening international institutions and multilateral activities. This undercuts Canadian foreign policy.27

This lack of priority has led to a marked decline in international influence. The facts that “in November 1999 Canada was the only member of the G-8 excluded from a meeting discussing the future of Chechnya”28 and that in 2003 Canada was not included in the US-led group discussions on non-proliferation are indicators of diminishing status on the world stage. Certainly, one way to stay near influence is to connect more closely with the Americans. “Canada has only one key asset that other emerging states do not – our relationship with the United States.”29 However, that would limit Canada with the age-old asymmetry that has always existed when all the influence eggs are placed in the American basket. Canada, with its independent perspective and novel ideas for international synergy, still must strive to find channels to the international forum apart from the back seat of the Lincoln Continental. As we have seen through operational examples, NATO provides Canada a lens through which we can take command roles in pivotal operations and a foundation on which to pass our distinctive narrative to the international community. “NATO remains a key diplomatic forum for Canada, as most of its closest allies are members. Membership in NATO secures Canada’s access to this forum with attendant expectations of having a voice and input in political and security deliberations.”30 Furthermore, NATO offers more to Canada than simply a place at the table. It presents a collectivity of close allies who can work together to counterbalance American drive when necessary. Given the rate of change since 11 September and the assertiveness of the NSS, America is lucky to have a well-meaning group of allies who can provide it balance when balance is needed. “As a multilateral forum, NATO offers Canada the opportunity to act in concert with other countries to promote common agendas and to constrain the behaviour of other partners, most notably the US.”31

As NATO transforms to meet the challenges of the new security landscape that it has helped to define, it provides Canada with a highly respected and valued forum in which to bring forward ideas that are distinctly Canadian. One could argue that the expansion of NATO will diminish our ability to be heard in this forum. It is certainly true that several of the recent additions have larger militaries and more ‘connected’ geographic positions than Canada. Nevertheless, Canada has over 50 years of experience, priceless interoperability knowledge of both pillars, networks inside networks in the NATO bureaucracy, and history that binds tight. If Canada needs to get its voice into the international community, there is no better multilateral forum in the current international system than NATO.


Whether it started on 9/11, or whether it is an ongoing process, Canada finds itself in a new era in which it has to evolve with the major actors involved in the international system. Strategic terrorism linked to the potential of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the American reaction to these developments has drastically changed the mechanics of the international security system. The US has made massive changes to its domestic organization and continues to transform its military and law enforcement capabilities for both national and international duty. NATO, albeit not so quickly, has also transformed and will play a major part in the events of the years to come. It is evident that Canada needs to reaffirm itself in military, diplomatic and foreign assistance capabilities. But even more important, Canada needs to find its position of balance in this new framework. On the domestic and continental level, the answer is straightforward – integrate with and bolster the American effort against the new threat. On the international level, where there is still room for Canadian voice and ideas, NATO provides the optimum forum for Canada to interact in the international security system. Experience, interoperability, liaison capability, and command capability will continue to give Canada the credentials it needs to speak out in this transforming alliance. While the strength of the hegemon is indeed seductive, NATO is still the best bet for providing Canada with what it needs to be a valuable actor on the international scene.

CMJ Logo

Captain (N) Peter Avis is working on a Masters degree in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.


  1. Denis Stairs et al., In the National Interest: Canadian Foreign Policy in an Insecure World (Ottawa: Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, 2003), p. viii.
  2. Tom Keating, Canada and World Order: The Multilateral Tradition in Canadian Foreign Policy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), p. 10.
  3. Ibid., p. 86.
  4. Ibid., p. 87.
  5. Allan Gotlieb, “Foremost Partner: The Conduct of Canada-US Relations,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 28.
  6. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2003, p. 6.
  7. Micheal C. Williams and Iver B. Neumann, “From Alliance to Security Community: NATO, Russia, and the Power of Identity,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 29, No. 2 (1999), p. 360.
  8. Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, “Reflexive Security: NATO and International Risk Society,” Millenium: Journal of International Studies 30, no. 2 (2001), p. 289.
  9. Ibid., p. 298.
  10. Natalie Mychajlyszyn, “Keeping its Options Open: NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Implications for Enlargement,” Canadian Military Journal 1, No. 4 (Winter 2000), pp. 57-58.
  11. S. Croft, J. Howorth, T. Terriff, and M. Webber, “NATO’s Triple Challenge,” International Affairs 76, No. 3 (July 2000), p. 503.
  12. Karl Kaiser, “The New NATO,” Asia-Pacific Review 10, No. 1 (2003), p. 65.
  13. Ibid., p. 66.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, p. 25.
  16. Canada, DND, White Paper on Defence, 1994.
  17. C. Waddel, “Erasing the Line: Rebuilding Economic and Trade Relations after 11 September,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson, and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 74.
  18. D.J. Bercuson, “Canada-US Defence Relations Post-11 September,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson, and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 123.
  19. Dwight Mason, “US-Canada Defence Relations,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson, and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 153.
  20. Stairs, p. 30.
  21. G. Dawson, “‘A Special Case’: Canada, Operation Apollo, and Multilateralism,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson, and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 192.
  22. Ibid., p. 193.
  23. Ibid., p. 194.
  24. Allen G. Sens, “Living in a Renovated NATO,” Canadian Military Journal 1, No. 4 (Winter 2000), p. 84.
  25. Dawson, p. 186.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Mason, p. 149.
  28. Elinor Sloan, “Canada and the Revolution in Military Affairs: Current Response and Future Opportunities,” Canadian Military Journal 1, No. 3 (Autumn 2000), p. 12.
  29. Frank Harvey, Dispelling the Myth of Multilateral Security after 11 September and the Implications for Canada,” in Canada Among Nations 2003: Coping with the American Colossus, eds. David Carment, Fen Osler Hampson, and Norman Hillmer (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 216.
  30. Sens, p. 84.
  31. Ibid.