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NATO Headquarters at night with flags

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NATO Headquarters at night with flags

Canada and the ‘New NATO’

by Tim Dunne

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Canada has been intimately involved in Western European defence and security since 1914. Approximately 650,000 Canadians served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War, and almost 69,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice, along with at least three times that number being wounded. Of note, the Canadian population at the time was only eight million. The Second World War drew even more Canadians into uniform, with more than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders answering the call. Over 47,000 of them gave their lives, and again, many more were wounded. Subsequently, Canada has contributed the services of approximately 150,000 of its citizens, who have deployed on myriad and varied global peacekeeping missions/foreign military operations, commencing in 1947. 

But the evolving nature of armed conflict is reducing the United Nations' capacity for crisis management, and causing that institution to turn more toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and to ‘coalitions of the willing.’

Early Innings

At NATO’s formation, according to Queen's University Professor David G. Haglund, the Alliance was something into which the United States was reluctantly drawn, being viewed as an indispensible North American contribution with respect to post-war Atlanticism. Canada was instrumental in forging this solidarity. In November 1947, the three national capitals, Washington, London, and Ottawa, began exploratory talks with respect to alternative security arrangements outside the United Nations, which they already viewed as being paralyzed by the rapidly emerging Cold War. Tri-national discussions ultimately involved France, the Benelux countries, and Norway, resulting in the North Atlantic Treaty of 4 April 1949. Denmark, Iceland, Portugal, and Italy then rapidly joined this emerging Alliance.

At its formative stage, Canada’s Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent emphasized that NATO should be more than a pure military coalition, and that it should also include additional institutional arrangements. This led to the ‘Canadian Initiative’ Articles 2 and 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which enjoined member nations to take seriously the requirement to consult on important matters.

Haglund notes that Canada’s relationship with NATO was a continuation of the long standing relationship with Europe, which provided Canada with its early identity as a European nation within North America. However, after the Second World War, both Canada and the US acknowledged a new reality - that their security was inseparable from that of Western Europe. The joint security environment had evolved into an Atlantic community of shared values and interests.

Canada was one of the very few countries to have emerged from the Second World War in an economically strengthened condition. As one of the world’s ranking military powers at the time, it shared an obligation for the defence of Western Europe. Economically devastated, Europe was assisted by North American largesse in the form of the US Marshall Plan and Canada's Mutual Aid Program. Like the Marshall Plan, Canada's Mutual Aid Program for Europe, as an example, provided Great Britain with ‘top-of-the-line’ F-86 Sabre jet fighters. Beginning in 1951, Canada deployed a brigade group and an air division to Germany, the latter strength of which would eventually reach twelve squadrons totaling 240 aircraft. In those early days, Canada and the United States became producers of security, and Europe, the consumers of security. By 1953, the final year of the Korean War, Canada was allocating more than eight percent of its GDP to defence spending, a massive increase from 1947’s 1.4 percent. Canada’s defence/GDP ratio was then rated fourth highest in NATO, and its defence budget of nearly $2 billion accounted for 45 percent of all federal spending.

A CF-100 Canuck in European service.

DND photo (CFJIC) 988-IMG0086

A CF-100 Canuck in European service.

Moving Along

During the ensuing years, Canada would cut back a significant portion of its contributions to Western European defence, because, according to David Haglund, it became too expensive to sustain a robust military contribution to European defence, and to concurrently assume responsibilities for North American air defence.

Canada was campaigning for NATO's commitment to détente, leading Germany’s ambassador to Canada, Herbert Siegfried, to state in 1955 that Canada’s European policy was “remarkably naïve.”  In a 1958 visit to Ottawa, NATO Secretary-General Paul-Henri Spaak was equally unflattering when he said that Canada had become “the Yugoslavs of NATO.”

As Europe progressively recovered from wartime devastation, Canada reduced her commitment to European defence, partially in light of growing European defence capabilities. Overall, Ottawa believed that European defence requirements were depriving Canada of focusing limited resources assistance where it was needed and justified elsewhere. Ultimately, Canada withdrew its garrisoned forces from Germany in 1993.

However, NATO’s eventual entry into the Balkans in response to the United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding the Serbian forces withdraw from Sarajevo and from Kosovo ended the argument about the Alliance’s claim to survivability. In 1999, NATO was the only multinational organization capable of intervening in Kosovo. Her Excellency Ginte Damusis, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Lithuania to NATO noted: “ …no other organization could have undertaken those tasks. And this campaign as well as the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan in 2001 really exposed that capabilities gap.”   She asserted that global terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and failed states are the main security threats facing the Euro-Atlantic community, and they should be the focus of NATO’s efforts to develop rapidly deployable and interoperable capabilities. Post-Westphalianism, ‘soft power,’ and the desire to minimize burdens, coupled with the zeal to preserve coalitions, were all pulling Canada back to its Atlanticist strategic centre of gravity, and Canada, in fact, ended the 20th Century as an Atlanticist state.


On 15 December 1997, Globe and Mail reporter Paul Koring wrote about Canada’s diminishing role in international peacekeeping, noting that a mere 250 Canadian Forces personnel were then deployed on various United Nations operations. This was the lowest level since Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize 40 years earlier. The article also mentioned that there were 1300 Canadian troops in Bosnia Herzegovina, but Koring said that they did not count because they were “… part of a NATO force rather than UN force.” In effect, he ignored UN Security Council Resolution 1031's authorization of the peace stabilization force.

Since then, the imbalance between Canada’s UN and NATO peacekeeping commitments has become even more pronounced. By 1 June 2000, there were 2756 CF personnel on overseas operations. Of these, 1596 were with the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia Herzegovina, another 522 served with the Alliance’s Kosovo Force (KFOR), and another 118 were deployed with the allied air forces at Aviano, Italy. In contrast to Cold War peacekeeping operations, these ‘blue berets’ were sent to areas where fighting continued and where there was no peace to keep, such as in Bosnia Herzegovina and Somalia.1 The UN Security Council responded by authorizing more robust force in civil conflicts to impose a peace, or at least, a ceasefire.

By the summer of 1995, the Canadian government was beginning to withdraw its forces from the Balkans as the United Nations mission was drawing down. NATO launched air strikes, and the Dayton accords led to the NATO decision to deploy its Implementation Force (IFOR). Canada made a major commitment to IFOR and the follow-on SFOR, supplying one of the largest national contingents (in excess of 1200 troops), as well as continuing deployment of a ship to the NATO naval force in the Adriatic. Kosovo offered another theatre of operations for the Canadian military, when it participated in aerial combat missions against the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic, who were endeavouring to evict ethnic Albanian Kosovars from the region. 

“Canadian pilots flew 682 combat sorties, or nearly 10 percent of the missions against fixed targets – and they led half the strike packages they took part in.” Additionally, Canada was “… among only five countries delivering precision guided munitions.”2  In all, some 1400 personnel deployed as part of KFOR including an infantry battle group, a reconnaissance squadron, a tactical helicopter squadron, and an engineer contingent. During the spring of 2000, Ottawa decided to consolidate its Balkan presence in Bosnia when a Canadian major-general assumed command of the Multinational Division Southwest, a region comprising 45 percent of the total SFOR area.

A CF-18 awaits takeoff on a combat mission, Aviano, Italy, during Op Echo, 1999.

DND photo CKD99-2029-01 by Corporal Danielle Bernier

A CF-18 awaits takeoff on a combat mission, Aviano, Italy, during Op Echo, 1999.

Recently, in 2011, Canada was among the first nations to commit forces to NATO's Operation Unified Protector, the coalition enforcing an arms embargo, maintaining a no-fly zone, and protecting civilians and civilian populated areas from attack or the threat of attack in Libya. Canada provided a frigate, CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, and CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft, supported by CC-150 Polaris and CC-130 Hercules airlifters.

The time is past when unarmed peacekeepers interpose themselves between two belligerents to supervise a ceasefire. When Canadian Forces personnel deploy on hazardous operations today, it is likely they do so as part of multilateral forces designed to promote peace and good governance. It is irrelevant whether these operations are called ‘peacekeeping’ or by some other name. Compared to the rest of the Alliance, Canada’s capabilities, and its willingness to use them as evidenced by the record of the first post-Cold War decade, stand up rather well. Ottawa has proven it has been prepared to assume a fair share of the burden of the new NATO, perhaps even more than its share, given that Canada is not a European country.3

The New European Security

The Kosovo crisis accelerated the European security process, which was carried forward dramatically in June 1999 with the Cologne European Council declaration, On Strengthening the Common European Policy on Security and Defence. EU members asserted that the Union “… must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises without prejudice to actions by NATO.”  They also committed themselves to the development of “more effective European military capabilities,” acknowledging that this involved a sustained defence effort and “… notably the reinforcement of our capabilities in the field of intelligence, strategic transport, command and control.”4

These and several other European summits culminated at the Helsinki summit of the European Council in December 1999. The Helsinki Declaration underscored the necessity for consultation, cooperation, and transparency between the EU and NATO in this field.5

Is the paramount concern in Canadian security policy that of balancing our asymmetrical relationship with the United States with other relationships to allow us to assert an independent personality and to enhance status in international relations? If so, then it is not entirely clear that such objectives are best served solely in the context of an alliance relationship where the United States is so clearly the dominant partner. The Europeans appear to be open in principle with respect to the evolution of separate relationships with non-European NATO members. Canada has capacities that could be useful in missions contemplated by the EU. The development of partnerships with a more autonomous European security mechanism might provide a useful supplement to the more traditional strategies of balancing through NATO.6

NATO helped bring the bloody war in Bosnia to a halt and waged a successful military campaign to halt Serbia’s repression in Kosovo. However, no matter how many new states join NATO, and no matter how many solemn reaffirmations emerge from the endless parade of NATO summits, the high-water mark of transatlantic security cooperation appears to have passed.

For decades, the European-Canadian-American partnership was held together by three unifying forces. First, the Soviet threat gave Western Europe and America ample reason to cooperate. The second force consisted of America’s economic stake in Europe, which reinforced its strategic interest in European prosperity. The third force was the generation of European, Canadian, and American elites, whose personal backgrounds and life experiences left them strongly committed to the idea of an Atlantic community.7

The events of 11 September 2001 reinforced the need for cooperation between NATO and the EU in the field of crisis management. Formal contacts and reciprocal participation increased. On 12 September 2001, the Secretary General of NATO participated in deliberations of the EU General Affairs Council to analyze the international situation following the terrorist attacks of the day prior. Since then, the terrorist attacks in Madrid (March 2004) and London (July 2005) have tragically stressed the need for greater cooperation. Direct contacts between the two organizations have been developed in a number of fields in addition to the fight against terrorism.

However, and perhaps inevitably, the fundamental shift in the landscape of world politics is having adverse effects upon the transatlantic partnership. First, conflicts of interest are becoming more visible and significant. Second, these differences reflect an even more fundamental conflict of interest between the United States and its European allies. Third, the lack of a common foe exacerbates the familiar problem of credibility. Fourth, the collapse of the Soviet Union has given each of these states a wider array of options. During the Cold War, the rigid logic of bipolarity limited choices on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and meant there was remarkably little debate about the fundamentals of Western grand strategy.8

That said, Europe decided over time that it needed to fortify and strengthen its own military capability. The decisive break occurred at an Anglo-French summit in Saint-Malo in December 1988, which called for the European Union to “… play its full role on the international stage” and committed the EU to acquire “appropriate structures and a capacity for …strategic planning,” as well as “suitable military means” to conduct its own foreign policy. This process intensified after the war in Kosovo demonstrated that Europe could not even handle a minor power like Serbia without relying primarily upon the US military.9

Aboard HMCS Charlottetown, 5 May 2011, Lieutenant-Commander Jurgen Van Daele (right), Commanding Officer of the Belgian mine hunter M923 Narcis, looks towards Misratah harbour during Op Unified Protector.

DND photo HS2011-E011-003 by Corporal Chris Ringius

Aboard HMCS Charlottetown, 5 May 2011, Lieutenant-Commander Jurgen Van Daele (right), Commanding Officer of the Belgian mine hunter M923 Narcis, looks towards Misratah harbour during Op Unified Protector.

Canada’s traditional approach to NATO has been modest and self-deprecating, viewing ourselves as one of the historic lower contributors to Alliance security, costs, and activities. In fact, this modest self-image belies a number of stark realities.

  • Canada is one of the original thirteen signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty.
  • In the early years of the Alliance, Canada and the United States provided aid to Europe as the continent recovered from the post-war recession.
  • In those early years, Canada directed approximately eight percent of its gross domestic product to defence, becoming a principal generator of defence and security.
  • Canada operated military bases in France and Germany for 40 years, as only one of two non-European nations to do so.
  • Canada participated in the annual Fallex Reforger exercises (Fall Exercise - Reinforcement of Forces in Germany), and would augment its military units resident in Germany by deploying large numbers of Canadian Regular and Reserve personnel to the north German plain. Concurrently, Canada would also participate in the bi-annual Canadian Air-Sea Transportable Combat Group (Cast CG) exercise conducted in the Bardufoss region of Norway.

As mentioned earlier, Canada’s commitment to European security and defence dates to 1914.  Counting both World Wars, more than 116,000 Canadians forfeited their lives. In 1992, Canada was among the first nations to commit to United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and transferred its forces to NATO’s IFOR in December 1995.  In addition to its troop contribution, Canada committed to more than 100 major projects valued at more than $130 million since 1995, and played a leading role in health, policing, mine actions, human rights, freedom of the press, and the International Criminal Tribunal in the Former Yugoslavia.

Canada has been an active supporter of NATO operations, including Operation Deliberate Force, initiated in response to the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) shelling of the Sarajevo market place on 28 August 1995, and Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011.

Canada began military operations in Afghanistan in 2002, and has consistently deployed a force of 2500 troops into that country, from whom to date158 military members and one diplomat have been killed. Canada began in Kabul, then moved to the northern region of the country, undertaking operations in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, before ultimately returning to Kabul to undertake a training role.

Canada was among the earliest contributing nations to operations in Libya, providing maritime and air resources, and also the designated commander of that successful operation.

Major Darren Hart (right), Regional Military Training Centre (Capital), Senior Military Advisor, presents a graduation certificate to an Afghan National Army medic in Kabul, 4 August 2011.

DND photo AT2011-0037-12 by Master Corporal Rory Wilson

Major Darren Hart (right), Regional Military Training Centre (Capital), Senior Military Advisor, presents a graduation certificate to an Afghan National Army medic in Kabul, 4 August 2011.


Canada needs to revise its self-image as a NATO partner, shed its undeserved modesty and recognize that we, in fact, are among the ‘heavy lifters’ of the Alliance, sometimes in treasure, and often in blood. Canada’s contributions, sacrifices, and losses in the name of the Alliance will receive the recognition they deserve only if the nation demands that recognition.

Major (ret’d) Tim Dunne is a communications practitioner and a retired member of the Canadian Forces Public Affairs Branch with 37 years of uniformed service. He is also a former military affairs advisor for the Province of Nova Scotia, a research fellow with Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, and a Canadian military affairs writer.


  1. Brad Bergstrand, “What Do You Do When There’s No Peace to Keep?”, in Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. 23, (March 1994), pp. 225-230.

  2. Speaking notes for Art Eggleton, Minister of National Defence, Canadian Lessons from the Kosovo Crisis, Harvard University, 30 September 1999.

  3. Joel Sokolsky. “Over There With Uncle Sam,” in David G. Haglund, What NATO for Canada? (Kingston, ON: Queen’s University Centre for International Relations, 2000),  p. 33.

  4. Neil MacFarlane, “Canada and the ‘European Pillar’ of Defence,” in. Haglund, pp. 56-57; and European Council Declaration: On Strengthening the Common European Policy on Security and Defence, 4 June 1999, at

  5. Helsinki European Council, 10-11 December 1999, Presidency Conclusions.

  6. Ibid, p. 66.

  7. Stephen M. Walt,  NATO’s Fragile Future, in Haglund, p. 72.

  8. Ibid., pp. 73-74.

  9. Ibid., p.75.