Depriving Canada of NATO would jettison its standing as a trusted ally and partner just when Canada needs alliances to deter aggression by revisionist Russia and hegemonic China, write Christian Leuprecht and Joel J. Sokolsky in the Star. 

This article is part of the Star's 'the Saturday Debate' series.

By Christian Leuprecht and Joel J. Sokolsky, May 3, 2021

The NDP’s recent policy convention called Canada’s NATO membership, and even the existence of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), into question. But the NDP also wanted the military to be deployed to long-term care homes. Cognizant of the virtue-signalling hypocrisy, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh wisely distanced himself from this contradiction.

In terms of achieving its national security interests, NATO is Canada’s single most important multilateral institution. For good reason, countries want to join but none have ever left history’s most enduring and powerful military alliance. Depriving Canada of its single most important multilateral institution would jettison its standing as a trusted ally and partner just when Canada needs alliances to deter aggression by revisionist Russia and hegemonic China.

Canada would then be left with no meaningful mechanism to join with other states to impose costs on other countries’ bad behaviour, to mitigate regional and global instability, or to provide humanitarian and disaster assistance due to climate change, famine or conflict.

Military roles and the capacity to undertake NATO missions provide operational and logistical benefits that the CAF can draw upon for domestic operations: to assist provinces with exponential growth in demand to fight forest fires, floods or in rolling out of vaccines.

Active participation in NATO is an instrument of Canadian foreign policy. Defecting from NATO would neuter whatever limited latitude Canada currently has to promote a more stable and peaceful world by engaging in operations. The world is replete with violent, belligerent, and hostile state and non-state tyrants who are happy to take advantage of Western pacificism, ambivalence and sheer ignorance about their nefarious intent. Virtuously moralizing away Canada’s membership in NATO plays right into their hands.

Those who want to leave NATO also tend to paint the U.S. as a global antagonist. This is not the Canadian view. When the Trump administration called NATO and the Western liberal democratic order into question, Canada joined other allies in championing the alliance and urging the United States to resume its leadership role.

Ottawa demonstrated its commitment to the U.S.-led system of collective Western defence by contributing to NATO operations in Latvia and Iraq, along with the U.S. and other NATO allies, and training the Ukrainian armed forces to resist Russian aggression. Contributing to such expeditionary missions gives Canada a powerful tool that can be employed in the service of a better world.

According to Freedom House, fewer than 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in free countries — the lowest proportion in decades. Defending Canada, including with the United States as we defend North America as part of NORAD, demands more of Canada and Canadians — not less.

NATO membership gives Canada a large discount on defence spending that it would otherwise have to offset on its own. Without NATO, Canada would have to spend more on defence, which leaves less to spend on education and entitlement programs Canadians cherish.

Canada cannot maintain its participation in the international community without a robust military presence. Who will counter terrorist organizations and malicious foreign actors? How will Canada meet its doctrinal and international commitments to the “Responsibility to Protect” against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity?

Recent annual reports by CSIS, CSEC, and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians make it abundantly clear that the global rules-based international order is under greater threat than it has been in decades. Canadians need to see the world for what it is, not what they wish it were. Smug Canadian pretense to the contrary only serves to empower bad actors.

With the Biden administration returning the U.S. to a multilateral approach, one where working with long-standing American allies and partners is a central focus, now is not the time for Canada to turn its back on its traditional democratic friends. Without NATO, the True North can be neither strong nor free.

Christian Leuprecht is Class of 1965 Professor in leadership at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Joel J. Sokolsky is professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and is senior fellow at the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy.

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