Skip to main content

NATO and Beyond: Canadian Security Concerns in the Obama Era

Christopher Sands

Chicago resident and mother Peggy Joseph reacted to the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ 44th president with elation. “I won’t have to work on putting gas in my car. I won’t have to work on paying my mortgage.” She told a reporter. “You know, if I help him [Obama] he is going to help me!”

Terrorism

The organizations employing terrorism against the US and its western allies have been unimpressed with the election of a apostate Muslim (that he was raised as a Christian does not excuse, in the minds of fundamentalist Muslims, that his father was a Muslim and Obama ought to have remained so). Weeks after the November election, protestors were still burning American flags, and had added photos of Obama to the pyre alongside those of George W. Bush.

Democratic politicians in the United States are well-regarded for their domestic social compassion, but struggle against a reputation with the American public for softness in national security policy. Presidents Carter and Clinton began their terms by cutting defense spending and hoping a “new tone” would restore American popularity around the world; both were forced by events to rearm and return to a tough line on national security by the end of their terms.

Already, Obama has pledged to close the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo Bay prison complex, and revise U.S. interrogation policies, thereby making the fight against terrorism his own. With this move comes a heavy responsibility: if another attack occurs in the U.S., something that President Bush was able to thwart, many Americans will blame the administration for dropping its guard. Unfair as this is, such a judgment would cripple the image of the new administration at home and abroad, and tempt Obama to take an aggressive new national security posture to prove himself a strong leader.  

Some Canadians have recently called for revising border security measures that have impeded trade. There are high hopes in Ottawa that the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, will relax some of the more onerous and convoluted policies adopted during the Bush years. And Napolitano has announced an early review of Northern Border Strategy, due on her desk in February 2009.

In asking for such changes Canadians are asking Obama to take a significant political risk. If a terror attack occurs in either Canada or the United States, border policies will come under intense scrutiny for any linkage. Obama seems cognizant of the risk:  Napolitano’s rethink of US security policies for the northern border is unlikely to lead to the abandonment of the new passport requirement, or vigorous inspections at the land border and airports. Napolitano is the new gatekeeper, and will continue to regulate Canadian market access to the United States.

Obama has also retained Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, quoted in the Los Angeles Times on January 16, 2008 casting doubt on the capabilities of allied militaries including Canada’s to make meaningful contributions alongside U.S. forces.

Afghanistan

This judgment still rings in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which Obama has promised to escalate. Canadians are justly proud of their military contributions to the NATO mission. Since the November U.S. election, Canadian editorialists have talked about the impressive Canadian contribution as a calling card with the new administration in Washington, sure to gain a hearing and possibly even concessions for Canadian interests. The valuation of the Canadian contribution, however, is usually exaggerated because it is made from the perspective of Canada’s small (but excellent) military, and the difficulty, expense, and high casualty count relative to Canada itself.

To better understand Mr. Obama’s perspective, consider that Canada’s 2500 troops in Afghanistan represent roughly 17 percent of the total non-U.S. NATO contingent of approximately 15,000 which is deployed around Kabul and to the north and west of the country where violence levels have been lower. The United States maintained 35,000 troops in Afghanistan until recently, when an additional 30,000 were deployed to join this force. Canada’s 2500 are just 3 percent of the total Western force which Pentagon planners and most counterinsurgency and terrorism experts consider to be only half, or even a third of what will be required to achieve victory there.

President Obama has to find more troops for Afghanistan, and there is little prospect that NATO countries will provide them: Germany and France have already signaled that they are unwilling to do more for Obama than they did for Bush, and Canada has announced that it will bring its forces home in 2011. In contrast, both India and even China have suggested they might offer ground troops to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Prospects for a growing Afghan national army are improving, and NATO may provide trainers to this end; but India has already stepped forward to provide police training.

That does not devalue or diminish the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan; but it may help to explain why President Obama is unlikely to lobby the Harper government to rescind its announcement of a 2011 withdrawal

Arctic Security

In the final days of the Bush administration, a new policy statement on the arctic was issued that caught many Canadians off guard. Yet the United States has always taken Arctic security seriously, and recent challenges by Russia, along with the discovery of vast oil and gas deposits in this region, made such an update necessary.

Soon after forming a government in 2006, Prime Minister Harper announced that he intended to assert Canadian sovereignty in the north with new equipment purchases for the Canadian military. Since then, not much has happened, and the economy has soured, making the back-loaded promises for future expenditures on icebreakers and other tools for asserting a Canadian presence in the arctic look less likely than before.

Bush hoped that the US Senate would ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and that this would provide a framework for resolving outstanding territorial disputes with Canada and among other arctic nations. Bipartisan opposition to the convention in the Senate, however, prevented ratification. Bush probably also hoped that Canadian capabilities would indeed grow.

 The Obama administration understands that today, as energy firms explore arctic shipping as a faster, cheaper alternative to pipelines for bringing oil and gas to markets in the United States, Europe and Asia, the United States Navy and Coast Guard provide the only effective force in the Arctic capable of rescuing a ship, or a Russian nuclear submarine, in distress. Lower energy prices make shipping via the Northwest Passage and the Bering Strait more attractive to firms due to the capital cost of building pipelines, and the delays in getting them sited and built.

If President Obama cannot persuade the Senate to ratify UNCLOS and even if he can the responsibility for securing the Arctic will remain with the United States unless and until Canada demonstrates new capabilities in the region.

Change You Can Believe In

The new Obama administration takes office amidst soaring. Yet there is a limited opportunity for significant change to the national security policies of the Bush administration.

What can Canada do to position itself for strong national security? The first and most useful step Canadians can take is to expand their perspective beyond a Canadian-centered context, or even the familiar bilateral context. Try to view the world through American eyes in order to then weigh the value of current and prospective Canadian contributions to the crises and threats that will confront President Obama in the weeks and months ahead.

A useful second step would be to consider the health of Canada’s security capabilities. This is not solely a question of dollars spent, but a question of making strategic investments and getting value for security expenditures. It is undeniable that the most important contribution Canada has made, and will make, toward US and allied security in the struggle against terrorism is its efforts to secure Canada itself. Upgrading Canada’s capabilities in domestic security, intelligence and policing since September 11, 2001 has not been inexpensive and rarely receives due recognition as a vital and irreplaceable contribution.

At the same time, Canada is an oddity among US allies. Most countries have come to terms with their relative smallness when compared to the United States, and though they work to make respectable contributions to US-led security efforts and campaigns, they are realistic about what they can do. Canadians, flush with memories of outsized past contributions to international security, particularly during two world wars, expect to be treated as a junior great power. Today, Canadian military capabilities are closer to those of the Netherlands or Denmark, and cannot live up to such expectations.

This is the result of choices made by Canadian governments, and is not unalterable. Yet for now, no matter how much Americans may admire Canadian pluck, the gravity of the threats that fall on the shoulders of the US president force President Obama to maintain an unromantic, clear-eyed perspective on allies, their capabilities, and their vulnerabilities.

The Obama era has brought new opportunities for Canada. But to capitalize on these, Canada needs to attain perspective on the challenges confronting the new leader of the free world, and on what Canada could do to help him to meet them.

Related Articles

The Collective Security Treaty Organization: Past Struggles and Future Prospects

Richard Weitz

The CSTO has been expanding its defense capabilities, legal mandate, and range of missions in recent years, and has emerged as the main regional defen...

Continue Reading

Guerra en Familia

Jaime Daremblum

Un aspecto importante de la Primera Guerra Mundial fue la relación familiar y amistosa de los monarcas de las principales naciones involucradas en es...

Continue Reading