Since 2006, Canadian foreign policy has taken a decisive turn towards a more national-interest based orientation. The chief ingredients of this realist turn are twofold. First, Ottawa has committed nearly its entire expeditionary capacity to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar and has risen from a NATO backbencher to a top-tier fighting ally. The Canadian government has dramatically increased defence spending. The defence budget for 2009 is nearly $20 billion, the fourth year in a row of strong increases. There is still much wanting in the budget, but the free fall of the 1990s has been stopped. Second, Canada has taken a pragmatic and constructive approach in its relationship with the United States. It has sought to anchor its economic security in deeper trade integration as well as boosting its commitment to the control and defence of the Arctic region.

The revolution in Canadian foreign policy is not irreversible. Current economic woes will likely slow down growth in defence spending. Some temporary lessening of the burden for Canadian troops and materiel in Kandahar will be needed. The government of Stephen Harper may be replaced by a Liberal government under Michael Ignatieff. Canada’s profile in soft power and the UN multilateralist agenda may go up again.

Still, one factor is unlikely to change and that is Canada’s interest in a well-functioning NATO. The Alliance is the international forum in which we have good influence on our allies and in which we have earned credibility. It is also the best venue to work closely with the Americans. The future of NATO matters a lot to Canadian interests.

In this article, I want to address several of NATO’s key challenges on missions, methods and membership. I offer a realist or conservative agenda for NATO to meet these challenges. My purpose is to sharpen Canada’s understanding of what interests we should pursue through NATO.

Global in reach, limited in purpose
At the Strasbourg-Kehl summit this year, NATO leaders will likely launch a quest for a new Alliance Strategic Concept. Caution and modest expectations are warranted. First, NATO’s core mission, the collective defence of its members, has been shown to be relevant and timely again in light of Russia’s turn away from democratic development at home and its turn towards geopolitical influence in its near abroad. The problem is not that Russia plans to invade the West, but that NATO must secure its newest and aspiring members from being forced into a Russian zone of influence. In the 1990s, it looked as if security threats were simply migrating, first to the Balkans and then to Asia. Now we see that NATO faces core defence threats both in Europe and out of area.

Second, NATO’s coherence in word and deed is always a function of the underlying international security challenge. It will not be pre-determined by the words in any new Alliance Strategic Concept. In operations such as ISAF, there will always be an element of “coalitions of the willing” and an informal division of tasks.

Third, NATO’s weakness is not its charter or strategy, but the relative dearth of expeditionary forces and military capability among most of its continental European members. A new political agreement cannot change that reality.

What should a new Alliance strategy contain? It should not try to enumerate specific threats – and thereby exclude future contingencies. It should also not impose a single model for running NATO operations. NATO military operations should not be limited in terms of geography, but they should be limited in scope and focus. They should be limited to attacks or threats against the territory, national security or vital interests of one or more of the members.

NATO should not define its threats in terms of general global crises or in terms of humanitarianism or the right to protect or to fix any failed state. Potential conflicts about food, water, migration and climate change or energy security as suggested by the Global Trends 2025 report are not by definition NATO’s business unless a member is directly attacked or threatened.

Russia relations: cold war ‘lite’
NATO must remain the primary forum for security and defence consultations among allies in dealing with Russia. A separate European Union-Russia security accord – no matter how lofty its principles – will be used by Moscow to drive a wedge in Allied solidarity.

Given Russia’s military actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last summer, NATO membership has again shown its vital importance. Recently, NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, affirmed NATO’s position that Georgia and Ukraine will become members at some point, but took no specific steps in that direction.

The root of the “Cold War Lite” problem is not NATO’s membership drive or other conflicts such as over missile defence, but Moscow’s rejection of democracy and an open economy. It is Russia’s domestic politics that has turned all NATO and EU enlargement into a threat to the regime. NATO cannot give in to Russia’s demands as this will condemn various European and Asian countries to “Russia-subservient” buffer-zone status. At the same time, the Georgian crisis should not preclude resuming dialogue with Russia or cooperating in any areas where NATO interests are at stake.

NATO and Afghanistan
Every country participating in ISAF is in favour of a so-called comprehensive approach that combines security, reconstruction and democracy building. The problem is that you cannot be very comprehensive if the enemy keeps killing you. Canadian Forces have conquered and re-conquered swaths of Kandahar numerous times.

Reconstruction and civil law building can only proceed if you can conquer and hold. The peacekeeper to population ratio in Afghanistan is dangerously low, twenty times below the ratio in Kosovo under KFOR. If NATO had the same troop-to-people ratio in Afghanistan as it did in Bosnia in 1995, there would be 400,000 instead of 40,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The lesson learned in Iraq for Afghanistan is not only that a troop surge policy is needed, but also that something akin to President Bush’s tenacity is needed. Those Pashtun who can still be reconciled need first be convinced – as the Iraqi Sunnis became convinced – that they cannot get back to the status quo ante. NATO is part of that firewall. They can only get some of their interests through working with the new central government. For ISAF to do this, the supply and support for the Taliban from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas must be cut. How to do this with Pakistan and not despite Pakistan will be President Barack Obama’s and NATO’s biggest challenge.

NATO and the EU
French President Nicholas Sarkozy will likely announce the start of final negotiations for France’s return to NATO’s military structures at the upcoming summit. This should not be interpreted as the end of rivalry between NATO and the European Union about who should have pre-eminence in European defence. France left NATO’s integrated military command in the 1960s and has been the cheerleader for a separate and independent European defence policy ever since. Its return to NATO’s defence planning system will not change that. Like Quebec in Canada, France sees itself not as just another NATO member, but as a founding nation of NATO. It will always have special demands.

In practice, France’s full return to NATO’s military system will not make that much difference as France is already a very big part of it by ad hoc arrangements. France is its fifth largest financial contributor and has over 300 officers at NATO’s command structures. It participates in all key operations and increasingly so in the tough spots in Afghanistan.

The key thing to watch for is France’s conditions for returning to NATO’s command structure. If the French condition is a full-fledged military command structure for the E.U. to rival SHAPE and/or E.U. bloc status in NATO, NATO should decline France’s offer.

The best security arrangement for all allies is for NATO to be the dominant article V organization in Europe, and the dominant military organization out of area. Supplementing NATO with an intensified U.S.-E.U. dialogue as both France and Germany favour will undermine NATO and sideline allies such as Canada.

Another challenge at this point in time is Germany’s role in NATO. For every problem, it proposes the most minimalist – in military terms – solution. It is practicing a form of assertive non-militarist policy that is weakening NATO. It is hesitant about NATO expansion, continues to let its defence budget slip and punches militarily far below its weight. Meanwhile, it is calling for E.U.-Russia ties in security and energy that encroach on NATO. It is time for the allies to push back.

Neither global alliance nor a league of democracies
On paper, it would be relatively easy to turn NATO from a transatlantic alliance into a transoceanic alliance, bringing in non-European democracies such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. Allies would only have to take the word “European” out of various passages in the Washington Treaty.

However, in practice, most Asian and European members will not have enough capability or common cause to come to each other’s defence. Therefore, NATO’s global expansion would weaken its core common defence purpose.

Some American conservatives have proposed turning NATO into a League of Democracies as the new custodian of international peace and security: in effect taking the place of the United Nations Security Council. The idea that free and well-governed states should have more say in international politics than dictatorships is attractive. However, such a league is fraught with pitfalls, and ultimately not worth pursuing in the foreseeable future.

The international legal order grants states sovereignty and legal equality regardless of the quality of their government. If we go by the experience of NATO and the E.U., such a league is no guarantee for less disagreement among democracies. The U.S. would not limit its own independence in support for such a league. Downgrading China’s international status may cause it in turn to league with Russia.

What should be made clear, however, is that Contact Countries such as Australia must be given decision-making and command powers if they participate substantially in a NATO operation.

Obama’s challenge
Obama is expected to change the tone and style of America’s diplomacy in NATO and take away some of the abrasively unilateral texture that characterized the 2001-2004 period. Tone and style always matter in diplomatic relations and this will be a boost to Alliance relations.

However, the substance of Bush’s NATO policy needs little change. American policy initiatives in NATO have been helpful and have stood up in the test of time. Bush’s call for NATO enlargement in 2002 was right. The Bush administration set up of NATO’s Response Forces, the Prague capabilities initiative, and Allied Command Transformation are all worth keeping. While the administration initially declined European help in Operation Enduring Freedom, it has since changed course. It has also taken on a critical role in ISAF. The latter is the first NATO operation where a large number of U.S. forces operate under NATO command.

Obama’s caution about membership for Ukraine looks prudent. There is time for internal political development in Ukraine to make its qualification for membership stronger.

The missile defence agreements between the U.S. and Poland and the Czech Republic are awaiting Obama’s imprimatur. Given that the United Kingdom and Denmark are already participating and that NATO has agreed in principle on the need for strategic defence, and that Iran is expected to have nuclear weapons building capacity as early as next year, Obama should not roll back the agreements.

While the U.S.-E.U. institutional and diplomatic relationship continues to grow in areas such as homeland security and trade, it is important that the E.U. not encroach on NATO’s key consultation function (Article 4). There are many voices in Europe calling for “systematic high-level consultation and coordination in respect of foreign and security policy…” It is important that the Obama administration not allow more of an E.U.-U.S. dialogue at the expense of NATO. With General James Jones – who was SACEUR in 2003 – as Obama’s National Security Adviser, the new administration will start with a well-acquainted understanding of the latent competition between ESDP and NATO.

Allies anticipate a diplomatic push by Obama for more troops in Afghanistan. With the U.S. preparing to add another 20,000 to 30,000 of its own troops, European allies (and Canada) cannot just stay the course. By appointing Richard Holbrook as his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama is planning to add a strong diplomatic channel to the problem and therefore needs a strong commitment from the allies to back up efforts at credible diplomacy with both Kabul and Islamabad.

The central international security problem today is the relative economic, political and military weakness of the United States.

U.S. federal government debt will exceed 50 percent of gross national product in 2008. Unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are estimated to rise to 15 percent of GDP in 2030. The U.S. Defense budget is already consuming half of all discretionary spending. Yet, the demanding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will require more spending on military personnel and new material.

All the realistic international security models that would take the place of American dominance offer poor options for NATO members and especially for Canada.

Many times in NATO’s history, the U.S. has boosted NATO’s power, but now it is time for NATO members to rise to the challenge and support American power, not out of sentiment, but out of self and collective interest.

Alexander Moens is a professor at Simon Fraser University, Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a member of the Strategic Studies Working Group with the Canadian International Council.