Transatlantic Briefing No. 2-07

The Senate of Canada’s Caveat on Caveats

‘Some of our allies are doing a lot of saluting, but not much marching.  So what does that say about the future of NATO?’ – Senate of Canada, February, 2007.

Threatening to abandon allies is as old as military alliances themselves.  Thus, the Senate of Canada’s recent proposal to withdraw the Canadian military contribution from Afghanistan is best viewed not as a serious threat, but rather as an attempt to signal growing impatience with the unwillingness of several key allies to share the combat burden in the country’s more dangerous parts. 

In Canada’s case, it would not be the first time leverage was sought through threats of abandonment.  In 1973, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, warned that domestic public opinion might compel Ottawa to reevaluate its commitment to NATO if the U.S.-‘EEC Nine’ consultative axis emerging at the time continued to exclude Canada from transatlantic negotiations.

The Senate’s interim report called, inter alia, for quantitative and qualitative changes in NATO deployments in Afghanistan.  If the Alliance does not deliver both in terms of increasing the number and changing the locations of personnel, then, the report concludes, Ottawa should give serious consideration to withdrawing by the end of the current commitment.  In particular, France and Germany are singled out as two commitment-capable member countries perceived to be not sharing the combat burden.

The position the new leader of the Liberal party, Stéphane Dion, announced on 22 February adopts the thinking of the Senate report.  Dion declared that if he forms a government he will remain committed to the current two-year deployment but will terminate the Kandahar phase of involvement in Afghanistan after 2009.  For Dion, signalling unequivocally the intention to terminate the Kandahar role appears to be the way to concentrate NATO minds on finding volunteers to replace the Canadian force.   

The government of Stephen Harper will not see the Senate’s proposal as a feasible option.  Ottawa has invested immense political capital in the commitment to Afghanistan.  Indeed, Afghanistan has emerged as the cornerstone of Canada’s international security policy; it is linked to a wide array of policy areas, from securing ‘failed states’ to confronting threats to national security as far from Canadian territory as possible.  Afghanistan policy is a key component both of Canada’s contribution to NATO and its relations with the U.S.

We can therefore expect a continuation of Canadian efforts to urge member countries to remove restrictive rules of engagement and redeploy their forces in-theatre to serve alongside American, British, Canadian, and Dutch contingents in southern Afghanistan.  At the defence ministerial meeting last September, Canada urged these and other countries based in the south to put pressure on countries with caveats in order to encourage the latter to rethink their policies.  In the lead-up to the Riga Summit, Harper and Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, lobbied jointly for a removal of national restrictions.  The lobbying took place in conjunction with the public efforts of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to persuade members to remove caveats and redeploy personnel.

Whilst U.S. President Bush’s recent announcement of a plan to send an American brigade to Afghanistan will come as a relief in Ottawa after successive failed attempts to have NATO members contribute to the south in significant numbers, the American decision will do little to change the perception in some Canadian circles that some allies are more allied than others.  The current woes of the Romano Prodi government, in part precipitated by a parliamentary vote on deploying Italian forces to Afghanistan, highlight just how politically difficult it will be to secure contributions.     

Kristian A. Kennedy
London School of Economics and Political Science

This commentary is the personal view of the author and does not reflect the corporate view of RUSI.



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