As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marks its 70th anniversary this week, member states face important questions about the alliance’s future. United States President Donald Trump has questioned the place of the alliance in an “America First” world and has wavered on whether the US remains committed to fulfilling its mutual defence obligations under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
At no time in the history of the Atlantic alliance has the US commitment seemed so contingent. These concerns run deeper than Trump, however. They are reflective of a current of US opinion that has long regarded international commitments and “entangling” alliances with ambivalence. This ambivalence is rooted in an underestimation of US strategic interests in Europe and of the relevance of NATO in protecting those interests.
These questions are not new. Seventy years ago, Canada played a central and underappreciated role in countering American skepticism about the need for a US commitment to European security. While most accounts of Canadian diplomacy throughout the North Atlantic Treaty negotiations focus on Canada’s role in securing Article 2, the now-dormant provisions on social and economic cooperation, the most important and lasting Canadian diplomatic achievement involved a full-court press on reluctant American negotiators to help them to recognize US interests in a strong, treaty-based commitment to Europe.
The alliance faces similar questions today and the experience of Canadian diplomats in forging NATO holds lessons for Canada’s current efforts to support the alliance in a time of uncertainty.
A show of forceful diplomacy
By early 1948, any pretense of post-war East-West cooperation had disappeared with the elimination of non-communist forces in Central and Eastern Europe. Alarm reached a high point in February that year when a communist coup ousted democratic forces in Czechoslovakia and, two weeks later, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found dead under suspicious circumstances. Under pressure that spring, Finland signed a “friendship” pact with the Soviet Union and rumour circulated that Norway would soon face a similar proposition.
Recognizing the necessity of US military backing in countering Soviet expansionism, Canada engaged the US in a campaign to secure a treaty-based security guarantee. While defence ties would be reciprocal, all parties understood that a US commitment to Europe was really at issue. For Canadian policymakers, who had seen the US sit on the sidelines as two world wars broke out, the need for binding obligations was paramount. Canada also sought to multilateralize what would otherwise be an asymmetrical bilateral security relationship with its southern neighbour.
Building on a September 1947 speech by then-Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Louis St. Laurent, which proposed that democratic countries might pursue security through closer collaboration, Canadian negotiators began secret talks in March 1948 with the US and the United Kingdom. Despite Canadian efforts to push for an unambiguous security commitment, US negotiators warned that a unilateral declaration might be the strongest American pledge possible.
Prospects for a binding commitment took a turn for the worse when US State Department director of policy planning and senior Russia hand George Kennan argued that a US declaration of support was all that was necessary. If talks were to progress, Kennan needed to be brought onside. Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Hume Wrong, engaged Kennan, underlining the importance of a treaty for Canada. There would be little room for Canada in talks centred around a declaration. Kennan was “much impressed” and, following a visit to Ottawa, “converted” by the Canadian arguments.
Exploratory talks in July 1948, however, led to renewed questions about the US role in European security. At this stage, again, Canadian negotiators intervened. Lester Pearson, Canada’s undersecretary of state for external affairs, emerged to “give invaluable impetus to the talks,” Nicholas Henderson, a British participant in the negotiations, recalled in his book The Birth of NATO. As a North American — rather than a European — power, Canadian arguments about the importance of countering Soviet actions were given added weight. Completing a diplomatic encirclement of his US counterpart, Pearson helped persuade US negotiators to rule out a unilateral declaration. As Henderson put it, when the Americans were going backward, “the Canadians moved forwards with the courage that they were to display throughout the negotiations.”
Canadian negotiators were not out of the woods yet. Despite the re-election of US President Harry Truman in fall 1948 elections, the arrival of a new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Tom Connally, threatened progress. Connally insisted on weakening the draft treaty’s collective security provisions. Wrong re-engaged US negotiators, emphasizing the necessity of a strong pledge, especially in view of the fact that stronger versions had already been in public circulation. A retreat at such a late juncture would damage the credibility of the new alliance. Authorized to go as far as noting that Canada would re-consider its participation in the alliance if a weak version of the pledge were put forward, Wrong pressed the Canadian case. A February 1949 visit to Washington by St. Laurent, by that time prime minister, to meet Truman reinforced further Canada’s interest in the alliance.
While this last hurdle was surmounted by a personal appeal to Connally by Truman, there can be no doubt that Canada’s forceful diplomacy was an essential ingredient in maintaining pressure on the US administration. Early engagements were crucial to underlining the shared interest of North American countries in reinforcing European security and helped move US thinking away from the notion of a unilateral declaration. Canada then pushed to combat late US wavering and ensure that the security pledge was as strong as possible.
Canada, still the bridge
How do we account for Canada’s influence on these important negotiations? What lessons does this case hold today? Two lessons stand out. First, Canada’s position as the only other non-European actor in talks was important. As journalist Don Cook observed in his book Forging the Alliance: NATO, 1945-1950, “if the Canadians could perceive the need for North America to join an Atlantic Pact, could the Americans lag far behind?”
Now, as then, Canada holds a unique position within NATO and can play a valuable role in highlighting the continued importance of Europe for North American — and global — security interests.
A second source of Canadian influence on the negotiations was the fact that Canada brought real resources to the table. As Defence Minister Brooke Claxton recalled in his unpublished memoir: “We had taken a major part in the war… we had not only paid our own way [but] would certainly do so in the future.” While not a great power, Canada was expected to be a major contributor among allies. This gave added weight to Canadian concerns and ensured that they were taken seriously at the negotiating table.
While Canada has been a strong contributor to NATO operations, its bargaining leverage today is hurt by the perception that it remains a defence spending laggard. Demonstrating real progress in strengthening Canada’s defence capabilities is essential.
At its 70th anniversary, NATO faces challenges from within and without. Foremost among these is ambivalence within the current US administration. Canada has a vital interest in addressing this problem. It has been decades since NATO has been as essential to Canada’s international security interests as it is today. Heightened competition in Asia and a revanchist Russia have increased the relevance of the alliance for Canada. Russia’s election interference and its efforts to destabilize NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland threaten Canada’s global interests. NATO also represents a community of values in a period when democracy and human rights are under threat.
As it was 70 years ago, Canada is strategically positioned to counter the perception that European security is less central to the interests of North American powers. In addition to taking deliberate steps to strengthen its defence commitments, Canada is well positioned to highlight — in private and in public — the continued importance of the alliance for its non-European members.