National Column: Canada’s return to NATO’s front line has air of familiarity to it

by Paul Wells

And so Canadian soldiers are heading back to Europe.

Times change and the world, despite a steady drumbeat of appalling headlines, is safer for us than for our parents. So the deployment of 450 Canadian Forces troops to Latvia won’t be nearly as formidable as the deployment to West Germany – often more than 10 times larger – that was Canada’s defining military commitment for 42 years through the Cold War.

But the purpose is wearyingly similar. To deter military adventures dictated from Moscow. To safeguard NATO’s integrity, both as a territory on a map and as the muscle of western democracy. To fight and die, in the almost inconceivable event that worse comes to worst, and by their deaths to draw other western troops into a battle the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen in most of a century.

And, in the meantime, to show Canada’s most important allies that Canada stands up when asked. At least, often enough.

It’s fashionable to decry the long decline in Canadian military spending that began a few years into the Afghanistan conflict. But whenever I’ve asked NATO leaders, including the alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, they are quick to draw a distinction.

They do wish Canada would double its defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, NATO’s preferred benchmark. But at the same time, they recognize that Canada almost always uses its military in meaningful ways within the alliance, whereas other allies sometimes leave their burgeoning armies and glistening kit parked.

There are 28 NATO members. Only four will be “framework nations” leading multinational battle groups along the alliance’s eastern frontier: The United States in Poland, Britain in Estonia, Germany in Lithuania, and our gang in Latvia, which, incidentally is blessed with one of Europe’s loveliest capitals, Riga. Furloughs for Canadian troops over there will not be unpleasant.

That the deployment – announced Friday at the Warsaw NATO summit and scheduled to begin next year – is the work of a Liberal prime minister often dismissed by his opponents as a high school teacher should come as little surprise.

First, foreign policy is dictated more by events than by party stripe. If Stephen Harper had been prime minister in 2001 and Jean Chr√ątien in 2006, the history of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan would have been little different. (Iraq might have been a different matter. Individual decisions do count at the margin.) NATO was launched while Louis St. Laurent, a courtly Quebec City Liberal, was prime minister.

The lessons of war, and the perilous near-collapse of Western Europe’s ability to defend itself, made the need for transatlantic alliance too obvious to ignore.

Second, this is turning into Justin Trudeau’s season for making progress on files normally seen as Liberal weak spots.

On foreign affairs and national security, the tempo of events has ensured that, only eight months after his first overseas trips as prime minister last autumn, he has become an experienced summiteer. The prime minister’s detractors in Canada remain apoplectic at the sight of crowds lining up for photos with Trudeau, but Trudeau’s colleagues remain happy to see him and eager to get into the frame.

He will always face criticism for pulling CF-18s out of Iraq and Syria, but the Americans continue to say he has increased Canada’s contribution to the multinational effort against Daesh. Because, in terms of the number of soldiers in the theatre, he has. Now comes this concrete contribution to the latest chapter in NATO’s founding mission, protecting Europe. Canadian prime ministers often come to the job with almost no foreign policy experience – since the mid-1960s, the biggest exception has been Jean Chretien, a former external affairs minister. They learn by doing. It’s happening to the new guy, too.

On the economy, Trudeau’s plan to pay for infrastructure spending by borrowing big at low interest rates may be even more popular in the headquarters of the global elite than it is at home. This week The Economist noted that the International Monetary Fund and the G20 have both praised the infrastructure plan. Both are indulgent about the deficits that go with it.

In the New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman wondered why the U.S. Congress can’t meet the
challenges of the day with “just common sense – like governments borrowing money at near zero interest to invest in much-needed infrastructure.” That’s what Trudeau is doing.

Stephen Harper used to call Trudeau’s economics “unicorns and rainbows,” and his approach to foreign policy worse than that. But on the global stage, Trudeau is having a good summer.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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