Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it seems certain that the Canadian government has decided to send a battlegroup to Latvia as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. According to the CBC, ‘The deployment would be a “core” contribution, meaning that Canadians would fill the slot permanently until NATO dissolves that force … It would require the army to rotate one of its infantry battalions and a headquarters — perhaps as many as 500 troops — into the position once every six months.’
The idea of ‘Russian aggression’ is by now a given fact in security circles, and it is quite possible that the Canadian establishment really does believe that Russia poses a mortal threat to Canada’s security, and that defending Latvia is a vital national interest. But NATO’s European members have about two million people in their armed forces, plus thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and so on. 500 Canadian troops aren’t going to make a tangible difference to Latvia’s security. Canada’s leaders must be aware of this. So why are they sending troops there?
The answer lies in the peculiar notion the Canadian military industrial academic complex has that participating in such missions gives Canada ‘influence’ over its NATO allies, and in particular over the Americans. We are not actually going to Latvia because our presence will make any difference to Latvia, but because we think that being there will ingratiate us with the United States and so allow us to win some concessions from our friends on other issues which matter to us. Thus, Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman wrote in The Globe and Mail:
Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. … Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. … Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.
So, let us test this theory that participating in NATO missions gives Canada tangible and worthwhile influence over its allies.
Influence consists of getting others to do things they would otherwise not have done. So, which of their policies have our friends changed in a manner favourable to Canada as a result of its other recent military actions? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Professor Saideman is correct and Canada has had ‘more heft in NATO discussions’, resulting in minor changes in this or that paragraph of some NATO document, but not in any noticeable way which has obviously affected the lives of the average Bob or Jo in Saskatoon. The good professor expresses the hope that Canada might benefit in trade negotiations, but there is no evidence of such linkage having worked in the past. Canada’s prominent role in the war in Afghanistan didn’t help it in any way convince the Americans to make concessions on matters such as soft wood lumber and the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps somebody out there can provide a concrete example of how participation in NATO missions has helped Canada change other countries’ minds in a way which has brought significant advantage, but unless they do, one has to conclude that ‘influence’ is a largely a myth.
Canada ‘punched above its weight’ in Afghanistan, but after it announced that its troops would leave that country we told that we had to participate in the war against Libya because otherwise we would have no ‘influence’ within the NATO alliance. In other words, any gratitude earned in Afghanistan had already been forgotten. Canada then played an important role in deposing Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi; a Canadian general even led NATO’s operation. But whatever ‘influence’ that gained us apparently soon evaporated too, because very soon we were being berated for not spending enough on defence and we now have to rush into Latvia in order to restore our seemingly battered reputation as a good ally. So even if it is true that to some small extent Canada does gain influence over its allies by joining NATO missions, this influence is extraordinarily short-lived.
In any case, to need to influence somebody you have to want something different from them. If you agree with what they are doing, and don’t want to change it, influence is meaningless. And here we reach a fundamental problem with the influence theory. Most of the time, Canada doesn’t actually have a different vision of the world from that of the United States or its other NATO allies. Imagine, for instance, that we thought that NATO’s posture vis-à-vis Russia was incorrect. Perhaps, sending troops to Latvia might make our allies listen more to us when we insisted that the posture must change. But we don’t think that the posture is incorrect. We don’t want to change it. In such circumstances, ‘influence’ is useless. If anybody imagines that by sending troops to Latvia, Canada will substantially change our allies’ policies on this or any other matter of significance, they are surely deluding themselves.