NATO: Canada in or out?

Prepared for the Canadian Pugwash Group 2018 Research Roundtable

Canada was an early advocate for NATO and a founding member of the Alliance in 1949. The military organization was perceived as an “all for one, one for all” solidarity pact (NATO’s core collective defence principle in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty), to (in the famous quip) “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. Canada pressed for inclusion of democratic and economic goals within NATO although these were secondary to defence and military security priorities. At the end of the Cold War, many saw the Alliance raison d’être as having expired along with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

Whether seen as legitimate or problematic at its founding, some now believe NATO encourages an arms race, empowers the “Military Industrial Complex” and enables solo US global dominance, while marginalizing the United Nations. NATO nuclear weapon advocacy within its strategic concept is problematic. The USA or USA/UK appear to dominate the alliance. They push for interoperability (therefore also escalation, perpetual weapons modernization, forces integration, higher military spending). Contrary to promises made, NATO expanded into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. NATO also widened its purview outside the North Atlantic and has directed the controversial (“illegal but legitimate”) Kosovo campaign and unrestrained R2P intervention into Libya. And yet NATO survives, despite the criticism. Canada seems to go along.

To create change, should Canada exit the alliance or attempt to reform it? What’s Canada’s track record?1

Joseph Levitt, in his study of earlier Lester Pearson foreign policy days,2 found there were “few instances of Canada disagreeing publicly with the United States” over arms policy. Equally, however, the Department of External Affairs believed that “Canada was perfectly free to develop its own policies.” Their similarity with United States policy “reflected a common appreciation of the strategic situation.” While Canada distanced itself from the US over a variety of topics, including the economic role of NATO, the Korean War, and China policy, it appears that on primary issues of defence and security, “there simply was no room for fundamental disagreement between Canada and the allies.” And in the defence of North America, or towards disarmament and arms control, “[t]here was no scope for a truly independent contribution.” Some in the late 1960s also believed that NATO provided an avenue to pursue disarmament objectives. Being outside NATO, it was argued, would reduce Canada’s ability to influence policy in this arena.3

Levitt saw Canada as a “junior partner”, not an equal or middle power, in nuclear negotiations. This was driven by “political and philosophical agreement with the goals set by the United States and a commitment to assist in their achievement” – essentially to “help the American-led Western alliance succeed in its strategy of compelling the Soviet Union to negotiate.” For Pearson concern was over Soviet aggression, and not so much about American hegemony or overstretch (which he also criticized). In Levitt’s view, Canada did not believe disarmament was possible, while Western power was a genuine deterrent, and strengthening US capacity “at the expense of the Soviet Union” was the road to peace.

Erika Simpson, in her survey of Canadian belief systems, separated foreign policy defenders from critics. She found that the “perimeters of the debate were limited, perhaps because politicians and bureaucrats assumed there was not much room during the Cold War for a middle power such as Canada to manoeuvre.”4 This held true from Diefenbaker through Pearson to Pierre Trudeau and Mulroney, onwards. While John Diefenbaker opposed American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, he did not oppose nuclear weapons on Alliance soil (i.e. elsewhere). Pearson permitted Bomarc missiles to stay in Canada, seeing it as a loyalty pledge to the US and Alliance. Trudeau challenged the nuclear weapons powers’ arsenals with his 1983-84 peace initiative and strategy of suffocation (1978)5 but allowed testing of cruise missiles and did not advocate Canada exit NATO itself. He pressed for removal of Canadian troops from Europe and eventually compromised within Cabinet by agreeing to cut those forces in half. Changes in commitments to NATO were debated, but not “the advantages of outright withdrawal.” Defenders were less ambiguous, Simpson wrote, and “perceived the external threat to the Alliance as aggressive and opportunistic, deterrence was deemed eminently suitable. Moreover, because they saw the Alliance’s weapons and strategies as necessary or defensive, they considered deterrence doctrine appropriate. Confronted with information that conflicted with their belief system, they resorted to various kinds of denial.”

Advocates for change within the Department of National Defence, (such as Progressive Conservative Defence Minister Eric Nielsen and his chief of defence staff General Gérard Thériault in the late 1980s) might try to challenge certain premises originating from the Cold War, but “without the support of the government, the opposition parties, or widespread domestic support,” wrote Peter Langille,6 they would be “running a considerable political risk. Canadians would have to expect resistance from some allies. That there would be short-term political and possibly even economic consequences could not be ruled out. But seriously debilitating retaliation was unlikely to ensue from a Canadian attempt to restructure (or even opt out of) its alliance commitments.” Still, it was difficult to avoid what Langille referred to as the defence trap. Canadian policy “became less and less tailored to national or international security requirements,” focussing instead on “the expectations of our dominant allies.”

It seemed the end of the Cold War would provide a clear opportunity to re-assess. And from 1989 to 2001, we saw an activist Canada press hard for a range of policy changes (including the Ottawa landmines treaty, the human security agenda, the child soldiers effort, soft power, the International Criminal Court, responsibility to protect doctrine, a larger role for civil society — none of these efforts, it should be emphasized, was favoured in the USA, even though supported by several other NATO members. In 1999, Axworthy/Chretien launched efforts toward NATO reform, following a 1998 House of Commons Standing Committee Report. Axworthy (and Canada, the “nuclear nag”) also had called on NATO members to fall closer in line with NPT statements.7

In 2002 and 2003, post-Axworthy and alone among NATO members, Canada registered its “yes” in support of the activist New Agenda Coalition positions calling for the faster abolition of nuclear weapons.

Then 9/11 and the War on Terror arrived and created a new enemy (and purpose) for NATO and the West.

NATO decision-making

When it comes to reforming NATO or blocking bad policy from within, such as the alliance calling for the launch of nuclear weapons, there are real challenges to navigate. One is whether NATO needs to be “reformed”, and if so, can it be? A separate concern is whether defenders or critics desire reform. Some critics want NATO immediately abolished. They want Canada “out” of the Alliance, not within it trying to repair or enhance it. Some defenders on the other hand want NATO fixed, not eliminated; other defenders are fine with NATO as it is. There is a concern, too, about NATO as an institution pushing back, through recourse to ally loyalty or by coercion. For example, when the newly conceived Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was gaining momentum, both the US administration and NATO leadership worked to constrain alliance members from signing on.8 For some activists, this was predictable behaviour; but for others, this was the final straw.

The political pressure to “get along” inside NATO is real, but there are several examples of NATO members objecting or dissenting. For example:

  1. France’s decision to stay outside the Integrated Military Structure (1966), the Defence Planning Committee and Nuclear Planning Group;
  2. In 2003, Belgium, France, Germany and (initially) Luxembourg “balked” when the US Permanent Representative to NATO requested member states be prepared to defend fellow member Turkey in the event of an attack from Iraq. This was in the context of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which had been a US/UK operation which failed to win a United Nations Security Council endorsement;
  3. During the Kosovo conflict and the 1999 air campaign;
  4. Concerns about alliance enlargement after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Policy challenges or abstention by members accommodating domestic concerns, have included formal footnoting of NATO communiqués, such as Denmark and others have done.9 However, the primary dissent option for members challenging proposed NATO action is the right to “break silence”. NATO is not a monolith with one single position that is always shared by all. Sometimes member states lead cheers from the sidelines but do not commit troops or treasure.10 As Leo Michel outlines, “the North Atlantic Treaty does not specify how collective decisions are to be made, with one exception: the Article 10 provision that ‘unanimous agreement’ is necessary to invite a state to join the Alliance. Absent any explicit voting procedure, NATO has developed a set of customary practices.”11

This is how it works: Draft proposals are circulated by the Secretary General who chairs the North Atlantic Council. Discussions and consultations ensure. Where Permanent Representatives “cannot provide their respective national positions”, the chair can circulate a draft proposal “under a silence procedure”. If no written objection is received by deadline, the proposal is considered approved. “As a rule, NATO does not publicly identify which countries break silence, although national positions may be leaked to the press (sometimes by the country breaking silence) if the issue is contentious.” Michel notes that because NATO is an alliance of sovereign states and not a supranational body, decisions are “the expression of the collective will of its member governments, arrived at by common consent. Under the rule, no Ally can be forced to approve a position or take an action against its will. This is especially important for decisions on the potential use of military force”, although NATO makes thousands of consensus-based decisions each year.12 13

There are discussions about changing the decision-making process, such as towards committees of contributors (rewarding active NATO members) or possibly a switch from consensus to a 2/3 majority — because of concerns about needing to quickly agree on policy with 29 member states, about double the original alliance size. But as it now stands, a single state breaking silence — saying “no” — is sufficient to block a decision. That letter or objection can be offered within a working group (such as was considered in the 1990s to determine responsibilities for peace operations in Bosnia),14 or within the Defence Planning Committee, or the Military Committee, the Nuclear Planning Group, or at the North Atlantic Council (where important strategic issues are generally decided.)

In other words, there are plenty of avenues for complaints, and a single method exists — breaking the silence — which can block an action that is unacceptable to even a single member state — assuming the will to do so exists. But Canada standing up to NATO (such as against a proposed NATO military intervention, or against retaining an active nuclear weapons posture) will be influenced by support within caucus or the political party in power, by elite influence and by public opinion. There are also significant institutional pressures (US influence and leadership; the defence lobby, loyalty to allies, a belief in multilateralism, differing perceptions of security.) In the eyes of several former Soviet satellite and Eastern European states now comprising almost half of NATO’s membership,15 uppermost for them is the perceived (some would say manufactured) threat of a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin.16

Public opinion: In Canada, public opinion polls show consistently broad support for the Alliance, even when Canadians strongly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. This year, a Canadian Armed Forces Tracking Study17 revealed that 88% of Canadians believe NATO is important for Canadian security,18 although there was also a clear preference for non-combat roles, humanitarian and “peace support” missions. 63% strongly agree NATO membership is important for Canadian security. 25% somewhat agreed. Only 3% strongly disagreed, with 3% somewhat disagreeing. This compares to 62% strongly agreeing in 2016 and 59% in 2014. If anything, support for NATO has likely marginally increased.

A 2008 Environics/The Simons Foundation poll19 found a very strong belief that nuclear weapons made the world more dangerous and should be eliminated (88%). Nevertheless, and probably due to a trust in nuclear deterrence, a majority (54%) believe Canada is “a safer country because of NATO’s nuclear capability.”

This compares to an Angus Reid poll sponsored by the Canadian Peace Alliance in 1998,20 which found that “75% of Canadians say that the existence of nuclear weapons make the world a more dangerous place.” Canadians were “almost unanimous” in the belief that Canada should take a leading role in eliminating nuclear weapons. However, at the same time, “a slight majority (55%) support[ed] Canada’s membership in military alliances, such as NATO, which include nuclear weapons in their military strategies. Forty-two percent oppose Canada’s membership in such alliances.” This was almost identical to the result of the 2008 poll. It was also noted in 1998 that polls had typically shown Canadian support for membership in NATO to “hover near 70%” when the context of nuclear weapons was not included in survey questions.

Across ages, gender, and even political party affiliations, the public does not appear to support a quick exit from NATO. A little more than half are OK with a nuclear-armed NATO. Therefore, any mainstream political party could risk a political backlash if calling for Canada to leave the Alliance. The New Democratic Party, which has had an anti-NATO plank for years, removed the call to quit NATO from its policy handbook. Even in Quebec, where opposition to NATO is strongest, the (provincial) Parti Québécois supports remaining in NATO. The leftist Québec Solidaire passed two resolutions in 2017: one excluding participation “in international bodies contributing to militarism and to interventionism without a UN mandate”, and the second unambiguously calling for “Canada’s immediate withdrawal from NATO and NORAD.”21

Within the Canadian peace movement, when a preference is solicited, the traditional position has supported Canada withdrawing from NATO (and NORAD), although several influential groups have chosen to not take a position on exit/remain because they see the subject as too divisive. In 2017, Canadian Pugwash Group agreed to a resolution calling on Canada to use its influence within NATO to help end reliance on nuclear deterrence in its strategic concept. Although that position was widely agreed, particularly within the umbrella network focussed on nuclear weapons (Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), a small number of groups would not endorse a broader civil society defence policy statement after it had been updated,22 in large part because they felt calling on Canada to work to change NATO policies, without also explicitly calling for an exit from NATO, violated their own position on NATO.23


Canada is closely aligned with the United States and several Western allies and following the Second World War this led to the creation of NATO. Policy-makers, politicians and the public believed that the Soviet Union posed a real threat. Post-Cold War, the war on terror replaced the former Soviet threat, just as NATO membership doubled. Canada has on occasion expressed independent positions within NATO, such as during the Pierre Trudeau disarmament effort in 1983-4, and in support for the New Agenda Coalition positions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Still, reform of NATO’s postures (be they nuclear deterrence or problem interventions) is difficult. Pressing for reform by “breaking silence” would seem to be a coherent, although imperfect, procedure. It’s just that NATO members haven’t been keen on blocking consensus, and that includes Canada. An immediate exit from NATO is what some activists want. That seems unpalatable to much of the voting public, and by a wide margin, as public opinion polling data repeatedly show. Is it possible to still agree that Canada in all forums, at all times, should at minimum more consistently push for meaningful change?


1 The author of this essay agrees with many others that NATO should have been dissolved at the end of the Cold War, thereby encouraging the UN to step up and establish its own capability and make regional military alliances obsolete. That didn’t happen. One can foresee the rise of an expanded OSCE to displace NATO — from Vancouver to Vladivostok – if that is helpful. Meantime, NATO members could and should obstruct bad or dangerous NATO policy and actions.

2 Joseph Levitt, Pearson and Canada’s Role in Nuclear Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations, 1945-1957, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

3 Ross Campbell, Canadian ambassador to NATO in 1969, informed the Department of External Affairs that “NATO is performing important functions in the arms control and disarmament field […] We have, in fact, been doing so, and in subjects which have a far more direct bearing on present peace than the long term activities” of the Conference on Disarmament. (Albert Legault, Michel Fortmann, A Diplomacy of Hope: Canada and Disarmament, 1945-1988. McGill-Queen’s, 1982: page 434.

4 Erika Simpson, NATO and the Bomb, Canadian Defenders Confront Critics, McGill-Queen’s Press, 2001: Pages 215-230.

5 See, for instance, the paper by Paul Meyer:

6 Peter Langille, Changing the Guard, Canada’s Defence in a World in Transition, University of Toronto Press, 1990.


8 In addition to other efforts, NATO issued this statement:

9 Nikolaj Petersen (2012) ‘Footnoting’ as a political instrument: Denmark’s NATO policy in the 1980s, Cold War History, 12:2, 295-317, DOI: 10.1080/14682745.2011.558176 See as example a footnote by Denmark and Greece: “Denmark and Greece reserve their positions on INF.“

10 See for instance the limited NATO deployments in Estonia, Latvia and Poland.

11 Leo Michel, NATO Decisionmaking: How the “Consensus Rule” Works, CIRR, January-June 2006.

12 Michel, page 8.

13 The NATO Charter’s Articles 1,5,7,9 and 12 also specifically defer to the UN Security Council or to “refraining from the threat or use of force inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

14 Paul Gallis, NATO’s Decision-Making Process, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 5, 2003.

15 Not counting NATO partners.

16 A 2017 Pew poll found worldwide distrust of Putin but low fear of Russian power as a major threat.

17 Views of the Canadian Armed Forces 2018 Tracking Study Research Report, Earnscliffe Strategy Group, 2018.

18 It must be acknowledged that NATO being “important” is not the same as NATO being “good” for Canadian security.

19 This was similar to the 2007 poll data for Germany, Italy, Israel, the USA, France and Great Britain.

20 “CANADIANS ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS: A POLL BY THE CANADIAN PEACE ALLIANCE.” Peace Research, vol. 30, no. 2, 1998, pp. 21–26. JSTOR, JSTOR,

22 The updated (2018) version of the Group of 78/Rideau Institute statement, “A shift to sustainable peace and common security” added this language: “Canada should sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and state that it will, through dialogue and changes to its own policies and practices, persist in efforts to bring NATO into conformity with the Treaty, with a view to Canada’s ratification as soon as possible.” Both the original (2016) and updated (2018) versions of the statement included this language: “Accordingly, it is urgent that Canada re-enter and re-vitalize the debate within NATO on the role of nuclear weapons with a view to agreeing to their removal from Europe as a first step towards NATO adopting a deterrent posture that is not reliant on and excludes nuclear weapons.”

23 The CNANW “Call”, signed by almost 80 groups, reads in part, (based on the Canadian Pugwash Group resolution of 2017): “We call on the Government of Canada to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and to state that Canada will, through dialogue and changes to its own policies and practices, persist in its efforts to bring NATO into conformity with the Treaty, with a view to Canada ratifying the Treaty as soon as possible.”