Domesticating NATO: Canada and the North Atlantic Alliance, 1963-68

Article excerpt

FOR THE GENERATION OF POLITICIANS AND DIPLOMATS who shaped Canadian foreign policy in the early years of the cold war, membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a source of pride and reassurance. Canada had played an important role in negotiating the North Atlantic Treaty in 1948-9 in response to the Soviet Union's aggressive posturing in postwar Europe. As the cold war intensified with the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950, Canada contributed materially to transforming what was still an insubstantial alliance into a formidable reality. Within a few years, a Canadian brigade group was stationed in Germany, and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons were sent to France. At the peak of the Canadian effort in 1953-4, Canada provided its European allies with $300 million in mutual aid. With the fourth largest defence budget among the allies, Canada wielded a disporportionate influence.(f.1)

However, the new alliance was not simply a military coalition. Underpinning the Canadian attachment to NATO was a belief that the economic and social co-operation promised in the treaty's second article - tagged the 'Canadian article' in view of Ottawa's strenuous efforts to include it in the final treaty - was both desirable and possible. The more idealistic members of the Department of External Affairs argued that NATO would bolster Canada's economic and political ties with Europe, in the process creating a north Atlantic solidarity that would help contain the worst excesses of American unilateralism and allow Canada to escape 'the solitary embrace of the United Stares.'(f.2)

Historian, Historical Section, Corporate Communications Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa.

I would like to thank John English and Norman Hillmer for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. The views expressed in it are mine alone.

The reality rarely matched the rhetoric, but by the late 1950s the discrepancy between the two was uncomfortably obvious to even the most sanguine observer. The revival of war-torn Europe, changes in nuclear strategy, and the relative decline in cold war tensions combined to create strains in the alliance and raise questions about its continued relevance. For the government in Ottawa, framing a response to these challenges was made more difficult by the changing nature of the policy-making environment in Canada during this period.(f.3) The Cuban missile crisis and the public debate in Canada over equipping Canadian forces with nuclear weapons suddenly transformed foreign policy into a subject too important to be left to the experts. As the decade progressed, the constraints placed on Canadian policy-makers by an engaged public grew more complicated. The war Washington waged in Vietnam provoked disturbing doubts about Canada's relationship with the United States and its military alliances. Canadian nationalists, anxious to differentiate their society from that of their southern neighbour, pressed the government to reduce defence expenditures and to spend greater sums on new social programmes. Nationalists in Quebec, whose aspirations had been unleashed by the province's move to modernize its economic and social life, assailed a foreign policy that had too often failed to reflect the bilingual and bicultural nature of Canadian federalism.

These competing international and domestic imperatives pushed Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and his secretary of state for external affairs, Paul Martin, in very different directions. While the two shared a common faith in NATO's continuing value as a deterrent to communist aggression and as a counterweight to the United States, they differed profoundly over how to ensure the alliance's future relevance. Alert to the possibilities implied by the relaxation of East-West tensions and in response to domestic pressures for change, Pearson saw the pursuit of detente as a new and politically invigorating role for the alliance. …