Academic journal article International Journal

Reinventing NATO: Canada and the Multilateralization of Detente, 1962-1966

Academic journal article International Journal

Reinventing NATO: Canada and the Multilateralization of Detente, 1962-1966

Article excerpt

The authors are researchers at the Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. They would like to thank Andreas Wenger and S. Victor Papacosma for their helpful comments on earlier drafts and Greg Donaghy and Ted Kelly of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for their generous assistance during their research stay in Ottawa. They owe special gratitude to Beth Fischer for encouraging them to submit this article.


With the evolution of detente after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the cold war consensus within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was endangered. In times of diminishing fear, some members, particularly Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, increasingly questioned both the future of NATO and American leadership in it. For Paul Martin, Canada's secretary of state for external affairs at the time, Canada had 'a vital stake in the welfare of the Alliance.' He concluded that the Atlantic alliance provided 'a framework in which Canada is able to play a useful independent role as a responsible middle power.'(1) For a 'responsible middle power,' the challenge in the 1960s was double-edged - how to pursue detente without jeopardizing alliance cohesion.

We argue that Canada, together with several 'small allies,' was in the vanguard in advancing within NATO the understanding that a multilateral East-West detente was not only necessary but also that it would benefit the Western powers. In NATO's search for new legitimacy in an age of detente, Ottawa campaigned for transforming NATO from a purely military defence organization into an instrument for peace.

In general, the literature on Canada and NATO pays relatively little attention to the years in which Lester B. Pearson was prime minister (1963-8).(2) However, we show that those years not only provide valuable insights into Canadian foreign policy in a period of transition, but offer an attractive topic from an alliance perspective. Patterned habits of Canadian foreign policy - such as its proverbial internationalism - did prevail but did not preclude attempts at alliance reform and change. Rather, we argue, Canada combined alliance policies with the promotion of detente in an imaginative way that in the event proved viable when NATO ministers agreed on the landmark Harmel report in 1967.

As a middle power, Canada in the 1960s chose to work the NATO connection - the multilateral angle - to advance the core concerns of its foreign policy.(3) Canada had been present at the creation of the alliance; it now pressed for the transformation of the alliance in times of detente.


The outcome of the Cuban missile crisis marked an important watershed in the cold war. Stepping back from the brink, the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and the Soviet leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, seemed ready to discuss major East-West problems, particularly disarmament questions.(4) At the NATO ministerial meeting in Paris in December 1962, however, the United States secretary of state, Dean Rusk, noted a 'certain division of opinion about the desirability of broad East-West negotiations' among NATO governments.(5) On the one hand, Canada's secretary of state for external affairs, Howard Green, saw 'renewed hope of a East-West settlement of major issues.' His Italian, Belgian, Norwegian, and Danish colleagues agreed that the West should move fast to negotiate with the USSR from a position of strength. On the other hand, several other foreign ministers could not imagine negotiating with Moscow in the near future when Khrushchev had so recently deceived the West by secretly installing missiles on Cuba.(6) While Green later claimed that he had seldom encountered as much friendliness toward Canada as at that meeting,(7) Washington increasingly regretted having tolerated 'the essentially neurotic Canadian view of the world and of the Canadian role' during the tenure of the government of John Diefenbaker in 1958-63. …

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