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NATO does not, and never did, ‘defend’ democracy

The alliance is not only a hazard to peace, it is a threat to democratic institutions

Canadian PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

NATO advocates frequently ignore the alliance’s ties to undemocratic regimes and its efforts to silence its critics, writes Yves Engler. Photo from Flickr.

A secretive alliance Canadians never voted to join that requires this country to defend faraway lands and funnel ever greater resources to warfare is typically presented by the media and politicians as a tool of democracy. Yet, very often, pro-NATO propagandists frequently ignore the alliance’s ties to undemocratic regimes and its one-time effort to topple the government in Ottawa.

As a result of a decision made at a private NATO get-together a decade ago, Canadians have been told incessantly that we must spend ever more public resources on the war machine. At the alliance’s recent summit in Lithuania, members determined the two percent of GDP threshold should now be considered the “floor” for military spending.

For three quarters of a century Canada has deployed troops abroad nearly constantly to fulfill its obligations under the permanent war alliance. NATO is the reason why Ottawa recently announced plans to double its forces in Latvia, a small Baltic country few could locate on a map. Prior to what is turning into a semi-permanent deployment to that region, 100,000 Canadian troops were stationed in western Europe over 42 years. When that deployment ended in 1993 a significant contingent of Canadian troops were then sent to the Balkans on a NATO mission, which climaxed with the 78-day bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Even further afield, Canadian troops occupied Afghanistan for 13 years to fulfill our “duty” to the alliance. Our soldiers have also recently been deployed to Iraq to mete out NATO violence there.

Discussion on the “permanent war” alliance began in March 1948 when Lester Pearson represented Canada at top-secret talks with British and US officials on the possibility of creating a North Atlantic alliance. A year later NATO came into existence with 12 founding members. No referendum was held to ask Canadians if we should join the militarist pact.

Indeed, Canadians were never polled to determine their support for Portugal’s fascist government. For two decades António Salazar ruled that founding NATO member country and between 1967 and 1974 another alliance member was led by a military junta that usurped power from Greece’s left. In 1997 the Czech Republic was set to hold a referendum on joining NATO, but it was scrapped when the “no” vote looked set to win. Two years later NATO officials accepted that country into the alliance without a vote.

As NATO expanded during the 1990s Canadians were not given the opportunity to voice their concerns. Nor were members of Parliament. The government simply agreed to defend an ever expanding constellation of states without any debate in the House of Commons.

When NATO promoted Ukraine’s accession to the alliance in 2008 most Ukrainians opposed joining. Subsequently, NATO countries supported the ouster of elected President Viktor Yanukovych who passed legislation codifying Ukrainian neutrality. Over the past 18 months Canada has given more than $8 billion in aid to Ukraine partly as a result of these decisions.

Unbeknownst to most Canadians, NATO was employed by Washington to topple the government in Ottawa. When Prime Minister John Diefenbaker didn’t provide unconditional support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, US President John F. Kennedy used NATO as part of a multifaceted effort to precipitate the downfall of his minority Conservative government. On January 3, 1963, the outgoing commander of NATO, US General Lauris Norstad, came to Ottawa on an unplanned visit in which he claimed Canada would not be fulfilling her commitments to the alliance if the country did not acquire nuclear warheads. It was part of a series of moves by the Kennedy administration to weaken Diefenbaker, which led to the fall of his government. During the subsequent election campaign, Kennedy’s top pollster, Lou Harris, helped longtime external affairs official Lester Pearson defeat Diefenbaker.

Later on in the century, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau complained that NATO determined “all” of Canada’s defence planning, initiating a review of our foreign policy that questioned participation in the alliance. Horrified, Pearson immediately asked to discuss the issue with Trudeau and External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp. It was the only time the “deep state” NATO instigator got involved in government business after retiring. No government has openly questioned the alliance since.

Within the CCF/NDP, too, no subject has elicited more undemocratic behaviour from the leadership than NATO. Over many years party officials sought to suppress members pushing for withdrawal. On one occasion, CCF leader MJ Coldwell threatened to resign if members did not support the alliance. When a group of Manitoba CCF members, including individuals elected to the provincial legislature, organized an anti-NATO group the provincial secretary blocked their access to the party’s mailing list. Federal MP and future party leader, Stanley Knowles, also intervened to pressure the Manitoba CCF to punish prominent opponents of NATO. The provincial party subsequently expelled two former members of the Manitoba legislature for campaigning against the organization.

After two decades of seeking to kneecap grassroots criticism, NDP members finally overcame the subterfuge at the 1969 convention, winning a resolution calling on Ottawa to withdraw from NATO. However, without any vote this position was partially reversed by the 1980s. When members have submitted resolutions critical of NATO at recent NDP conventions, the motions have been bureaucratically buried.

Today critics of NATO are derided as “Russian stooges,” “pro-Putin” apologists, and “tankies.” Anti-war activists who hold public events that are critical of the alliance are even targeted for shutdown.

Its record demonstrates that NATO is not a consensual, popular alliance to defend democracy. NATO is not only a hazard to peace, it is also a threat to democracy.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


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