NATO’s proponents often claim it’s a democratic force, but in Canada’s case the alliance highlights the hollowness of our democracy. A healthy polity requires vigorous debate on important issues, but no major party opposes this country’s membership in the military alliance. In fact, the social democratic NDP leadership has gone to great lengths to block members from expressing themselves on NATO.
The alliance has been in the news recently with Russia pressing NATO members to live up to their promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev regarding the reunification of Germany, an important Cold War divide. In 1990, Gorbachev agreed not to obstruct German reunification, to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from the east and for the new Germany to be part of NATO in return for assurances that the alliance would not expand “one inch eastward.” But the alliance now includes countries on Russia’s border and North American troops are stationed there.
In response to Moscow’s push to stunt its growing encirclement by NATO, former deputy secretary-general of the alliance Rose Gottemoeller told the Financial Times, “Nato is not going to change its policy on enlargement, period. It is part of NATO’s DNA.”
The Russians are understandably fearful of an alliance that bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in the 2000s and destroyed Libya in 2011. It should be remembered that tens of millions of Russians were killed during two European wars last century.
In official politics Canadian participation in NATO is taken for granted. Canada’s 2017 defence policy statement, Strong, Secure, Engaged, doesn’t attempt to make the case for NATO. Instead, it simply asserts the importance of the alliance without question.
That’s not the case in some European countries that face a far greater threat from Russia than Canada. Finland and Sweden’s governing parties oppose their countries joining NATO. Recently, left-wing French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the last election, reiterated his call for France to withdraw from NATO.
Meanwhile in Canada, who is offering a voice to those who question NATO? Not the NDP.
“New Democrats support the NATO mission in Latvia and are proud to see Canadian Forces taking a lead role in promoting stability in the Baltic region,” noted a party spokesperson three months ago. The party leadership even wants Ukraine to join NATO. In April, MP and now foreign affairs critic, Heather McPherson said:
The NDP will continue to strongly support Ukraine’s bid to join the MAP [Membership Action Plan] program and we have and will continue to push the government to advocate for this with our NATO allies. That Prime Minister Trudeau and [Foreign Affairs] Minister [Marc] Garneau have been unwilling to explicitly state their support for Ukraine’s bid and their failure to adequately support the bid via advocacy efforts and multi-lateral diplomacy is very disturbing.
It’s worth remembering that in 2011 the NDP voted to support NATO’s bombing of Libya. The party also backed NATO’s aerial bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War in 1999.
NDP support for NATO goes back to the beginning. Before members had a chance to debate the newly forming alliance, the national council of the NDP’s predecessor announced “the CCF believes that Canada should support and join a North Atlantic security pact.” But many members were opposed and the party’s support for NATO was vigorously contested.
Army captain and party advisor Desmond Morton describes the battle over a compromise resolution on military alliances at the NDP’s founding convention in 1961. The motion to abandon NORAD, but stay in NATO, was “subjected to a bitter, emotional attack from the floor. As they had done in so many CCF conventions, [MJ] Coldwell, [Tommy] Douglas and [David] Lewis came to the microphones to hammer back the unilateralists.”
Party leaders did not only employ the power of persuasion. In addition to benefiting from the dominant ideological winds, the leadership employed the levers of power within the party. On one occasion, Coldwell threatened to resign as party leader if members did not support the North Atlantic Treaty. 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 and the provincial party expelled two former members of the Manitoba legislature for campaigning against the North Atlantic accord.
Two decades after its creation the NDP finally called on Ottawa to withdraw from NATO. But its 1969 position was partially reversed in the mid-1980s, culminating in a 1987 “security” policy paper that equivocated on the subject. In subsequent years the party leadership fully embraced NATO and sought to stymie criticism of the alliance.
“To forestall debate on Libya, Gaza and NATO,” wrote NDP socialist caucus member Barry Weisleder about the June 2011 convention, “the foreign policy panel moved up two resolutions on military and RCMP veterans’ affairs, plus ‘motherhood’ motions on accessible medicines and conflict minerals. To the dismay of many, party icon Stephen Lewis gave a rhapsodic introduction to the foreign policy selections, during which he bestowed his blessing on the murderous NATO bombing of Libya.”
At the party’s most recent convention in April 2021, a resolution was submitted calling on the NDP to “actively campaign to get Canada out of NATO” and “remove the NATO nuclear ring around Russian borders.” It was never debated.
A significant share, if not a majority, of NDP activists support Canada withdrawing from NATO. So does a sizable share of the NDP membership and even the public at large. A Pew Research poll released in June found that 22 percent of Canadians had an unfavorable attitude towards NATO—even with little space in the dominant media or politics to question it.
The military ethos of following orders without question is dangerous in any democracy. Yet that seems to happen whenever the subject a NATO comes up. Even in the NDP.
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.