In a speech in Brussels Friday, outgoing U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said NATO is facing "collective military irrelevance." 

Gates noted the alliance's inefficiencies, which have been exposed by its current mission in Libya, but he emphasized the inadequate funds NATO gets from most European members. He said the U.S. share of NATO spending has now reached 75 per cent.

On Thursday, CBC News reported that Canada may pull out of NATO's Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS program. The AWACS planes provide mission control and surveillance for military missions. More than 100 Canadian air crew are involved in the program, flying the planes and operating sophisticated airborne sensors.

si-paul-heinbecker-220

Paul Heinbecker speaks at a Centre for International Governance Innovation conference in Waterloo, Ont., in early May. ((CIGI))

To discuss these developments, CBCNews.ca spoke to Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. Heinbecker is the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University and a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), both in Waterloo, Ont. His latest book is Getting Back in the Game: A foreign policy playbook for Canada.


CBC NEWS: You have seen Robert Gates's speech, so let's start there,. What's your reaction to his view on NATO's future?

PAUL HEINBECKER: I think he's right on. The only thing I might disagree with him on is whether it's a good thing or not. Gates didn't identify who the enemy is, and if you have an alliance it tends to be an alliance against somebody or in defence of somebody. In fact NATO's principal raison d'être — to stop the Russians from invading Europe — has long since been accomplished.

The fact that there's no direct threat to the NATO countries is a large part of the explanation why countries don't want to spend so much on defence.

But NATO has become a very useful instrument — not as useful as it could be — for the allies to use if there is something going on in the world that they feel they need to respond to militarily. That's obviously been the case in Afghanistan and it's currently the case in Libya.

You've raised the issue of NATO's raison d'être and the argument is out there that NATO is now a dated institution. What are your thoughts on that?

NATO is on the way to becoming an insurance policy. It's something you need to have in case the Russians come back, or in case something else emerges. And it is useful if you believe in the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine, and I do, having been personally involved in its development in various ways. There has to be a military capability to protect people. That isn't to say use of the military should be the first recourse. It should probably be the last recourse, as it pretty much was in Libya.

si-libya-airstrikes-300

Clouds of smoke and dust rise after a NATO airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, on Tuesday. Paul Heinbecker argues that NATO is 'a very useful instrument' for situations like the one in Libya. ((Abdel Meguid al-Fergany/Associated Press))

There is a need for the international community to be able to respond militarily. It doesn't have to be NATO that does that, but the fact that NATO exists, that its members are capable of acting effectively with each other, because they've trained together and they have comparable and compatible equipment, means that they are a step ahead of other institutions. That's useful.

What we're talking about is preservation of an instrument that's useful, but we're also talking about elective wars, elective combat. There's a limit to which public opinion in a lot of countries will support defence spending on things that are elective.

Gates talked a lot not just about the spending but about the inefficiencies and the lack of resources members contribute, mostly the European members. Given the inefficiencies, is the inadequate contribution really a reflection of NATO's declining importance to those countries?

I think in some sense that's an inevitable conclusion to reach because, as I said, when you cannot identify the threat to yourself, it becomes more difficult to justify military spending in circumstances where you have other pressing priorities. One of the surprising things in Gates's speech is that he did not quite draw the lessons for the U.S. that he might have.

si-robert-gates-220

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, speaking in Brussels on Friday, said NATO is facing 'collective military irrelevance.' ((Francois Lenoir/Reuters))

The U.S. is borrowing the money to pay for its defence. There are some people who wonder how long that can go on and I am sure he is one of those people.

So while the Americans are right at one level in chastising the Europeans for not spending more of their own money, the Americans don't seem to be drawing the conclusions yet that they should themselves be spending less of their own money on their military.

The U.S. is upset, as Gates pointed out, that except for four European countries, two of which are Albania and Greece, no one is spending more than two per cent of their GDP on defence, while the U.S. is spending four per cent of GDP.

One of the things that would happen if the U.S. spent less is that others would spend more, if they were convinced of a need. When the Americans want to be the leader, when they want to take responsibility, when they want to be in charge, when they spend the money to make that possible, other countries say, 'OK, fine, if you people want to be in charge of these things, we'll support you. But we'll support you at a level we feel we can afford.'

There's no obligation and no sense of necessity on the part of the other NATO members to compensate for any American cutbacks because there are not any American cutbacks. In some sense, the way the Americans proceed gives the others a bit of a free ride.

On the story that Canada may withdraw from the NATO AWACS program, what would the pullout mean for Canada, and for NATO?

si-awacs-220-00396824

A NATO E3A AWACS surveillance plane takes off from Trapiani, Italy, in March as part of the mission to enforce the UN resolution on Libya. Canada plans to end its involvement in the AWACS program, CBC News has learned. ((DND Handout/Canadian Press))

It cannot be a very significant commitment of money or people. I have been at an AWACS base in Europe and it's a reasonable-sized base with a reasonable number of people but it wasn't huge, and it doesn't take a lot of people to run the AWACS program. So you could turn the argument around and say, considering that Canada's contribution is relatively small, then why are we withdrawing it?

I was part of the decision-making process that withdrew Canadian Forces from Europe in the early nineties, and the Europeans were very critical of us at the time. Looking back, it was absolutely the right decision to make and the right time to make it.

So it may be that the our defence department concluded, the technology being what it is, and the relative utility of AWACS — which is still pretty important —  that the Europeans, who aren't spending enough anyways, could well pick up the slack we create. I am not of a mind to criticize them for the AWACS decision. I doubt though that the decision will play well in Washington.

How important is it for Canada to be pulling its weight in NATO?

It's important, it's always been important. But there's more than one way of doing it.

It's important in strategic terms that we have an effective foreign policy. Part of that is having a credible military capability. As I said, if you believe in the 'responsibility to protect,' you have to be able and willing to use military force to save people from their own governments.

What the current Canadian government has lost sight of, and maybe the appointment of John Baird as foreign minister will change that, is that capable diplomacy is also important to Canada's reputation in the world and Canada's achievement of the objectives it wants to achieve.

si-paul-heinbecker-un2003-300

Paul Heinbecker, then Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council debate on Iraq, Feb. 19, 2003. ((Reuters))

It doesn't do you a lot of good overall if you increase military spending and decrease diplomatic spending and your diplomatic capability, because you can't then translate the increased defence capability into any kind of power.

What it amounts to is that you end up implementing other people's decisions. If you are not at the diplomatic tables where these important 'go to war or not go to war' decisions are made — the Security Council is one of them — if you are not able to play an effective role in those contexts, you end up making your troops into something like mercenary soldiers. Other people make the decisions and our guys go off and do the fighting. I don't think that's a very healthy situation.

So what would you advocate for Canada's future involvement in NATO?

For Canada's future foreign policy regarding NATO and beyond NATO we have to do a number of things. One of them is we really have to boost our diplomatic capability. We're coming into a multi-centric world in which there's going to be plenty of interaction between a lot of significant countries. This is tailor-made for countries that are diplomatically smart and agile. But if you are diplomatically behind the curve, you are going to find yourself of diminishing relevance.

It would be nice if the government had more ambition and vision but even short of that, the first thing that we have to recognize is that that we're living in a very quickly changing world and our absence from councils where decisions are being made is harming our interests.

What we need is a coherent foreign policy. With Mr. Baird in charge, we're not going to run the incompetent foreign policy that we've run before, I don't think, and there won't be poaching on his territory by other ministers, who have their own foreign policy agendas. Now the important thing is for people to work with Mr. Baird to get the policy positions that we are going to take, right. Then I think we will be in pretty good shape.