Michael Bliss is a historian, author and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Canada is about to station combat-ready fighter aircraft in Eastern Europe. The six CF-18s we are sending abroad will apparently be based in Poland. The only reason for their presence is a perceived threat from one country only – Russia.
While this gesture may be tokenism, be assured it will nonethless be expensive (our contribution to the “liberation” of Libya came in at around $100-million). And while it is mostly symbolic, symbolism alone ought to generate a more thoughtful public debate than we are having.
What is NATO trying to do in Eastern Europe? For fairly obvious reasons NATO denies that it is trying to guarantee the current borders of Ukraine, not in any case a member state. In a general sort of way, NATO is committed to help its new Eastern European members, including Poland and the Baltic states, resist a perceived threat of Russian expansionism.
NATO seems to be drawing red lines, perhaps best explained in a recent New York Times article suggesting that the Americans are trying to be the architects of an update of the old Cold War strategy. Then it was Soviet Communism that had to be contained; now the threat is from Russian imperialism. With Canada’s enthusiastic support, Washington and NATO are said to be reviving the “containment” ideas proposed by the great U.S. diplomat, George F. Kennan, in 1947. These became the West’s fundamental Cold War strategy.
George Kennan lived until 2004. In fact his recently-published journals (The Kennan Diaries) make very clear his absolute disagreement with the way in which NATO has intruded into the former Soviet sphere of influence. “The deep commitment of our government to press the expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the entire post Cold War period. ...”, Mr. Kennan wrote on Jan. 28, 1997. “In the insistence on doing this senseless thing I saw the final failure of the effort to which I have given so large a portion of my life: the effort to find a reasonable area of understanding and sympathy between the great Russian people and our own.”
Mr. Kennan is surely writhing in his grave at the aggressive bellicosity of NATO’s anti-Russian manoeuvering, and at Western simplifications of a terribly complicated situation in Ukraine. Ottawa may not matter much on the big international stage, but should not Canadians disregard our voluble Ukrainian lobby long enough to ask some hard questions about investing our resources in what much of the world sees as another of the West’s dubious crusades?
Does Ottawa really believe that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a menace to world peace? Will NATO expand into Ukraine? What are the legitimate boundaries of the “North Atlantic”? Should we be committing Canadian forces on missions surely best calibrated by Europeans themselves? What kind of appetite do we for fanning icy flames of a new Cold War?
The real George Kennan thought the United States and NATO were imperilling world peace by systematically over-reaching. For the last 50 years of his life he was a neo-isolationist, urging Western restraint in parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in which we have little substantial interest and less understanding.
In 2014, have we Canadians not learned to ask hard questions about serious projections of military power in far-off places? We assisted in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We sacrificed many Canadian lives – and many civilian lives – in Afghanistan. Our politicians cheered as our air force helped NATO create ruin and anarchy in Libya. If he had been in power in 2003, Stephen Harper would probably have sent Canadian forces into Iraq. This is not a good track record.
Instead of vigorously debating the fundamentals of Canadian foreign involvement, we seem to be just letting it happen. Our country’s default position takes no account of the arguments of a great diplomat like George F. Kennan. Instead we defer to the warrior mentality of spirits kindred to U.S. Senator John McCain and his ilk.