Canada's commitment to NATO is being questioned by the military alliance, says its deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow, who suggests Canada is backing away.
During a panel discussion this weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum, Mr. Vershbow said there is "a perception that Canada is de-emphasizing NATO a little bit in its broader security policies."
Mr. Vershbow, who is visiting federal officials in Ottawa Monday, said in a later interview that he doesn't want to "sound overly alarmist" with his remarks, but is "reflecting the chatter in the corridors of NATO headquarters."
Canada, he says, has withdrawn from two key NATO programs – the Airborne Warning and Control System and Alliance Ground Surveillance program.
In addition, there is the issue of Afghanistan post-2014. Canada is to end its military presence there in March.
"We have seen the Canadian decision, at least up until now, not to commit any forces to the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan," he said. "And while we understand that Canada may have borne more of the burden than other allies in the actual combat phase, it's raising questions."
Mr. Vershbow's comments come as Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed skepticism Sunday with the deal between Iran and six world powers to curb the Iranian nuclear program, despite it being supported by strong allies Britain and the United States. In addition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has distanced himself from the United Nations and recently boycotted the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka over human-rights issues.
Instead, Mr. Vershbow said Canada is setting key priorities in North America, including a much more focused strategy toward the Arctic, closer collaboration with the U.S. through NORAD and co-operation with the U.S. in the Pacific.
Canadian National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson dismissed the view that Canada is less committed to NATO. "I don't know what would be the basis of that," he said at the closing news conference. "Canada does more than its share," he said. "Canada has been a strong supporter of NATO and will continue to be."
NATO plans a summit in September to consider its future. General Jean-Paul Paloméros, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, told The Globe that the biggest threat facing the alliance is the "massive reduction in defence budgets" of its members.
Liam Fox, a British MP and former secretary of state for defence, told the conference that 21 of 28 NATO countries this year would spend more of their GDP on "debt-interest repayments than defence."
"This is what it is to have debt as a strategic issue," he said. "We have to understand that our economic policy and our long-term security are interlinked."