Military operations in Afghanistan may turn out to be more significant for Canada—both domestically and externally—than for the transatlantic alliance writ large. This is because of the country’s outsized commitment to combat operations there, and the heavy toll associated therewith: Canada ranks second only to the United States in the absolute number of combat deaths suffered by the allies in Afghanistan, and in proportion to its population and the size of its military, has the unhappy distinction of topping the list.
Not only is it unusual for Canada to have been bearing such a heavy share of the NATO burden of late, but the effort in Afghanistan poses some interesting domestic challenges. Specifically, the fighting in Afghanistan raises questions about a longstanding issue on the home front: the differences between opinion in English Canada and French Canada (these days effectively treated as synonymous with Québec) over the wisdom of military interventionism. Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government is dependent upon shoring up support from Quebeckers, who traditionally have been much less supportive of the employment of force abroad. It remains to be seen whether opinion in Québec will change should Canadian casualties continue to mount, at a time when francophone soldiers are beginning to figure centrally in anti-Taliban operations. Whatever the outcome, there will be major implications for federal politics.
Afghanistan has also cast interesting—and to some, troubling—new light on what had been widely regarded as a “golden” bilateral relationship between Canada and Germany. For many decades, the German-Canadian relationship has been held to be the most healthy and problem-free bilateral arrangement within the entire alliance. Certainly there were times during the Cold War when Germans were not loath to scold Canada if the latter was seen to be shirking its commitments to the common defense (as with the arrival in power of Pierre Trudeau, in 1968), but ever since the old threat disappeared, the opportunities for mutual recrimination between Ottawa and Berlin have been exceedingly rare. Indeed, often during the dozen years when the Liberals were in power in Ottawa (late 1993 through 2005), the two allies would find common cause, and many an occasion for self-congratulation, in designing ways to oppose American policy initiatives.
Yet Afghanistan has made those with a long memory begin to wonder whether anything could possibly remain of the Schicksalsgemeinschaft that was once supposed to characterize security relations between the two allies. Instead, today an English word is frequently invoked: that word is “caveat.” Germans, given their ambivalence about the transatlantic ties they have with the US, might be understandably resistant to pressure from Washington to do more. Much more difficult to resist, one would have thought, would be pressure from Ottawa, given the conviction so widely held that Germany and Canada stand shoulder to shoulder on how international security should be managed.
Clearly, states follow their interests not their sentiments, and what we are witnessing over Afghanistan is that not even sentimental ties to Canada will make the Germans budge from their conviction that the best place for the Bundeswehr is up north. Yet do not overestimate the staying power of Canada in the region either: the Conservatives need to gain seats in Québec, and the next federal election will likely take place in 2008. Ottawa might just find a way to pull a U-turn on the Afghanistan mission, ironically bringing about a rapprochement of sorts with the German position.
David Haglund is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Political Studies at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario) and co-editor of the International Journal. His research focuses on transatlantic security, and on Canadian and American international security policy. His most recent books are The North Atlantic Triangle Revisited: Canadian Grand Strategy at Century’s End (2000); and Over Here and Over There: Canada-US Defence Cooperation in an Era of Interoperability (2001).
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