In Pursuit of Strategic Flexibility

Defence Minister Erik Nielsen and General Theriault wanted to bring the troops home from Europe. They failed

By Peter Langille | 1989-04-01 12:00:00

CANADIAN FORCES fought on European soil in two world wars and have "stood guard" there most of the time since. However, defining an appropriate military role there has been difficult. The Canadian government's current plans are to phase out Canada's previous commitment to Norway and NATO's Northern Flank, and to double the force committed to NATO's Central European Front. But this was not the initial plan of a previous Minister of Defence, Erik Nielsen, nor the Chief of Defence Staff, General Gerard Theriault, who boldly tried to bring the armed forces home from Europe. The scheme failed, despite the military advantage that it offered: strategic flexibility. This is the story.


Since 1949, Canadian defence policy has aimed to guarantee its security by keeping peace in Europe. Ottawa saw NATO as a multilateral counterweight to offset Canada's dependence on the United States. Canada insisted that the North Atlantic Treaty refer to economic, as well as military, cooperation among allies.

As the Korean War erupted, the allies, including Canada, stationed forces in Europe. The decision was uncontroversial, since it was not conceived as a long-term treaty obligation. But soon the Central European Front - a narrow corridor dividing the two Germanies - became pivotal in the Cold War. Between 1952 and 1954, NATO forces increased from 12 to 96 divisions. Nearly 10,000 Canadian troops near this front showed Ottawa's commitment. Ottawa slowly discovered that thesee deployments had become a contractual link - a costly "key" to a club focused on military affairs.

The 1963-64 assessment of defence policy planned to restructure the Canadian force on the Central Front into a light mobile force with no nuclear tasks,1 but nothing came of that proposal during the Pearson years. In fact, Canada took on a new responsibility in 1968 - to reinforce Norway in a crisis with the Canadian Air Sea Transportable Brigade.

Again in 1969, the Trudeau government's defence review considered pulling Canada's Forces out of Europe. A compromise was made, halving the contingent from 10,000 to 5,000 troops. More resources were to be spent on meeting "national" defence requirements. As Larry Pratt and Tom Keating write of the European response:

"The Europeans took great exception to Canada's new NATO policy and let their views be known to Defence Minister Leo Cadieux at a NATO ministerial meeting in May, 1969 with what the American ambassador to NATO later described as 'the toughest talk I have ever heard in an international meeting.' Germany was concerned about Canada's reliability in times of crisis. Britain feared that it would be called upon to replace the Canadians... British Defence Secretary Denis Healey, complaining that Canada is 'passing the buck to the rest of us,' argued that the withdrawal of Canadian forces would lower the nuclear threshold."2

Two years later, the U.S. imposed an import surcharge. The timing was bad for Canadian diplomats to win European support for diversifying Canadian trade relations. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt allegedly told Prime Minister Trudeau bluntly, "No tanks, no trade." The government set about buying back their "key to the club" by purchasing $200 million worth of German Leopard tanks and $1.5 billion worth of aircraft capability. In 1977, Canada accepted the NATO Defence Planning Committee's target of three percent annual real growth of military expenditures.

Although exact figures are not released, Major General L.V. Johnson (ret.) suggests that Canada's European commitment consumes nearly half of Canada's defence budget.

Maintaining the Balance of Power?

Since the early 1970s, Canada has kept over 6500 troops on NATO's Central Front. Removing them would not leave a big gap in West German defences, and might allow them to make a real contribution elsewhere. Yet there is little incentive to do so if it risks provoking a harsh international reaction. As Joseph Jockel notes, ". . . if Canada is allowed to redefine its European commitment, other NATO allies, including the United States, may be tempted to do the same. This is the so-called slippery-slope argument. It has less to do with Canada's role in the alliance or the effect on NATO of Canada's withdrawal from West Germany than it has with the precedent that might be set."3

Strike Two: A "Second Swing" at Withdrawal

In 1985, Major General Johnson articulated a position that must have been shared by other senior officers. He wrote:

"Collective defence would be better served if Canada looked first to her own needs and then improved her ability to go to the assistance of Norway, where her help would be needed…the real culprit is the continual misallocation of resources to a symbolic military presence in the Central Region of NATO."4

As if on cue, Deputy Prime Minister/Defence Minister Erik Nielsen and Chief of Defence Staff, General Gerard Theriault began to discuss the withdrawal of all Canadian forces from Europe. General Theriault defended this initiative on the grounds that "Our forces in Central Europe mean next to nothing in military terms."5 Some military planners saw the commitment as a trap that unwisely tied Canada to involvement in any future crisis in Europe.

Having promised the first Defence White Paper in fourteen years, Nielsen and Theriault met in secret deliberations with a select group of senior National Defence officials. "Those involved in the planning were ordered not to report their work to superiors."6 The initiative would have caused serious concern, if not an uproar, in both the army and External Affairs. The army's primary raison d'etre would be discarded; its relevance and share of the budget would be in jeopardy. External Affairs would find itself in a crisis of uncertainty.

The DND group concluded that it was time to propose to Canada's allies a withdrawal of both the Canadian Air Group and the Mechanized Brigade Group from West Germany. According to one senior official, "the Mechanized Brigade Group's heavy equipment was to be pre-positioned in northern Norway and a promise would be made to fly over the troops, and three squadrons of CF-18s in the event of an emergency. Provision was to be made for a transit base in Scotland." This would eliminate the need for a dubious sealift across the Atlantic and Norwegian sea. The Air Transport Group's tasks would be simplified by ending the Canada-Germany runs, leaving for NATO purposes only those between Canada and Northern Europe.7 Canada would achieve more independent control of its forces.

Canadian forces were far better suited for a role in Norway than on the Central Front. However, some saw the Norwegian commitment as untenable. Still, many Canadians would prefer to defend Norway. As Peter Newman noted, "the defence of Norway is a cause Canadians could believe in." Admiral Robert Falls (ret.) testified, "We are naturally allied as a Northern country to Norway, and…would be well advised to be closer to Norway rather than farther away."8

There might be substantial savings from this restructuring. Canada would only require a capacity to reinforce Norway with relatively light- armed infantry. Canadian forces would henceforth be based in Canada. Planners tried to appease American strategic concerns. The CF-18s in Europe were to be reassigned to NORAD duties and the money from the Central Front spent upgrading Canadian air defences with additional long-range maritime patrol aircraft and the acquisition of AWACS (airborne warning and control aircraft).

The Politics of Withdrawal in 1985

The proposal received initial approval from U.S. Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger. The Americans may have seen this as a chance to gauge the response to a future troop withdrawal of their own. Nielsen and some senior advisers planned to sound out the proposal in Washington, London, Bonn, and Oslo. They never made it to Oslo; the timing was bad. Opposition to NATO policies had grown into movements calling for disarmament. The Reykjavik summit had raised questions about the U.S.'s resolve to defend Europe.

Canada's departure would be seen as proof of chaos and a precedent for the Americans. The expense of decoupling and going it alone would be significant.

The departure would also pose economic problems for the Europeans, who would have to spend more on their own defence and also miss the income from the foreign military. While the West Germans pay for some of the NATO infrastructure, the nearly half-million foreign troops there spend a lot; they are a "tourist/troop trap" of grand proportions.

Mr. Nielsen, No Way!

When Nielsen presented the proposal to British Defence Minister Michael Heseltine and then to West German Defence Minister, Manfred Woerner, their response was harsh. Heseltine's reaction was, "Mr. Nielsen, no way!" Heseltine then apparently tipped off the West Germans. In the words of one military analyst privy to the consultations, Woerner "just went crazy." As defence writer Gwynne Dyer explained,

"The problem was the habitual German paranoia about North American allies not automatically backing them in a crisis, which can only be assuaged by having American and Canadian troops in West Germany who will get killed very early in a war."9

With the U.S. Congress demanding "burden-sharing" and questioning their own commitment, the European allies were nervous. One senior source said,

"The West Germans contacted U.S. Ambassador Burt in Bonn and he called back to the U.S. State Department with a very strong message. The State Department put the pressure on Jack Vessey and Cap Weinberger. Weinberger was forced to support European concerns to keep peace in the family."

Gwynne Dyer commented that "the Norwegians, who had been delighted by the proposal, just kept their heads down: They didn't want to be seen as stealing Canadians from the Germans."

The Political Opposition at Home

Nielsen saw that the initiative was "politically just not on." The American, British, and German reactions were so harsh that the government covered up the proposal. Questioned later during House of Commons hearings, the new Chief of Defence Staff, General Paul Manson, and the Assistant Deputy Minister of National Defence, Robert Fowler, denied having ever heard of or seen a paper on the "Theriault plan." One senior insider acknowledged,

"There is opposition in Canada from a rather parochial community … [committed] to the Army and the role on the Central Front. They have a vested interest and looked upon how it would affect them institutionally. We have no land threat in Canada. The only way the land forces can justify their existence is through the Central Front. They are overly concerned about maintaining this commitment and they have a very real network to harmonize their voice."

Nielsen and Theriault had overlooked the interests of a powerful constituency on the home front. Shortly after the Government learned about the initiative, Cabinet was reshuffled. Erik Nielsen retired without explanation. This had been a secretive venture with insufficient political preparation. Nielsen had not discussed the proposal with the Cabinet's powerful Priorities and Planning Sub-Committee. He had not marshalled strong domestic support before discussing the initiative in Washington, Bonn, and London. Restructuring would have been a long-term process. In the midst of negotiations over free trade, the Conservative Cabinet would have resisted any initiative that might "draw fire" from either the State Department or the Pentagon.

The long-awaited Defence White Paper would be put on hold for two years. Nielsen's successor, Perrin Beatty, showed that Canada's armed forces would not quit the Central Front, but would be renewed with more muscle.


The NATO "counterweight" has become a burden, tying Canadian forces to a permanent role on the Central Front and leaving Canada all the more dependent on a structure that was initially intended to offset its dependence.

Yet a restructuring may be possible. For NATO to remain the relevant mechanism for coordinating international security, it must be more tolerant of its members' regional security interests. A rigid alliance is unlikely to survive the changing political environment.

If the latest attempt to restructure Canada's commitment away from NATO's Central Front had been successful, it would have had a big impact on Canada's defence policy. One senior military source noted,

"This option had a number of virtues. It would allow us to clean up the whole defence posture and consequent policy. As it is, we are spread all over the map, doing everything in a slipshod fashion."

The initiative shows the bilateral, multilateral, and domestic pressures that constrain Canadian defence policy. Even a high level initiative, backed by senior political and military officials, was politically unable to restructure alliance commitments and alter the defence posture. Yet times change. Today, in 1989, the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Europe is again a lively possibility.

Peter Langille is a Ph.D. student in Peace and Conflict at Bradford University in Britain. This article is an abridged chapter from a M.A. thesis he wrote at Carleton University.

1Joseph T. Jockel, Canada and NATO's Northern Flank (Toronto: Centre for International and Strategic Studies, 1966), p. 20.

2Tom Keating and Larry Pratt, Canada, NATO, and the Bomb (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), p. 34.

3 Jockel, pp. 99-101.

4 "Canadian Defence Policy: A Prisoner of Mythology," in Canada and the World: National Interest and Global Responsibility (Ottawa: Group of 78, 1985), p. 8.

5 Address to the Annual Conference of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Ottawa, March, 1988.

6 Interview with senior source involved in the Department of National Defence planning, March 1988.

7 Jockel, p. 47.

8 Testimony of Admiral Robert Falls, Proceedings of the Special Committee of the Senate on National Defence, Issue no. 12, Vol. 26 January 1988, pp. 22-23.

9 "Europeans Torpedo Tory Plan…," Ottawa Citizen, 14 March 1988.

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