Corps de l’article


Ethics and morality are not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind regarding military cooperation. Yet, in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), allies follow the principle of costs lie where they fall, which invites each of them to exercise ethical judgments as to whether they should contribute, which of the right forms of contribution they should choose, and how much they should contribute relative to the efforts made by fellow allies. This rather vague arrangement about the division of costs incurred by the common burden of collective defence has fuelled NATO’s most protracted collective action problem, commonly referred to by the expression burden sharing.

In contrast to deductive rationalist approaches that dominate the past and contemporary burden-sharing scholarship, my approach builds on the interpretive and ethical turns in social sciences (Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006; Vilmer and Chung 2013). Positioned at the crossroads of politics, history, and ethics, and armed with interpretive-qualitative methodology, this paper reconstructs the ethical dimension of the Canadian burden-sharing discourse during the liberal government of Louis St. Laurent (1948–57). To shift the attention towards the ethical elements of burden sharing in NATO, this paper uses interpretation as its research strategy and analytical tools that blend International Relations (IR) theory with the traditions of normative ethics on a conceptual level.

This paper argues that the ethics of burden sharing reveals the tensions between utility of contribution and fairness of distribution. The findings indicate that the simultaneous presence of different ethics resulted in a split discourse on NATO burden sharing in Canada. Consequentialist ethics shaping the Canadian discourse on specific contributions proved incoherent with the discourse, informed by the ethics of obligations and communitarian ethics, of Canadian authorities on allied sharing in NATO. This paper comes to the conclusion that, rather than pursuing a free-riding strategy or simply calculating its own benefits, Canada has developed a split discourse—in which several ethical logics shape the way in which national authorities approach the issues of contributing and sharing—thus turning burden sharing into a long-lasting problem in NATO.

The Canadian perspective on burden sharing is particularly compelling in this period of NATO’s formative years. Canada’s involvement in the creation of NATO—its first peacetime alliance—meant a U-turn in Canadian foreign and defence policy. While ranking fourth on the international great power scale in the aftermath of the Second World War (Létourneau 1992, p. 53), it chose the path of becoming a middle power (Chapnick 1999). This did not stop it from launching a mutual aid programme free of charge to its Western European allies, the only one next to the United States’ military assistance. Finally, yet importantly, Canada faced a peculiar security dilemma. Given its superpower southern neighbour, Canada had to balance its security and economic concerns on two continents. This turbulent period formed a liberal-realist generation of Canadian statesmen (Haglund and Roussel 2004, p. 57–60). In short, these multiple crucial policy choices, together with the availability of detailed historical records, make the in-depth interpretive analysis of Canadian contribution strategies particularly rich on contrasting a range of possible ethical considerations related to NATO burden sharing.

In order to help understand the ethics of burden sharing in NATO, the paper first situates and presents the methodological framework to explain how the insights of normative ethics can inform an interpretive research strategy on allied contributions and sharing. Adapting the theory-as-thought method originally developed by Hayes and James (2014), the paper then develops an interpretive codebook of four ethics, constructed as a synthesis of three IR theories (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) with three grand families of normative ethical theory (deontological, consequentialist, and relational). The second part sifts through ethical elements in the Canadian discourse on allied sharing, as recorded in the archival documents of the Canadian government in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and analyzes specific discursive instances when Canadian authorities discussed concrete contributions to NATO. Part three contrasts and compares ethical patterns of this Canadian discourse on burden sharing. The paper concludes on the implications for the future research on multinational military cooperation and makes the case for pluralist theorizing in the IR and foreign-policy analysis.

Burden sharing: More understanding, less theorizing

The problem of allied contributions in NATO—of why members decide to contribute to a military alliance—has been studied from several theoretical angles within the alliance-management literature. Arguably, the burden-sharing scholarship remains dominated by studies based on the alliance security dilemma (e.g., von Hlatky 2013), economics of alliances based on public-goods theories (e.g., Sandler and Shimizu 2014), or domestic and alliance-level institutional structures (e.g., Weitsman 2013; Auerswald and Saideman 2014). The studies provide rather narrow positivist, hypothetical-deductive, and mostly static accounts of burden sharing (Zyla 2016, p. 12).

Yet, in the past decade, several scholars have recognized that more diverse research on burden sharing is necessary. For instance, Ringsmose believes that a qualitative approach could “take public goods theory examinations of NATO one step further” (2016, p. 219). Becker (2017) calls for an enhanced dialogue between qualitative and quantitative studies on burden-sharing measurements. Given the contested nature of the burden-sharing concept, this literature would also benefit from further conceptual work on this politically loaded problem (Foucault and Mérand 2012, p. 424). Equally importantly, Webber observes that NATO has not been “the subject of much normative theorising” (2016, p. 11).

Interpretive and sociological approaches are particularly apt to study “intersubjective meanings and the role of social forces, norms, beliefs, and values” in states’ burden-sharing behaviour (Zyla 2016, p. 5). The most significant examples of these approaches can be found in the recent literature: Zyla (2015) studies a burden-sharing norm of external responsibility, Kitchen (2010) explains states’ participation in NATO’s out-of-area operations by referring to a norm of responsibility, and Mérand and Rayroux (2016) conceptualize burden sharing as an anchoring practice, while Flockhart sees behind the burden-sharing problem a practice of “constructive ambiguity” (2016, p. 156). Lastly, in his study of the EU approach to the refugee problem, Thielemann (2003) develops an especially useful analytical model for studying the burden-sharing problem that contrasts the norm-based logic with the cost-benefit logic of burden-sharing behaviour, and distinguishes between motivations and patterns.

This paper analyzes the burden-sharing problem from an ontological and epistemological perspective that differs from the dominant positivist research on allied contributions and burden sharing. In interpreting Canadian contribution strategies, I regard burden sharing as a process, rather than an outcome, and propose an alternative use of scientific theories to analyze the “why contribute?” problem. Instead of factoring in various systemic and domestic variables, I look at how the traditions of normative ethics, blended in IR theory, shaped the discourse of national practitioners at the beginnings of NATO: Canadian elected officials, bureaucrats, and senior military staff under the liberal government of Louis St. Laurent (1948-57). I do not look for objective reasons why a state should contribute to alliances; rather, I explore what national actors themselves put forward as being a “right thing to do” in terms of military cooperation. Representing a specific case of NATO burden sharing, this paper should not be looked upon to provide a comprehensive study in Canada’s history.[1]

Ethics enters interpretive research strategy

Ethics is not a choice to do good when the overwhelming temptation—or the easier option—is to do evil; it is, rather, a competing set of perspectives about what it is to do good, and about what that good might be.

Burke et al. 2014, p. 8–9

This historical and interpretive analysis explores ethical elements of the burden-sharing problem. It rests on two important premises with respect to ethics. First, there is no ethically neutral action or “ethic-free zone” (Booth 2011, p. 475). Even in politics no action is void of ethical considerations since decision makers, bound by legitimacy concerns, act according to some conception of a right course of action (Burke et al. 2014, p. 9; Vilmer 2015, p. 177–178). Second, IR is a domain of moral choice. Every IR theory has a normative dimension, and these IR “moral codes” are not different from those that exist in domestic politics or on the individual level (Hoffmann 1988, p. 29).

To reconstruct this normative dimension of burden sharing, the paper uses a theory-as-thought method, originally introduced by Hayes and James (2014). Based on the assumption that IR theories represent different modes of thinking about the world, the theory-as-thought method puts forward the idea that policy makers think and make sense of world affairs in terms of theoretical logics (Hayes and James 2014, p. 401). Theory-as-thought conceives IR theories as socially constructed systems of meanings and relations in narratives and discourses. These modes of thinking are intersubjective structures enabling actors to understand the world. The method’s central analytical tools are discursive markers and inductive extraction that indicate the presence of particular theoretical logic (ibid., p. 406, 427). They roughly correspond to key concepts of the chosen theories. Since discursive markers are integral part of the studied texts, rather than abstract terms externally imposed by the researcher, tracing theoretical logics within actors’ discourse requires a certain degree of analytical flexibility.

Given this paper’s objective to analyze Canadian contribution strategies through the lenses of ethics, the theory-as-thought method is here accordingly adapted by narrowing the range of discursive markers. I rely on the conceptual apparatus drawn from the traditions of normative ethics,[2] which are further situated in three IR theories. The resulting four ethical ideal-types create together a single interpretive grid (see table 1). This codebook of the four ethical traditions does not pretend to embrace the complexities within and among various ethical and IR schools, as it represents only one of possible ways of simplifying the centuries of moral philosophy. Its role is to systemize ethical elements in the Canadian burden-sharing debates.[3]

Table 1

Interpretive grid

Interpretive grid

-> Voir la liste des tableaux

Having outlined the interpretive research strategy, this paper approaches the burden-sharing problem differently from the positivist studies. Instead of using the precepts of existing applied ethics developed within the IR research agenda[4], this paper reconstructs the ethics of burden sharing by identifying the broad traditions of normative ethics in practitioners’ discourse. Situating them within the IR theories then facilitates the grasp of ethical elements in the burden-sharing discourse of Canadian authorities and improves our understanding of how the issues of contributing and sharing were framed in normative terms.

The adapted theory-as-thought method establishes, first, which ethics shaped the Canadian discourse on the issue of allied sharing in NATO, and second, how Canadian authorities talked about Canada’s sharing with respect to concrete contributions to NATO. The paper then compares the patterns of ethical logics framing both issues of sharing and contributing as part of the Canadian discourse on burden sharing. The following paragraphs are dedicated to an overview of central prescriptions for action and justice of the four ethics. The different IR theories and ethical traditions constitute, respectively, the columns and rows of the interpretive grid and serve as a basis for discursive markers.

Ethics of obligations

According to deontology, or the rule-oriented ethical tradition, the right action depends on and is constrained by an interpretation of duties (rules, obligations) and authority (Smith 1992, p. 215). The authority can be divine, but most deontological approaches emphasize the centrality of reason (Kantianism) or agreement (contractarianism). According to the Kantian tradition, an actor is motivated by duty rather than by achieving interests, and his or her moral motives overrule consequences. Contractarians, another branch of deontological ethics, stipulate that only in basing international reciprocity and social relations on the concept of social contract can international cooperation become a matter of moral duty, not charity (Sandel 2014, p. 142). Regardless of empirical facts or probability, the a priori defined moral duty justifies actions, not vice versa (Donaldson 1992, p. 136, 142). An overriding moral duty is to make (perpetual) peace possible (Smith 1992, p. 209).

The liberal IR tradition, characterized by individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, and meliorism, embraces both deontological and consequentialist ethical thought (Williams 2009, p. 29). Although the motivations behind these two ethics are different, when it comes to practical ends, they often converge; in order to phase out negative impacts of international anarchy, states themselves should agree to limit their sovereignty and create international organizations and law, and maintain international commerce.

According to this ethics of obligations, states should provide contributions through their rationalization of the North Atlantic Treaty constitution. This should result in free riding being considered an unethical action and in members adhering to a moral egalitarianism that aims at universal (political) equality of actors. As to the sharing problem, the Kantian tradition offers only procedural prescriptions for justice in the form of impartial application of international law. In the Rawlsian “justice as fairness” tradition, burden sharing should be procedural and distributive at the same time, where inequalities in sharing are not necessarily problematic insofar as they benefit the least advantaged.

Utilitarian ethics

Consequentialist ethical approaches emphasize the results of actions, rather than duties or intentions, as the benchmark of morality. Utilitarianism is the most widespread consequentialist theory. It stands on two basic premises. First, in contrast to a Kantian duty, happiness (well-being, welfare, common good, or benefit) is considered the only intrinsically good thing. Second, consequences are the only relevant factor in deciding whether any action or practice is right or wrong. Utilitarian ethics implies that the principle of (collective) utility—the greatest happiness for the greatest number—should guide states’ contributions to NATO. Both Benthamite and Millian versions of utilitarianism, even if they propose more substantive conception of ethical action, remain too vague when it comes to international burden sharing. According to its central axiom, burden sharing is just when it maximizes the common good (collective defence). However, it is only implicit about the assumption that these benefits should not be concentrated in a small number of states but rather spread evenly across the members of the group. Utilitarianism is therefore often supplemented by other principles, such as equality (Ellis 1992, p. 168).

Ethics of prudence

A quite standard realist denial of the morality in IR is connected with the realist core principles of action being determined by a conflictual anarchic international system and/or by human nature, the radical separation of domestic and international realms, and the primacy of self-interest over any moral principle. In short, this radical position advances that there is no room left for ethics in international politics. Yet, although most IR realists do not overtly acknowledge any ethical concerns, the moderate variant of realism can be best understood as “a cautionary ethic of political prudence” (Donnelly 2005, p. 150), where moralism is seen as a distortion and an impediment to effective foreign policy.

The ethics of prudence is a variant of Weber’s ethics of responsibility, where prudence is a function of the statesperson’s responsibility for his or her own population/country and is characterized by the dilemma of dirty hands (Warner 1991). Ethical action is thus guided by the imperative of national interest, whose defence has an important normative value for realists (Forde 1992, p. 79). National contributions to alliances should therefore have positive consequences for the country’s security. States above all contribute in order to increase national gains from military cooperation. However, even moderate realists are pessimistic about the possibility of international justice. The absence of coercion makes justice either unavailable in the IR sphere or only limited and contingent on the interests of the most powerful (Brown 1997, p. 276). The ethics of prudence implies that great powers instrumentalize allied sharing to their own advantage and power projection.

Communitarian ethics

Contemporary ethicists have added relational ethics to the classical families of normative ethics (e.g., Burke 2007; Shapcott 2010). Addressing problems of power and vulnerability, relational ethics emphasizes the interdependence of all humans, rather than take a moral individual separately as a basis of ethical theorizing. Relational ethical approaches claim to propose an alternative to deontology and consequentialism by centring on responsibilities to and for those with whom actors choose to enter into relation (Altman and Wellman 2009, p. 131; Burke et al. 2014, p. 11). The constructivist IR school focuses on the role of norms and identities in respect to actors’ behaviour. It puts emphasis on intersubjective realities and operates with social facts. In spite of having an inherently normative research agenda, constructivism has found it problematic to advance some prescriptions for what should count as an ethical action. Nevertheless, there are two recent developments of constructivist ethical thought: the ethics of humility and communitarian ethics. Since it is not clear whether the ethics of humility is a distinctive ethics at all (Hoffmann 2009, Price 2008), I use the second conception and place it within the family of relational ethics.

Popularized especially in the works by Emmanuel Adler on the communitarian turn in IR normative and analytical theory, communitarian ethics introduces a concept of “communities of practice” and describes social mechanisms that could facilitate the emergence of “normatively better” communities. Often presented in opposition to cosmopolitanism, communitarianism is certainly not a novel ethical theory. What its many versions have in common is that they highlight the moral significance of communities, where “the common good or community interest … is greater than individual goods and interests” (Morrice 2000, p. 237). Although constructivist communitarian ethics does not elaborate on the hierarchy of interests or goods, it considers “community and individual interests as ontologically complementary” (Adler 2005, p. 13). The constructivist version of communitarianism stresses the important role of the social construction of knowledge in the development of collective normative understandings as a source of moral action and justice (Adler 2005, p. 3, 11, 27). It is particularly useful for clarifying where communities and commitments, including solidarity and we-feeling, to these communities came from. However, these constructivist communities are not limited to national sovereign borders. Communitarian ethics therefore calls for shared moral expectations and cultural understanding, which may in turn provide some substance to relational ethics’ premises of responsibility to and for the others.[5] According to this ethics, states’ contributions to alliances are reflections of responsibility to their like-minded allies, and allied sharing becomes an expression of Atlantic community building.

Canada contributes to NATO (1948-1957)

No specific military commitments were discussed in the Canadian cabinet prior to signing the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. However, over the summer of 1949, the government started to contemplate how Canada could materialize its political pledge. The Chiefs of Staff Committee cautiously considered improvements to Canada’s military strength for national defence purposes, if war should break out. Ottawa mandarins first supposed that NATO members would optimize or even decrease defence costs by pooling their resources.[6] With the adoption of the NATO Balanced Collective (later, Integrated) Forces concept in the midst of the Korean War, Canada’s defence programme started to develop in relation to the total capabilities of the entire group of NATO nations.[7] During this early Cold War period, Canada became one of the leading contributors to the Alliance.

The strategic narrative on NATO in the early 1950s was uncontested at the elite level. The Canadian government helped create the Atlantic alliance with a clear objective: to build collective defence to deter potential aggressors (avoid war), and to strengthen the Atlantic community (reinforce peace). The attitudes towards NATO were generally positive across the political spectrum, agreeing on its importance for both Canadian and international security, and on the perception of the Soviet threat. No disputes arose over the basic policy of Canadian involvement in NATO during St. Laurent’s premiership (Byers 1967, p. 4, 18).

This paper is not, however, interested in general long-term objectives with respect to the Alliance.[8] I focus on what came next once NATO’s military strategy of collective territorial defence and deterrence was established. The analysis of Canadian burden-sharing discourse aims to clarify why Ottawa contributed to NATO, by looking at ethical elements behind concrete defence measures. The empirical section first explores the discourse of Canadian authorities on allied sharing in NATO. Then it looks at the specific instances in the discourse related to Canada’s contributions: provision of military equipment and services to the European allies, deployment of Canadian aerial and ground troops to Western Europe, and continental defence of North America. I do not evaluate the actual impact of contributions on the overall NATO defence. Rather, I explore the “good reasons” that national authorities evoked in their private and public discussions to help them rationalize Canada’s participation at NATO.

Allied sharing in NATO: Distributing costs of collective defence

This section looks at how Canadian authorities framed the issue of sharing with the fellow allies. It is important to note that they neither publicly nor privately tried to evade their commitments to NATO. At times the Canadian government attempted to delay or compensate one type of contribution with another, such as by providing military equipment instead of deploying troops. Yet they never questioned their obligation to share the NATO burden. Free riding on other allies—deliberately avoiding or diminishing one’s share of the common burden—was not considered acceptable behaviour in Ottawa.

Three ethics in the Canadian discourse shaped this basic but central point in the approach to the burden-sharing problem. First, from the utilitarian viewpoint, the cost-benefit calculation favours sharing due to a more efficient utilization of national resources for the common cause, which otherwise could not be attained. In several of his public speeches, the foreign secretary, Pearson, explicitly ruled out free riding because “peace could not be achieved by leaving the job of securing it to others.”[9] Second, in accordance with the ethics of obligations and the communitarian ethics, the international danger “demands a unity of sacrifice by all free nations in the common cause of peace.”[10] Pearson publicly urged the NATO countries less exposed to the risks of war to actively demonstrate solidarity with those who would have to make the “ramparts of sacrifices” to resist the ground attack.[11] Similarly, his under-secretary, Heeney, observed that “no national government was willing to shift to other shoulders, even if it could, the responsibility for its own security.”[12] The necessity to share in terms of relational ethics was unequivocal: “the Atlantic Community” could not persist “without some form of burden-sharing.”[13]

NATO eventually launched a series of burden-sharing studies at the beginning of the 1950s, which were supposed to determine an equitable distribution of defence costs among the allies. Proposals took various forms, such as statistical formulas or arrangements for transfers of equipment. The studies resulted in the institutionalization of the NATO Annual Review in 1952. In this multilateral procedure, the allies exchanged information on their military capabilities and defence programmes and identified the ways in which to improve NATO’s overall strength without resorting to some rigid distributive mechanism.

Canadian authorities conceived the sharing problem in terms of fairness. Instead of determining allies’ shares in relation to the benefits received, they framed the equitable distribution of costs in NATO in terms of each country’s idiosyncratic characteristics and by analogy with domestic distributive justice among Canadian provinces. The Canadian discourse on allied sharing was therefore dominated by the ethics of obligations and further shaped by the communitarian ethics.

In the House of Commons, in June 1950, Minister of National Defence Claxton defined Canada’s “fair contribution towards collective security” in accordance to Canadian resources, needs, capacities, and responsibilities.[14] The Canadian officials alluded to principles of proportionality, especially in speeches to the American public. For the Department of External Affairs (DEA), it was perfectly normal for the US to pay more than anyone else in the Alliance: “The Americans should not complain if they have to pay the price of empire, nor should they expect us [the Canadians] to pay that price with them.”[15] At the same time, the minister of trade and commerce tried to dismiss any doubt that Canada was not doing enough despite the unequal—but fair—cost distribution: “We do not expect the United States to carry our burdens, even though it has twelve times the population and eighteen times the productive strength. […] We expect to carry a fair share of the sacrifices and costs of collective defence. On a per capita basis we shall probably carry more than many of our allies.”[16] In other words, national contributions should reflect not merely the overall size of national income, but, most importantly, the national income per capita, required for a decent living standard.

On the contrary, in the case of NATO common budgets, the only departure from the NATO principle of “let the costs lie where they fall,”[17] the Canadian government acknowledged that the US had already borne a substantial contribution to European defence strength.[18] Consequently, Secretary to the Cabinet Robertson, seconded by the deputy minister of national defence, thought that Canada should agree to a formula modified in the US favour, since “the US were paying such a high proportion of the real cost of rearming the alliance.”[19] Ottawa accepted to pay more than pure national-income proportion, since this scheme would be fairer to the US.

When turning to the European allies, Heeney acknowledged that in addition to these principles of proportionality, there was also the obligation to help less well-off allies. The DEA’s Economic Division recognized that relatively richer North American members had the ability and capacity to assist the European allies struggling with economic problems, and, again, the unequal contributions to NATO defence could be justified “in order that the common burden may be shared more equitably.”[20]

Another way to incorporate fairness into their burden-sharing discourse was the analogy with contributions of Canadian provinces to the federal budget, where proportionality reflected their per capita income. Well before the whole Alliance embarked on painful burden-sharing exercises, Acting Under-Secretary Reid sketched out a proposal for an equitable distribution of defence efforts based on “principles of pooling of resources, of risks and of control over policy.” He thought that the percentage of defence spending should be linked to the aggregate national incomes of all NATO members and that this amount should be then allocated according to the strength of the respective national income of each.[21] Although other members in the DEA were sceptical, for Reid the problem resembled that of “measuring the comparative burdens of national expenditures, which persons of different income groups within a country bear.”[22]

The Canadian authorities searched for the criteria that would have made the cost sharing in NATO more equitable. Their fairness discourse on allied sharing lacked the utilitarian element of expenditures-benefits correspondence. Contrary to the predictions of most economist and realist studies on burden sharing, Canada, and the allies in general, had been actively attempting to arrive at some form of distributive justice instead of dodging their shares of NATO defence burden. In contrast to this discourse on sharing, shaped by the ethics of obligations and communitarian ethics, the ethical logic in the Canadian debates on specific contributions refocused on consequences.

Mutual aid programme

By the end of 1949, the Canadian government decided to launch a form of contribution that Canada “can reasonably be expected to contribute in the most effective way” to the mutual benefit to both Canada and the allies in Europe.[23] By September 1950 it had started providing its own facilities to train aircrew from NATO members, and transferring them some of its military equipment.[24] Together as a Mutual Aid Programme (MAP), these contributions of services and equipment, free of charge, were meant not only to rehearse the Canadian reputation as an “arsenal of democracy,”[25] but also to yield numerous benefits to both Canada and NATO.

First, spending public funds on military production was supposed to help the Canadian economy and maintain a high level of employment. The Canadian high commissioner in London, Wilgress, explained that the MAP funds, in addition to meeting European deficiencies, should “enable us to cut the coat of our aid to suit the cloth of our economy.”[26]

Second, from the military viewpoint, the MAP should serve the dual purpose of developing and maintaining the productive capacity, especially in the aviation industry, to meet the needs of the Canadian Forces, and of furnishing strategically important equipment to NATO allies. This was the “useful ‘pump priming’ function,” as described by Secretary to Cabinet Robertson, where “a modest element of self-interest was permissible.”[27] Although Canada had no legal means to control the destiny of military material once it left the Canadian territory, it reserved a “moral right” to know how the transferred equipment was put to use. Especially for the military authorities, it was important that, regardless of the country destination, the MAP should strengthen overall NATO defence.[28]

Third, the MAP was to generate positive political consequences. Although the government was able to make a contribution at a relatively small cost (some $300 million annually), which was highly valued by the allies,[29] Canadian authorities used the MAP to avoid sending troops overseas and later to compensate for its small manpower contribution to NATO forces in Europe. Canadian offers were tabled in NATO agencies who then recommended the allocations based on allied strategic needs. Some Canadian officials, however, later complained that Canada was not getting enough credit for its efforts. As reported by Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff General Foulkes, due to this multilateral allocation procedure, it was the NATO Standing Group, not Canada, that enjoyed more visibility, and the recipient countries were sometimes not aware of the equipment’s origin. Ottawa desired more publicity so that Canada could make proper political gains from its contribution.[30]

Given the prospect of political gains, all equipment and services under the MAP were free of charge to European allies, except for transportation costs. Ottawa refused any reciprocal mutual aid. Wilgress explained that if Canada were to seek counter benefits, the MAP “would have to be substantially larger in order to get the same political results.”[31] Deputy Minister of National Defence Drury explicitly ruled out making a profit on any country, as he did not consider it politically advantageous for Canada.[32] The only actor who consistently opposed free Canadian aid was the Bank of Canada, and, to a lesser extent, the Department of Defence Production, which wanted the government to put more emphasis on the sale of equipment, instead of having the military assistance put a direct burden on the Canadian economy. Several public speeches eventually started to frame the issue with the new slogan “trade not aid” in order to encourage economic activity on the both sides of the Atlantic.[33]

The last benefit of the programme, as identified by the Canadian authorities, concerned the Canadian military procurement in the US. This introduces a prudential element into a largely utilitarian discourse with respect to the MAP. Ottawa used its mutual aid to strike a deal with the US on the reciprocal military procurement between these two countries. It convinced the US that Canada’s inability to start its MAP for European partners was because much of the equipment, which the government intended to produce in Canada, included an important US dollar content. At that time, Canada faced a challenging balance- of-payment problem with respect to the American dollar and the Buy American Act, which barred military purchases for the US forces in Canada.

Given the ongoing Canadian conversion programme of equipment from the British to the American type, General Foulkes was, as usual, more straightforward in his statement that “if the US authorities were interested in encouraging the Canadian Armed Forces to standardise on American equipment, they would have to make it possible for us to buy the equipment.”[34] Prime Minister St. Laurent was more moderate as he presented the deal with the US as beneficial to NATO in general, since it implied more efficient utilization of the allied resources for producing defence equipment. Having revived the spirit of the 1941 Hyde Park Declaration, the US government agreed to reciprocal military purchases in Canada in May 1950.[35]

The Canadian discourse with respect to its mutual aid contribution to NATO was shaped largely by utilitarian ethics, while tainted with the ethics of prudence as the Canadian government used the MAP to improve its bargaining position with the US in the matter of military procurement. Overall, exchanges among the government’s departments (Defence, External Affairs, Finance, Trade and Commerce, Defence Production) suggest that the consequentialist logic played the central role in how Ottawa should bring about and execute the MAP, converging political, economic, and military benefits.

Canadian forces in Europe

Although Canada withdrew its soldiers from Europe in 1947, it sent them back four years later as its contribution to the NATO Integrated Forces. Throughout the initial period of NATO’s military build-up, the Canadian government firmly held the line that the provision of equipment to Europe would be its most effective contribution to the collective defence strength. Yet, in October 1951, Parliament approved sending to Europe one brigade group and an air division of eleven fighter squadrons.[36] The Twenty-Seventh Canadian Infantry Brigade landed in Western Germany on December 23, 1951 (Maloney 1997, p. 21). Which ethics shaped the Canadian discourse on the redeployment of armed forces overseas?

Troop deployment to Europe was a great nuisance to the Canadian government. The minister of defence acknowledged that although “participation by the Canadian army will show more emphatically than any amount of equipment … that we stand together with our allies,” at the same time he added that “material considerations alone might suggest that there might be greater military value in spending the same amount on equipment for forces already on the spot rather than on Canadian ground forces.”[37] The financial factor did not play a minor role—the Canadian defence policy at that time did not contain plans for maintaining an expeditionary force of ground troops. External Affairs’ Head of Economic Division Plumptre confirmed that keeping “any considerable force in Europe would be in a military sense expensive and wasteful of men and resources,” though he noted the pressure of public opinion at home and in the US on Canada to increase its forces in being.[38] Wrong, the Canadian ambassador in Washington, explained to US Secretary of State Acheson that the Canadian deployment would “be unwise and unprofitable.”[39] As it turned out, Canadian forces stationed in Europe were indeed the most expensive item on the national defence budget.

Ottawa definitively leant towards the deployment option when General Foulkes together with the deputy minister of national defence concluded that “stationing more troops in Western Europe was the only effective deterrent and that forces in Canada would not serve the same purpose.”[40] In December 1950, Pearson and Claxton in their memorandum advised the cabinet that “there is no alternative to defending North America in Europe.”[41] Doubts, however, never disappeared. General Foulkes reminded the government of the limited military value of the Canadian brigade in Europe, since Germany had been contributing to the Integrated Force since 1952 and, more importantly, “this [Canadian] brigade and its dependent costs do not in any way increase the military position of NATO.”[42]

The Canadian authorities believed that this contribution would have only narrow military utility. Nevertheless, utilitarian cost-benefit calculations shaping their discourse identified some benefits. Considering the US pressures and allies’ expectations of future Canadian contribution, by deploying forces to Europe the Canadian officials hoped to enhance Canada’s reputation as a responsible and committed ally.[43] For example, they let the NATO Supreme Commander choose the location of the deployed troops instead of deciding unilaterally[44] and the Canadian government paid for these brigade forces stationed in Germany.[45] Yet it remains puzzling why the government helped its allies in a way that the Canadian elites themselves did not consider at all as the best means to maximize NATO strength.

Public speeches made by Canadian officials suggest an ethics different from utilitarianism, or consequentialism in general. Here the Canadian discourse was shaped by the communitarian ethics and ethics of obligations, since they framed the question of troop deployment as “necessary for the protection of the Atlantic community,” and as contributing to “a better understanding between our two [Canadian and German] peoples.”[46] This discourse did not expect Canada’s contribution to maximize anything, but rather pointed to the appreciation of the value of the Atlantic community and interdependence between Europe and North America. This communitarian posture put Canada in relation with the European nations to whom the government felt responsibility for their common destiny, as it was “the solemn obligations which bind us [Canadians] to our friends there [in Europe].”[47] This discourse on “solemn obligations” and responsibility to “friends” was absent in the case of the Canadian mutual aid. In a similar vein, one memo that attracted attention in Ottawa in 1954 proposed to include some European units in the North American continental defence under a new NATO command structure in Canada (to be called SACNAM). It meant to decrease the sense of European dependence and inferiority to the US while making NATO “more of an affair between equal partners.” According to this memo, Canada would sacrifice part of its sovereignty to improve ties between the NATO allies in North America and in Europe.

In short, although forces in Western Europe did not represent Canada’s major strategic military contribution, Ottawa made this commitment despite the heavy burden it would place on the national budget. The government’s decision reflected, on the one hand, the utilitarian ethics in terms of nonmaterial political gains, but, on the other hand, the communitarian ethics combined with the ethics of obligations played an important role in how the Canadian authorities further framed the issue in terms of its great symbolic value. This communitarian discourse will be more evident in a parallel discussion on the continental North American air defence. The heavy expenditures earmarked for the construction and operation of radar lines forced the Canadian government to decrease its MAP, but not the number of Canadian troops in Europe.[48]

Continental air defence

In the first half of the 1950s, Washington came up with ambitious projects of radar chains—most of them on the Canadian territory—to improve the continental air defence of North America. Although the Canadian government knew very well that the radars did not qualify as NATO common projects, it equalled this early warning system with the Canadian contribution to European defence for two reasons. First, since the radar chains increased the strength of North American defence, which is a part of the NATO area, they contributed to overall NATO strength.[49] Second, the government emphasized the sharing and pooling element, which was central in the NATO military build-up and which had always been encouraged in Canada.[50] Over time, there were three lines of radar stations built on the Canadian territory, with Canada involved in each of them quite differently. The ethics shaping the discourse on Canadian participation in this continental radar system could be characterized as prudential utilitarianism. Although sovereignty and the country’s reputation were Ottawa’s overriding concerns, financial feasibility and military efficiency informed the Canadian discourse to a significant extent.

As to the first radar chain, the Pinetree Line, approved by the Canadian Cabinet in February 1951, the two governments quickly arrived at a cost-sharing formula, according to which the US shared two thirds and Canada one third of all costs. The question of economic impact on the Canadian defence budget was not pronounced in this case.[51] The Cabinet Defence Committee, however, made sure that the US administration presented the project as a joint enterprise and measure of self-defence, not as American mutual aid to Canada.[52]

The conjoint negotiations of the next two chains, the McGill Fence (or the Mid-Canada Line) and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, were far from being as smooth as the first one. Especially the issue of Canadian sovereignty re-emerged when the DEA’s Defence Liaison Division complained about Canada not being consulted sufficiently ahead on the development of US plans for radars in the Canadian Arctic.[53] MacKay noted that the Defence Department and the Department of Finance were busier “assuming their responsibilities for operations abroad […] rather than protecting such intangibles as sovereignty or autonomy at home.”[54] Wilgress concurred that judgments made by the Canadian government “were governed largely by financial considerations.”[55] The Canadian government approved in principle the construction and operation of the McGill Fence as a Canada-funded project in November 1953. After long deliberations, in November 1954 the Cabinet Defence Committee agreed to the DEW Line construction as a joint project, with Canada’s responsibility confined to the operation and maintenance.

The Mid-Canada Line is usually presented as a Canadian tactic to preserve its reputation at home and to dilute criticism of the US taking control over Canada (Lajeunesse 2007, p. 56). However, several Canadian officials simply doubted both financial feasibility and military efficiency of the DEW Line project. Especially the Canadian military were persuaded that the McGill Fence was more reasonable than the DEW Line. The acting chief of the air staff pointed out that from a strictly technical point of view, the DEW Line would be of little value without sea wings, which the US had undertaken at its expense, whereas the Mid-Canada Line was less challenging to build and would be immediately able to provide a warning earlier than the Pinetree Line.[56] Since feasibility of the DEW Line was too contingent on US action and Canadian authorities did not know how authentic the US estimates of construction costs were, Ottawa avoided specifying its contribution to this “crash programme.”[57]

Private discussions in Ottawa suggest that the financial aspect turned out to be decisive.[58] Not forgetting the dilemma of dividing its resources between continental defence and its commitments to Western Europe, in October 1953 Claxton suggested Canada should use a “cost avoidance strategy” (Jockel 1987, p. 83). Coupled with the doubts regarding the military feasibility of the DEW Line, Ottawa decided to fully pay for the Mid-Canada Line even though it knew this would affect Canada’s room for manoeuvre in the DEW Line project. This lower cost option would keep Canada’s “self-respect without having to put out too great an expenditure of materials, manpower, and money” and in such a way that the Canadian economy would get the maximum benefit from this contribution.[59] Although Canada did not participate but in a final phase of the DEW Line development, it was crucially important for Ottawa to signal joint responsibility for the DEW Line and to present it publicly as one element of a larger continental defence project.[60]

In sum, prudential utilitarianism shaped Canadian discourse in the case of radar lines. The government’s decision to assume the costs of the Mid-Canada Line was predominantly made on utilitarian grounds of financial and military efficiency and in accordance with its cost-minimizing preferences, while the DEW Line project was informed by the prudential considerations with regards the country’s reputation.

Canadian officials played the NATO card to do some political damage control regarding the perceived loss of sovereignty. Eventually, the role of the ethics of prudence in the Canadian discourse diminished since Ottawa preferred allowing more US troops to Canada over reducing Canadian forces in Europe. Even though Foulkes proposed to cut down the Canadian air force in Europe, Pearson made sure they did not decrease.[61] Rather, Ottawa chose to reduce its MAP by two thirds in November 1955, so that the value of the Canadian presence in Europe would not shrink.[62]

Split discourse: Incoherent or incompatible ethics?

Having looked at the ethical elements in the Canadian discourse on NATO burden-sharing, this article, through the interpretive analysis of how Canadian authorities discursively framed the issues of sharing and contributing, makes two principal observations (see table 2). The first relates to the co-occurrence of several ethical logics in the Canadian burden-sharing discourse. The second sheds light on how these “ethical codes” differed in relation to the topic discussed.

Two broad tendencies characterize the presence of ethical logics in the Canadian discourse. On the one hand, the co-occurrence of the ethics of utility and the ethics of prudence, as in the case of the mutual aid programme or the construction of the radar lines, points to a practical convergence into the consequentialist type of ethics. On the other hand, the archival evidence indicates the combined presence of the ethics of obligations and communitarian ethics. Canada’s principled action with respect to the Washington Treaty stems from the ethics of obligations, which emphasizes rules, and communitarian ethics further shaped Canadian officials’ discourse in terms of relational responsibility to the European allies. A case in point is the justification for the overseas deployment of the Canadian forces—namely, that Canada has an obligation to share the burden of the Atlantic community and to protect it.

Table 2

The ethics of burden sharing: The Canadian case

The ethics of burden sharing: The Canadian case

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As to the different ethics shaping the Canadian discourse in relation to the concrete topic, this is where the normative contours of the burden-sharing problem start to emerge. Canadian authorities framed the issue of contributing to NATO by employing largely consequential types of ethics: prudential and utilitarian. In contrast, the issue of allied sharing was largely shaped in the Canadian discourse by both deontological and relational ethics, appealing to rules, obligations, and responsibility.

On the whole, Canadian authorities had a pretty clear idea about how Canada’s share in NATO should look. Their discourse on allied sharing had a deontological background. These principles for equitably dividing the costs of collective defence according to some notion of fairness were supposed to go beyond utility seeking, otherwise characteristic for the ethics shaping the Canadian discourse in the case of specific contributions to NATO.

The problem with this split discourse is that utilitarian rationality does not create a mindset apt for anything but benefit-maximizing behaviour. According to its plain prescriptions, a utilitarian discourse on allied sharing would base the cost distribution upon the benefits received from this collective action. Alternatively, a utilitarian could also justify individual shares in accordance with strategic utility—for example, in the sense that the alliance is as strong as its weakest member. However, this kind of utilitarian discourse was absent when Canadian authorities talked about the issue of dividing collective defence efforts. Instead of utility, Canadian authorities framed sharing in terms of fairness. Due to the limits of utilitarianism, the ethical logic behind contributions could not generate additional criteria should fairness require them.


How can an ethical perspective contribute to our understanding of NATO burden sharing? At the very least, the available evidence suggests that there are normative roots to the burden-sharing problem. According to the historical interpretive analysis of Canadian archival documents, the ethics of burden sharing in NATO can be characterized as tensions between utility of contribution and fairness of distribution.

This split discourse means that the same set of actors (Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, and military) in the same institutional setting (the government and its committees) employed a burden-sharing discourse that was shaped by multiple ethics, depending on whether these actors were talking about the cost distribution in NATO or discussing specific Canadian contributions. Although utilitarian ethics shaped how concretely Canada was going to share in the burden, the very issue of sharing was framed in terms of equitable cost distribution. The utilitarian ethics under these circumstances could not make burden-sharing discourse more intelligible, since it generally operates within a logic based on efficiency, not fairness.

In light of these findings, this paper suggests several theoretical and empirical implications with respect to the burden-sharing dynamics in NATO, interdisciplinary theoretical pluralism, and applied ethics. Following the renewed academic interest in studying ethical questions in IR and in overcoming theoretical boundaries, the interpretive grid used in this paper combined three IR theories with three traditions of normative ethics. It put forward the claim that none of these theories alone could properly seize how Canadian leaders approached NATO burden sharing. While liberal and constructivist ethics informed the Canadian discourse on sharing of defence cost (fairness of distribution), the liberal utilitarian ethics, occasionally together with realist prudence, shaped the discourse on what Canada should actually spend money on (utility of contribution). The simultaneous presence of all three IR theories in the Canadian discourse can then be depicted by the terms of cautiousness and sovereignty concerns (realism), principled action and benefits from cooperation (liberalism), and responsibility to and for the community of Atlantic nations (constructivism). This theoretical pluralism made it possible to embrace the complexity of multinational cooperation in NATO and to identify the split discourse as the possible normative root of the burden-sharing problem.

The interpretive analysis further points to the relevance of using normative ethics to address the burden-sharing problem. In contrast to most realist and economic theories of alliances, the paper found that free-riding in an alliance voluntarily created by like-minded sovereign states is not considered acceptable behaviour by those same member countries. Canada did not contribute to purely seek private benefits or to strengthen only its own defence. The contributions were meant to enhance the collective enterprise, to produce benefits for itself and the allies at the same time. Moreover, the Canadian discourse reflected some notion of justice and responsibility to the others. Despite the sovereignty concerns about the control over the national budget, the realist ethics of prudence did not prevent Canadian authorities from framing the issue of sharing in terms of fairness. With reference to Thielemann’s analytical model, NATO burden-sharing poses that many challenges because it combines norm-based (deontological and relational) motives with cost-benefit (consequential) patterns of states’ behaviour. Further research on how ethical considerations help actors choose the right contribution strategy over others should improve our conceptual understanding of military cooperation.

The St. Laurent government represents a rather hard case for NATO burden sharing. Despite the absence of parliamentary opposition against the policy of Canada’s active participation in NATO, even this pro-NATO government developed a split discourse shaped by incoherent ethical logics. Furthermore, internal differences emerged between the departments driven by the ethics of prudence and utilitarian ethics (Finance, Trade and Commerce, Defence) on the one hand, and the actors using a discourse more centred around obligations and communitarian arguments (Department of External Affairs, Prime Minister’s Office) on the other hand. The 2016 announcement of “responsible conviction”[63] to guide Canadian foreign policy confirms to some extent that international politics is just too complex to follow one simple code of ethical conduct.

In sum, this interpretive research with an ethical twist provides further insights into the relational burden-sharing dynamics beyond the quantitative realms of public goods theory. In adding a normative layer to the collective-action problem in NATO, this study suggests that there is one ethics proper to sharing and other ethics to contributions. In short, individual action that pursues practical gains, rather than fairness, can undermine the desirable fair distribution of costs. To overcome this ethical impasse, NATO committees, in discussing allied burden-sharing efforts, might have to put emphasis on more tangible benefits of contributing, not only obligations, to share the common burden equitably. This would create more compelling incentives for individual allies to commit their national resources for the defence of others and produce greater, and fairer, burden sharing in NATO.