This week’s visit to Canada by Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a timely reminder for Canadians that the peace we enjoy in western Europe and North America is maintained by conscious effort and should not be taken for granted. Canada benefits from that peace and needs to do its share in preserving it.
In the 70 years since Canada and others established NATO, the threats to peace have changed dramatically. In 1949, the Red Army had occupied eastern and central Europe, imposed Communist governments and was preparing to bring the rest of Europe under Soviet control. NATO was formed to stop the Communist advance and to stop the expansion of the Soviet empire.
Today’s Russia is a pale shadow of Stalin’s Soviet Union, but still it continues sporadic warfare in Ukraine; still it holds the Crimean peninsula; still it sends killers to poison defectors in England; still it bombards the Baltic states with propaganda aimed at provoking discord within those small, vulnerable countries on Russia’s western flank.
Canada today needs to keep its computer systems safe from cyberattacks that could paralyze our armed forces or our power transmission networks or our civil aviation. This country should be making full use of NATO’s experience in that field. Russian internet trolls specialize in tossing out rumours calculated to inflame regional or ethnic resentments. As this year’s election campaign heats up, Canada needs to defend itself against social media mischief of that sort. No one quite knows how to conduct such a defence, but NATO, which has struggled for years against Russian disinformation programs, knows as much as anyone.
It is clear from the investigations of U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller that the Russian government actively interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and tried to tilt the election in Donald Trump’s favour. Mr. Trump might have succeeded without Russia’s help — there is no real way of knowing. The visible result, however, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a friend in the White House and enjoys impunity for his maltreatment of Ukraine, his meddling in Baltic politics and other misdeeds.
Canadians do not want to be ruled by a prime minister who lives under a cloud of suspicion that Vladimir Putin’s internet trolls helped put him in office. Elections Canada will try in its timid way to make political advertisers on social media identify themselves, but that touches just one small corner of the problem. Canada should be mobilizing its NATO allies to examine and publicize the Russian system of disinformation so as to identify and denounce troll messages as soon as they surface.
Mr. Trump regards NATO as a device for smaller countries to make the United States cover their military expenses. Military spending by NATO members, expressed as a share of gross national product, has increased since Mr. Trump started complaining. Canada should continue to raise its military spending toward the two per cent level NATO members have agreed is fair.
But aside from the money and the conventional armed forces, Canada should also pay attention to the new techniques that are being developed to weaken western democracies, to get them quarrelling with each other and with their own internal minority groups. NATO can probably help. That’s not what we created NATO for 70 years ago, but that’s what we need it for now.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.