A co-authored Hill Times Opinion article on NATO today


True leadership would see Trudeau attend NATO summit virtually as Canadians await COVID-19 vaccines


All the important decisions—predictably about the pullout from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, coping with non-NATO member Ukraine, and the evolving cyber threat landscape—were announced in the last few weeks, and Canada didn’t need to be present to declare it would host a NATO Centre for Excellence on Climate Change.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured June 14 at a bilateral meeting with Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. That didn’t need to happen in person and a true leader would have waited to travel until the last Canadian got their first COVID-19 vaccine, write Erika Simpson and Mike Simpson. Photograph courtesy of NATO

The NATO summit, convened June 14, will be a schmooze-fest among the 30 allies as they meet the new U.S. president and crow about their respective increased military spending as a percentage of GDP. But true leadership would have been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau choosing to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting by video conference, and future events, until the last Canadian gets their first COVID-19 shot.

Our father instilled in us that true leadership emulates Ernest Shackleton, who has been called “the greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.” Shackleton exposed himself and his team to perilous risks, embarking on a dangerous sea voyage; he exemplified real leadership by caring for all his men on a frozen ice floe, after their ship Endurance sank; so much so that not a single man among 28 died, although they endured brutal inhuman conditions on the frozen Antarctic ice for almost two years. According to Alexandra Shackleton, president of a society founded to honour Sir Ernest Shackleton: “Every man was fed every four hours, but if he noticed any member of the expedition failing slightly, he would order hot milk then and there, not just for him, but for everybody, so this man would not, as he put it, have doubts about himself.”

If Shackleton were prime minister today, he would ensure every Canadian had their first shot before he was double vaccinated, never mind jetting off to NATO headquarters to hobnob. All the communiques that will be revealed at the NATO summit were virtually negotiated in the last few weeks, and as Justin’s own father Pierre Trudeau—NATO’s longest-serving statesman—once complained, there is no opportunity for real discussion at the NATO summits.

“I bear solemn witness to the fact that NATO heads of state and of government meet only to go through the tedious motions of reading speeches, drafted by others, with the principal objective of not rocking the boat,” the 65 years old Trudeau said at the time. “Indeed, any attempt to start a discussion, or to question the meaning of the communique—also drafted by others long before the meetings began was met with stony embarrassment or strong opposition,” declared Trudeau in the New York Times on Nov. 14 1984, as he denounced “posturing” by NATO.

All the important decisions—predictably about the pullout from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, coping with non-NATO member Ukraine, and the evolving cyber threat landscape—were announced in the last few weeks. Justin does not need to be there to declare Canada will be hosting a NATO Centre for Excellence on Climate Change.

Every NATO leader has been double-vaccinated long before their fellow citizens. Our dad taught us that when the boat is sinking, the captain should always be the last to leave the ship. Even in an earthquake in New Zealand, we learned from his example as he shepherded everyone into the smallest windowless room–the smelly bathroom–and was the last to step in. In case of fire, he told us, ensure everyone is out of the house, before meeting out front.

Canadian leadership means every last Canadian must have the opportunity to have their first shot before attending needless summitry stuffed with pure pageantry. We wonder whether it is morally right for Canada to send an airplane load of double-vaccinated staffers to Europe, when all the NATO decisions were negotiated weeks ago, and we still have not completed the vaccinations in Canada.

At the last NATO summit before the pandemic, then-U.S. president Donald Trump publicly admonished Trudeau for Canada not spending enough on the military. This time, Trudeau can boast an increase to 1.45 per cent of GDP on defence; Canada has entered the ranks of NATO war horses, not a stallion yet, but no longer a show pony.

This week’s NATO summit will be a love-fest for Biden. Hugging will be seen as unseemly, and a few lowly staffers who have not been twice inoculated will be seen wearing masks throughout. But the real leadership displayed would have been to stay home and wait—until the very last old lady in Canada has received her second dose of Pfizer or Moderna. Real leadership would be to stand last in line until the young person with multiple sclerosis has gotten the second shot. Real leadership would be to offer first shots to the leaders of the 25 poorest countries in the world (Burundi, South Sudan, Malawi, Mozambique, etc.,) rather than publicly revel in a NATO summit for the world to see.

As a demonstration of Allied solidarity,” the Polish Medical Emergency Detachment made sure to vaccinate military and civilian staff at NATO headquarters, joined by Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, in March. Poland is an avid NATO supporter as evidenced by its high percentage of spending on defence (2.3 per cent) compared to its neighbour Germany (1.57 per cent). But the Poles are much more afraid of the Russian bear and insist that NATO’s Article 5 (“an attack against one of us is an attack against us all”) protects them.

Would Shackleton have accepted a free shot first? If the plane is filling with smoke in the sky, our dad said, put your own mask on first so you can help others. As an act of global solidarity, we need to vaccinate Canadians and then make sure global herd immunity is achieved before we gather to travel internationally to boast about spending money on weapons.

Erika Simpson is president of the Canadian Peace Research Association, professor of international politics at Western University, and author of NATO and the Bomb. Mike Simpson is a nominee for the Green Party in the federal riding of West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, B.C., on leave as the executive director of the British Columbia International Co-operation Council. Their father Graham Simpson was an explorer and professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

The Hill Times

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