Canada’s approach to NATO over the past 70 years is puzzling. On the one hand, Canada has been perceived by other member states as a laggard in terms of defense spending and its commitments to NATO operations have tended to be modest. It has been accused, if one were to use stronger language, of being a rider, be it “free,” “easy,” or otherwise. 1 On the other hand, it was a founding member that championed NATO as a political and economic community as opposed to a mere collective defense organization. It has also been a participant in every NATO operation since the Alliance’s creation. 2 The most appropriate way to describe this is that Canada’s ambitions with regard to the Alliance exceed its capabilities. This begs a broader question: what explains the Janus-faced approach, a combination of institutional ambition, a relative lack of capability (with some notable exceptions), and varying shades of “ridership,” best? In other words, why have Canada’s contributions varied over time? A decade ago, Haglund and Onea argued persuasively that neoclassical realism explains the variance in Canadian foreign policy behavior well. 3 This paper will explore the logic behind the variance and, in so doing, show why neoclassical realism would offer a convincing explanation for Canada’s behavior toward the Alliance over time. This will be accomplished through a brief summary of the theory before exploring four broad themes. These are:

The variances in Canada’s commitments to the Alliance, measured in military personnel and expenditures.

Canada’s perceptions of threats over time.

The quest for a “counterweight” to the United States, Canada’s closest ally.

How membership in NATO connects to Canadian foreign and security policy goals.