In a press conference on February 24, Prime Minister Paul Martin ended years of speculation as to whether Ottawa would support Washington’s plan to develop a system to shoot down inter-continental ballistic missiles fired by so-called rogue states. In Canada, few were surprised by the negative response, although the manner in which it was arrived at caused widespread consternation even among those skeptical of the program’s merits. This article will assess the reasons given in public and in private for the deci- sion (including the Liberal party’s principal arguments against missile defence) and evaluate its impact on Canada- US relations in the short term.

Martin straddled the fence for as long as he could before finally, albeit reluctantly, jumping down on the side of those counseling against Canadian participation in the bal- listic missile defence (BMD) program. With a palpable sense of awkwardness, and knowing that he was speaking to domestic and American audiences, he delivered the ”œno” in a solicitous, almost apologetic fashion. He was careful not to begrudge the United Sates its right to defend itself, nor did he reject the rationale behind the defence system. This is very significant, in that he conceded the day to BMD-pho- bic Liberals without explicitly endorsing their view that mis- sile defence is a dangerous pursuit ”” one from which Canada should dissociate itself in thought, word and deed.

That the prime minister’s number one political priority is gaining a parliamentary majority is well-known, as is the fact and he did not want to jeopardize his electoral fortunes by fomenting a caucus revolt in advance of the Liberal con- vention on March 2. By pre-empting the firestorm that awaited him, he showed extreme sensitivity not only to his own leadership prospects, but to party concerns, insofar as they depended on shoring up support in his home province. The Toronto Star reported on March 4 that Defence Minister Bill Graham had stated that the government’s position had, in effect, been determined by a ”œpeace camp” working with- in the Quebec wing of the Liberal party.

Like his predecessor, Jean Chrétien, Martin did not order a made-in-Canada study of the immediacy of the ballis- tic missile threat or how it might (or might not) have been made more so by the undeniable proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technolo- gy. Had Prime Minster Martin declined participation based on a sober judg- ment of the likelihood of a terrorist group or rogue state launching a mis- sile at North America, he may have been on solid ground. That he did not do so robbed the public of an opportu- nity to do something it seems strange- ly disinclined to do: separate the hypothetical from the hyperbole and make a fair, rational decision on a mat- ter affecting the security of Canadians.

The decision not to embrace BMD as a matter of national or continental importance should, therefore, be viewed as one determined primarily by party politics than by an appreciation of the strategic landscape (a fact recently confirmed to the author by a former Liberal cabinet minister). This is arguably the Canadian way. All poli- tics is local, even in matters pertaining to international security. Martin’s apparent flip-flop, after all but endors- ing Canada’s participation in April of 2003, may be incomprehensible to some, particularly in the United States. But this too is the Canadian way.

The prime minister justified his stance by saying that Canada had other defence priorities, as if to suggest that participation in BMD would preclude the fulfillment of the defence commit- ments (worth an estimated $12.8-bil- lion) announced in the February 23 federal budget. This was somewhat disingenuous, as there is no evidence that Canadian participation in the US program would have required massive outlays of capital. Suggestions that expenditures on RADARSAT-2 and other orbiting sensors would be direct- ly and solely related to missile defence are inaccurate. The technology Canada is considering for space surveillance would be deployed even if missile defence was a non-issue.

Further post facto justifications appeared in the March 2 edition of the National Post. Former Liberal party strategist Warren Kinsella mounted a passionate defence of the govern- ment’s decision not to take an active part in program, citing the technical immaturity of the system, its alleged unpopularity in Canada and around the world, and its capacity to stoke the embers of a new arms race.

The succinctness with which these arguments were presented was in inverse proportion to their value as a reasoned assessment of the Martin government’s decision-making. If there was indeed a thought process (other than one involv- ing those considerations listed above) which culminated in the February 24 announcement, it is unlikelly to have followed the intellectual path laid out by Kinsella in his editorial.

The argument that missile defence doesn’t currently work, is certainly correct. But neither did humanity mas- ter powered flight until many years (and many costly failures) after the first attempt. Breakthrough technolo- gies take time to mature, and ones cre- ated specifically for tasks that have no civilian equivalent take even more time to come into their own. The truth may be that critics, including many learned scientific minds, do not want the technology to work. This is not the same as saying that it can never work.

To prove that participation in the US-led program would pit Canada against the tide of world opinion, Kinsella offered as ”œevidence” the results of an opinion poll stating that many European countries disagree with the course of US foreign policy. This is con- fusing one issue with another, as there is no indication that the poll sought opin- ion on the wisdom or desirability of missile defence. Critics may be surprised to learn that Britain, Denmark, and Australia are on board, and that Germany, Italy and Japan are co-operat- ing with the US on projects to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles.

As to whether missile defence is irrevocably unpop- ular in Canada, there is no evidence of this. Until recent polls, the country was about evenly divided in polls on whether Canada should par- ticipate in BMD, with the strongest opposition in Quebec. Yet there remains a solid base of support for missile defence, even though it has been a cause without a champion in Canada. At the Conservative convention later in March, Stephen Harper did re-open the debate, saying Canada should be at the table, and that as prime minister he would re- open talks with the US. Even at the Liberal convention, Michael Ignatieff in his keynote address also suggested Canada needed to be at the table. No policy proposal is likely to be popular unless it is discussed thoroughly and without rancour or fear-mongering. As the government refrained from fostering debate on the matter, the public cannot be assured that it had all the facts before it is alleged to have made up its mind.

Perhaps the answer to the unpopu- larity of the issue rests in the oft- repeated but thoroughly discredited argument that missile defence would ignite an arms race. A cursory review of history reveals that countries do not ini- tiate arms races just because one nation has purchased a new system; they begin first with deep, mutual suspicions, a sense that one’s nation is destined, at some point in the future, to come into conflict with another. This explains the battleship race between two imperial rivals ”” Britain and Germany ”” prior to the First World War, and the nuclear arms races of the Cold War. In both cases, the protagonists responded to their mutual suspicions (cause) by ratch- eting up the number of strategic weapons in their arsenals (effect).

For an arms race to occur in con- temporary times, the purveyors of the arms race theory would have Canadians believe that the Cold War did not really end, and that Russia and the US are on a collision course. The reality is some- what less dramatic. No one in Washington or Moscow can conceive of a situation in which the two former rivals will lock horns militarily. There is no US-Russian nuclear ”œbalance” to upset; mutually assured destruction is a relationship made obsolete by the fall of the Berlin Wall. US and Russian nuclear arsenals are shrinking in size, not expanding. And China’s limited arsenal would exist (and be modernized) even in the absence of missile defence.

Kinsella’s defence of Martin drew upon Russia’s objections to BMD, but without examining whether they had any legitimate basis, or why they neces- sarily counted more than American con- cerns over the proliferation of missile technology. The issue may be of less importance now that both Moscow and Beijing have basically resigned them- selves to Washington’s plans. Both feel that there is more to gain by co-operating on trade and counter-terrorism than in bickering over who deploys what tech- nology, especially when that technology gives America a more palatable option than obliterating a country foolish enough to throw a nuclear missile at it.

As to the principal fear among the Liberal party rank-and-file ”” that the missile defence will inevitably weaponize space ”” no argument was put forth as to why this was inherent- ly more objectionable than the weaponization of the skies, land, and oceans. Nor was there any concession to the possibility that US strategic goals could one day be achieved with- out recourse to space-based weapons. (The technology absorbing the lion’s share of research and development funding involves land- and sea-based interceptors, as well as a laser mounted in a modified passenger jet.)

Related fears that missile defence is but a fig-leaf for a plan to wage war against the satellites of others nations ignores the fact that the technology required to shoot down a satellite has been proven without having to base any weapons in orbit. (In 1986 the US Air Force launched a rocket-powered anti-satellite weapon from the belly of an F-15 fighter, which in turn deployed a solid metal cylinder into the orbital path of a derelict satellite.) Indeed, as the US is the most space-dependent country in the world, it has the least to gain and by far the most to lose by wag- ing war via ”œkiller satellite.” The notion, put forth by some BMD opponents, that such devices would inevitably be deployed and used to bombard cities is sooth-saying at its worst, and as far- fetched as the idea that their true pur- pose would be to protect the earth from errant asteroids.

The governing party may now rest easy that the issue has been decided. But it was clearly not done so for the reasons put forth by one of its leading members. That the decision was reached without the prom- ised parliamentary debate will come as cold comfort to some, but not to everyone. For the activist passionately opposed to BMD, the intellectual journey toward the political decision is not important. Only the out- come is.

Shortly before the PM’s announcement, Canada’s new ambassador to the US, Frank McKenna, remarked that Canada would have some role to play in the system ”” this despite the government’s insistence that no decision had been made. His statement, and the uproar it caused, should be viewed as the consequence of Ottawa’s decision not to engage Canadians directly on whether Canada’s security would be enhanced or dimin- ished by BMD. When the government absents itself from national discussion on key issues, confusion, ambiguity and consternation are the inevitable result.

But McKenna was essentially correct. It is misleading to suggest that Canada will be completely divorced from the missile defence effort as a result of the government’s decision. Canada is a member of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). Part of NORAD’s mandate is to detect missile launches and track the missile to its intended target. These are the first two steps in the interception process. Thus as long as Canada is a member of NORAD it will have one foot planted firmly on the playing field. Indeed, Canada’s foot has been there since the first Soviet missiles entered service decades ago. To pretend that Canada is (or will be) virginal when it comes to ballistic missile defence is an exercise in naïvete, if not outright self- delusion.

In the immediate aftermath of the decision US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice cancelled a planned trip to Ottawa. Amid the usual protesta- tions that the visit was a casualty of a scheduling conflict, unnamed US sources maintained that the Bush administration’s beef was the expecta- tions Martin had raised, as well as the way in which the answer was ultimate- ly conveyed. On March 7, Canwest News Service printed remarks by out- going US Ambassador Paul Cellucci to the effect that Martin had long assured Washington that Canada would even- tually climb aboard. As Martin’s mind was probably made up by the time par- liament rose for the Christmas 2004 break, he could have expressed his new- found reservations to President Bush at the NATO summit the following February. Instead he left it to Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew to inform Dr. Rice that the matter had been decided.

This is in contrast to Brian Mulroney’s forthrightness with Ronald Reagan, with whom he had cultivated good personal relations long before he said ”œno” to participation in the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). There were no hurt feelings in Washington, as Mulroney had never articulated his support for SDI, only to withdraw it a year later.

From the point of view of the Bush administration, Canada’s support was desirable on practical as well and political grounds; it makes sense for NORAD’s warning and tracking functions to be married with the interception function. But American officials have known all along that the decision ulti- mately facing Canadians was not whether to acquiesce to the inclusion of the system within NORAD, but rather how they would reconcile themselves to a decision that was, to all intents and purposes, Washington’s to make.

Thus despite the surprise and bewilderment in the White House, the Bush administration will likely mutter to itself and get on with the job. The actual interception of an in-bound missile will be handled by US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), a headquar- ters established post-9/11 to handle unconventional threats to North America, and one Canada made great spectacle of refusing to join. But the division of labour does little to mask close co-operation and co-dependence between NORAD and NORTHCOM. Indeed, an April 5 Canadian Press story quoted Defence Minister Graham as say- ing that NORAD would have died in 2004 had Canada not consented to the sharing of missile flight data gathered by NORAD radars with NORTHCOM.

Canadians will now have to assess the politico-economic and security implications of their government’s response. Will relations with their most important economic and security part- ner be plunged into the deep freeze? Unlikely, as there are too many areas of common interest, including the free flow of goods in both directions and the increasing dependence of the US on Canadian oil and gas.

Will relations remain harmonious at all levels? That is equally difficult to say, although talk of linkage between BMD and outstanding trade disputes is being discussed openly. A telephone call from the prime minister to President Bush after the announcement went unanswered for ten days. A senior Canadian consular official in the US told the author that the administration had no expectations that anything of substance would result from the US-Mexico-Canada summit in Waco, Texas on March 23. In the mean- time, security continues to trump trade in the United States ”” something that, according to the same consular official, Canadian politicians and business lead- ers forget at their peril.

On the security side, several ques- tions need to be answered. Will the US agree to install a partition at NORAD Headquarters, separating the joint warn- ing and attack assessment infrastructure from the interception capability? It seems improbable that Washington would tilt even further at Canadian political wind- mills, especially given the obfuscation and meandering that have characterized Ottawa’s position on the issue.

Will Martin’s demand that ”œsov- ereign” Canada be consulted before the United States acted against and incoming missile? Leaving aside the question of whether there would even be time to do so, it is difficult to conceive of any circumstances under which the US government would seek the approval of anyone outside the BMD tent.

Will Ottawa consent to the expansion of NORAD’s mandate during the 2006 renewal talks to include coastal defence? If it does, should this be seen as merely a fence-mending gesture or the result of a sober appraisal of Canada’s security interests? And what will Ottawa bring to the table in terms of hard assets? The much-touted appro- priations for defence made no mention of additional ships for the Canadian Navy or Coast Guard, both of which face varying degrees of obsolescence.

Clearly, any claim as to how the ”œno” will affect Canada-US securi- ty relations over the long term requires the ability to see into the minds of future administrations and congres- sional leaders. An impossible task to be sure, although the tone and results of the NORAD renewal talks in 2006 should give some clue as to whether there is sufficient mutual trust and con- fidence to let the relationship evolve in a manner advantageous to both parties.

In the meantime, Canada’s appetite for deeper collaboration was reflected in the caution with which the recommen- dations of a tri-national panel of govern- ment and business leaders were greeted. Speaking on March 14, the senior Canadian member of the panel, former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, pro- posed the creation of a ”œNorth American economic and security community.” The intent would be to allow the free flow of goods and labour within the geographi- cal space. New, tri-service defence ties would be co-ordinated through a second- generation NORAD, while more strin- gent and harmonized border controls would be established at the peripheries ”” a prospect which prompted a string of editorial criticism and re-ignited fears of the imminent death of Canada’s unique immigration policies, plus an irrevocable loss of sovereignty.

One senses is that by saying ”œno” so politely to ballistic missile defence, the prime minister was attempting to defuse a bomb which could have scuppered his pre-election goal of improving relations with the Bush administration. He was at pains to minimize the fallout of his retreat from clear, if not qualified, support for a program which, for better or worse, lies at the heart of US national security planning. Had Martin deliv- ered his answer in a truculent or defi- ant fashion, had he threatened to lead an international crusade against BMD, Washington would have taken a much keener interest in Canada’s BMD ”œdebate” (and its distinctly anti-American undertones) than it ultimately did. With a security-con- scious neighbour holding the keys to a harmonious trading relationship, the prime minister could scarcely let that happen.

Canada’s position on BMD is analo- gous to the conscription crises of the two world wars. Back then, the issue of com- pulsory military service was so con- tentious that the Liberal government feared an internal revolt, led by its Quebec wing. Thus the mantra, ”œConscription if necessary, but not nec- essarily conscription.” Fast forward to the BMD muddle of 2005 and Canadians are left with ”œParticipation if necessary, but not necessarily participation.”

Only a Canadian could have forged (fudged?) such a compromise. Martin could have done worse. But he could also have done better.

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