Eye On Defence: A Capricious Decision

May 1, 2005 by David J. Bercuson

Neither Defence Minister Bill Graham (left) nor Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew have fully explained why it was in Canada’s best interests not to join in the missile defence system.

About a year ago I wrote in this space that in the ballistic missile defence discussion in Canada “Certain (political) elements…see too much political capital to be gained from the issue to ever allow its underlying realities to be dispassionately debated.”

That prophecy came true with a vengeance Feb. 24 when the government told Canadians that Canada would “not participate in the United States ballistic defence system at this time.” That decision was based wholly on partisan political considerations.

The announcement came on the heels of a commitment by Finance Minister Ralph Goodale in his annual budget speech the day before that the government would pump close to $13 billion into the Canadian Forces by 2010. The two announcements were linked. In effect, the government chose to balance its refusal to go along with the U.S. on missile defence with its declared intent to rebuild the Forces. For Canada-U.S. relations, it was a matter of “give a little, take a little” or, never give Uncle Sam too much of what he wants for fear that the anti-American left in the Liberal Party would become too rambunctious.

Normally no one would care much what that element would say or do, but in a minority Parliament, with the Liberal caucus still smarting from the intense divisions of the Chrétien-Martin rivalry, every MP counts. Keeping as many Liberal MPs as happy as possible was the prime consideration—especially in the week before the National Liberal Policy Conference.

In the background was the Conservative Party, which also used missile defence as a political football. Instead of making an outright declaration that Paul Martin could take the 99 Conservative MPs for granted in any vote in favour of missile defence, Tory leader Stephen Harper and Conservative defence critic Gordon O’Connor appeared to dither. Whatever they might have told the government in private, their public ambivalence spoke volumes when compared to the outright opposition of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

Though linked, there was a qualitative difference in the two defence decisions. No one but a person dedicated to the unilateral disarmament of Canada could possibly deny that the promised infusion of cash into the CF was long past due. The Forces have been hollowed out by years of underfunding and overcommitment. The evidence has been there for some time now. It exists in the various papers, studies, reports and submissions of groups such as the Conference of Defence Associations, the Royal Canadian Military Institute, and the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century.

It was reiterated by bipartisan reports of both the House of Commons and Senate security and defence committees and by various reports of at least two auditors general. More importantly, it was dramatically on display in the two weeks of dithering over deployment of the Disaster Assistance Response Team that followed the Boxing Day tsunami in southeast Asia.

It is simply a fact, then, that the government’s decision to begin to rebuild the Canadian Forces was logical, well considered, and most certainly in the national interest. That ought to be a cause for celebration amongst those Canadians who view the CF not simply as an organization of great historical importance, but as a necessary instrument of Canadian foreign policy.

By contrast, the government’s decision not to “buy in” to the U.S. missile defence program was, quite simply, one of the most capricious defence or foreign policy decisions made by a Canadian government in many years.

Although the Prime Minister declared in his statement of Feb. 24 that participation in missile defence was not in Canada’s national interest, there was no effort made by him, by Defence Minister Bill Graham, or by Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew to explain precisely how participation in that program would have undermined Canadian interests. Pettigrew did tell the Commons that “We must determine where investments will bring the greatest tangible result” but in fact Canada had not been asked to make an investment in the missile defence program. Canada had been asked simply to say OK, at least for the moment.

Pettigrew claimed that the decision was “based on policy principles and not on sheer emotion” but, in fact, the very opposite is more likely true. For at least a generation now Canada has declared itself to be a world leader in the struggle against both nuclear proliferation and in the development of the systems by which nuclear weapons might be delivered. It might thus be said that participation in a missile defence system that might lead to a new international arms race would undermine long-standing Canadian policy.

The problem is, there is simply no proof whatever that the missile defence scheme is doing that, and much evidence that Russia and China are either working on their own missile defence schemes or else realize that the U.S. system would never be capable of fending off a determined attack from a real nuclear power, as opposed to a rogue state.

What is most troubling about the missile defence decision is the precedent it sets for possible expansion of North American Aerospace Defence Command to include binational arrangements for continental defence at sea and on land. Quietly last fall the Canada-U.S. Bi-National Planning Group (set in place just after Sept. 11, 2001) was renewed for another two years. The group is working to come up with proposals for sweeping new arrangements for continental defence. Those proposals will probably be tabled in 2006, just before the Norad treaty comes up for renewal.

Any such arrangements will invariably involve some sort of formal U.S. paramountcy over continental defence forces, as is the case with Norad itself. By bowing to the Bloc, the NDP and the anti-American Liberal left over missile defence, Paul Martin has given heart to those very elements whose deepest desire is, in effect, a neutral and disarmed Canada.

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