Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Canada, the US, and Missile Defense

One sore spot between Canada and the US is Canada's reluctance to get involved in the Bush government's North American missile shield programme, which its critics contend involves the "weaponization" of space. How should a Canadian government approach this issue? Traditionally, the left has both resisted and opposed military programmes such as this on a variety of grounds: they amount to an arms race, they won't work and are hence a waste of money, and they will undercut Canadian sovereignty by vesting military control of Canadian territory in the US and with American generals. To date, this argument has held sway and I have no doubt that it reflects general Canadian views (with the normal range of different opinions) on this matter. My evidence is that the Conservatives -- despite their support for a joint missile defense programme with the US while in opposition -- have not wanted to touch this issue while in power. My bet is that they know all opposition parties would vote against it, hence bringing down their government (or, even if not, illustrating its inability to carry forward a major defense initiative thus zapping its international credibility) and they have no desire to fight an election on this issue, gambling that it would cost them votes. But, is the left right? In our consideration of this issue, is there reason to reconsider left-wing opposition to the US missile defense programme? Could there be a left-wing version of it?

There are a number of arguments in favour of supporting this US initiative, some of which are patently silly while others are militaristic. These we can dismiss easily. I'd suggest that, however, that even if our hypothetical left-wing Canadian government decided against joining the US programme, there is still reason for them to reconsider this issue and think through it again.

What are the arguments in favour of joining a US-led missile shield? There is the economic argument: we need to maintain a positive relationship with the US to keep our border open. This is one of the silly argument that has already been disproven by the passage of time. Canada's refusal to join this programme has not closed the border (or, even slowed down traffic across it). Those who would make this argument, then, are making a counter-factual argument that has already been disproven by history. There is "we need to have a more powerful military even if it comes in joint venture with the US so we are taken seriously argument." I dismiss this argument too because it begs questions: taken seriously by whom? And what does "taken seriously" mean anyway? Suppose, for example, that we are currently not "taken seriously" by someone, how has that hurt Canada? Has it limited our ability to help refugees? Has it lowered our standard of living? Has it distorted our children's education? In other words, the "taken seriously" argument seems powerful until you start to push it. Then you discover that it is the IR equivalent of two kids talking trash on the playground. It reduces international reputation to a "might makes right" approach. If this happens to be your measure of "taken seriously", well, you and I are just on different pages. I doubt you will concede my point (that things like ethics, quality of life, humanitarianism, science, religion, etc., are what count) and I'll never concede your's (that these things are not important compared to the size of the stick you carry). I don't want to live in your Canada and I doubt you want to live in mine so we will have to agree to disagree and go our separate ways (luckily, of course, we both get to put our cases before the public and leave the matter to democracy to decide).

Once we get past this non-starter, in my view, arguments, there are other points that merit more consideration. For example, cooperation with the US helps the state fulfill its obligation to protect citizens. One doesn't have to be a big stick playground trash talker to subscribe to this view. I believe that the state has an obligation to protect its citizens. If it does not do that, it loses legitimacy and citizens have a right to reconstitute the government or re-order the state. (I might even offer a very broad assessment of what the word "protect" means to include things like medical care and equality of opportunity but that can be a subject for another day). A missile defense shield, it could be argued, helps the state fulfill this obligation. In addition, one could argue that it continues a tradition of Canadian/American military cooperation. Such cooperation has not hampered Canadian sovereignty (one could argue, although the record is perhaps more mixed than most people realize) and represents an extension of NORAD. With the US moving down this road, we can't maintain NORAD the way it has been in the past. Thus, we have two realistic choices: pick up this tradition and move forward or abandon it and go it alone on North American air defense. Given these chioces, this argument, might continue, we should continue cooperation. It does not threaten sovereignty, it is in keeping with our traditions, and the current status quo is not an option. What about these arguments, do they make sense?

I don't think so. First, the missile defense shield protects Canada against ... what? The answer is bad guys (rouge states or non-state actors) with ballistic missiles. We've already been through the WMD debate with regard to Iraq and it proved false. We should bear this closely in mind before we start assuming other WMD lie in other unnamed terrorists hands. The burden of proof in this regard, I think, lies squarely with those suggesting that Canada embrace the US initiative. I'll be quite clear: I don't think vague and ominous warnings are enough. Credible evidence about real threats needs to be put on the table and no one, to the best of my knowledge, has put this evidence on the table.

What about 9/11? I don't mean any disrespect to those who died, lost loved ones, or the governments that grappled with the realities of the 9/11 attacks. A ballistic missile defense shield would not have stopped those attacks because: (1) they did not use missiles and (2) they were launched from within the US. In other words, if a missile defense shield is intended to have stopped 9/11, it would not have done so. By analogy, it would be like trying to pull out a nail with a saw or cut down a tree with a screw driver. If it worked, it would have been a fluke because those tools are designed to do other things. 9/11 is manifest evidence of terror, it is not evidence of a missile threat and to treat it like that is to miss what the real threat was.

My point is this: the burden of making the case lies not with those who oppose the missile defense shield. The arguments against are already strong (as noted above). In reconsidering it, the burden of proof lies with those who suggest altering course. To date, those people have failed this test. Note: I am not saying that I disagree with them. I think any government needs to hear the evidence. I'm saying they have simply failed to make their case. This is their problem, not the problem of someone who is trying to weigh the evidence. The best thing proponents of Canadian involvement could do is make their case by providing real evidence. Without that, it is difficult to take their arguments seriously.

At this point, in the absence of evidence, the question about Canadian sovereignty is beside the point. Why? Well, it is not that sovereignty is beside the point but that consideration of the sovereignty issue is the next step in the argument. If there was a real threat (and not just some statistically improbable remote possiblity) then Canadian still might opt out of the missile defense shield. They might opt out because of their commitments against the weaponization of space. They might opt out because they view the treat to national sovereignty posed by cooperation as greater than the threat of attack. Unless there is a real threat of attack, however, there is not need to move forward is a discussion because I will assume that the irrationality of so doing is glaringly evidence. Consider an analogy: it would be an irrational waste of taxpayers' money to build a road that no one would use on the remote possibility that someone sometime might use it. In the same way, without a threat, it is a waste of taxpayers' money to build a defense system that will never be used.

(Note: someone might ask "what about deterance?" Good question. A deterance is actually being used. That use is just not in fighting. In other words, it has a use. I personally don't agree with the way in which the deterent argument has been used in defense of nuclear weapons but I would not argue that those weapons had no use. They did. That use was just not blowing things up. This is different than there not being a threat. If there is no threat, what is actually being deterred?)

End of case? Perhaps. There are two further really important points associated with this issue.

Point 1) The fact that there is no threat now does not mean that there might not be one in the future. The future is difficult to see and one should avoid seeing the worst in it. Again, the WMD Iraq is an immanent threat farce should be evidence enough of this. Still, a prudent government -- any government -- would consider future possibilities.

Point 2) Rejection of cooperation on missile defense with the US should not mean doing nothing. NORAD as we know it might be changing: it should. We live in a different world today then we did during the Cold War. If NORAD stayed the same despite these important changes, I'd worry about it. The fact that NORAD will change is not, by itself, reason enough to go down the missile shield route. But it is also not reason for complacency. In my view there are real threats to security out there. And, the Canadian government should move to address these. Plausible threats include: rouge shipping in the Canadian north, environmental destruction, the need for energy security, weapons smuggling, failed and failing states, the AIDS epidemic. Here are specific real or plausible threats that can be addressed. Addressing them requires military infrastructure. It requires other things, too: heavy lift capacity, surface and sub-surface improvements -- including new ships -- for the navy and coast guard, radar systems, and expanded rapid emergency response, medical research, foreign aid, etc. IOW, rejecting missile defense need not -- and should not - -be a rejection of a security agenda. Canada and the US still have a great deal on which they can and should work together. Working together creates win-win-win situations (Canada-US-other countries), allows us to pool resources and technology, and allows us to address common problems.

Let me sum up: the left has good arguments against cooperation with the US on missile defense but it should reconsider this issue. The silly or incorrect arguments in favour of cooperation can be dismissed (because they can be demonstrated to be empirically inaccurate) and the burden of proof for those suggesting a new military trajectory for Canada lies with those suggesting the new course. If they cannot provide evidence for their case, that is not my fault. It simply means their case lacks evidence. Without compelling evidence for a threat there is no pressing need to consider the other issue: national sovereignty (although I suspect the threat to sovereignty of cooperation is not any greater than it has been in the past). Rejecting cooperation does not mean rejecting security (or poo-pooing the concerns an American government may have in this regard). Canadians should invest in a security agenda, including military spending but we should also identify those security threats we need to address (so we spend our money wisely). I'd suggest these include northern sovereignty, the need for improved rapid deployment, and heavy lift. I'd also suggest that there is a need for new armour and un-manned drones but I have not really investigated that. There are non-military spending priorities for a security agenda as well. We should cooperate with the US on these other matters.

Someone might say "well, if we don't participate in the missile shield the US will not work with us on these other issues." That would be too bad. Somethings we should do without the US. We should develop our own heavy lift capacity, for example, and this can then be coordinated later, if need be, with American capacity. The US, however, should work with us on them not to be nice to us but because we have a common interest in addressing them. Rouge northern shipping, for instance, is a threat to the US as well as Canada. It is in their interest to work with us on this and to find ways of addressing this issue. I can't imagine a US government refusing to address a threat to the US just to spite Canada! That would be irrational and I don't think the US government is irrational.

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