March 13, 2005


After an entry in which I labelled a Globe and Mail missile defence story as "hopeless", George suggested I post some thoughts on missile defence. So here goes a first crack at that.

I don't actually think missile defence is "hopeless," per se. That is to say, I don't actually think the desired feat is, strictly speaking, impossible.

At the same time, it appears to be -- and I will use some fairly scientific language here -- damned hard. Humanity has accomplished some pretty impressive things and turned "nearly impossible" on its head enough times that I'm not suggesting this not be pursued simply because it's out of reach. At the same time, it bears consideration that the task at hand is subject to a particularly discouraging set of obstacles -- a lack of predictability (e.g. where's it coming from?) and substantive notice (surprise!), (consequently) an absolutely miniscule window of opportunity for action, a negligible margin for error, and the likelihood that the "other side" is actively aware of and trying to thwart your defences.

I have never read a reassuring argument about why anybody will get this to work anytime soon. The test results, as everyone knows, are not only discouraging but downright embarassing. The system has failed -- repeatedly, including twice in the past few months -- even under highly controlled testing conditions. The results are always spun positively to the point of ridicule (the last time it was apparently encouraging that the failure was caused by the ground control and not the missile itself -- phew!).

Now add to this the fact that I'm not convinced by the arguments that this is the best way to defend against nuclear attacks from rogue states. The U.S. is spending billions and billions of dollars on BMD development, while it and the rest of "the West" can't be bothered to put together a half-assed plan to secure nuclear material in former Soviet Union countries, including Russia.

Finally, throw in the arms race argument -- I hear China's spending in the military department these days -- whereby others try to outdo the U.S. ("my missiles can kick your missile shield's butt").

So let's see. A system that doesn't work, that wouldn't represent the best approach for addressing the threat even if it did, and that could spawn a whole new legion of problems? What should Canada have done?* Well, this brings me to my last point. I hated (and continue to hate) the Canada-U.S. politics on this whole issue. For the most part, I find them to be infantile.

For starters, I can't believe that, for some people, repairing Canada-U.S. relations equated to signing on to missile defence. Jean Chrétien's Director of Communications called Americans morons? Better make up for it by signing onto a multi-billion dollar, arms-race driving act of futility.

Then there was the fact that nobody really knew what we were talking about in the first place -- what exactly was Canada being asked to do? Without knowing, it was hard to judge the "it will all be o.k." assurances (and the "run for your lives" critiques) of warring Liberal party members. George W. Bush promised Paul Martin that this won't lead to the weaponization of space? Okey-dokey! Sounds good to us. No doubt Paul Martin has a good gut feeling about the guy who had a good gut feeling about Vladimir Putin. I don't often find myself agreeing with Stephen Harper, but I think he was right to hammer the Liberals on this one.

Now, things weren't quite embarassing enough, so we recently threw our newly minted ambassador, Frank McKenna, into the fray. Frank, it seems, wasn't briefed very well on this issue. Or he didn't internalize the brief. Or he was on hard drugs. Hard to say. Either way, his first diplomatic faux-pas was to announce that effectively we had already signed on because of changes to NORAD -- and what more did the U.S. want? The NORAD makeover was not new news, but it didn't quite square with the Liberals' insistence in Parliament that no decision had been made.

So a firestorm erupted -- right around budget time -- but Paul Martin steadfastly stuck to his lines in Parliament: we haven't yet made a decision, and we'll make one when it is in our best interests. Now, it was pretty clear to everyone that in "our best interests" the "our" refers to the Liberal Party and not Canadians. The surprise was that "we haven't yet made a decision" actually means "we already decided and told the U.S. about it two days ago."

Now, you'd think at this point that the situation is about as bad as it can be. But you'd be wrong, because now Frank "Did I say we were in?" McKenna suddenly has to explain about how we're out (because, you'll note, Paul Martin failed to do so). So he blames it on our trade disputes. And so we're back to square one. Canada-U.S. relations are not about two steadfast friends who are fiercely loyal but can also be brutally honest with each other when they think their companion is going astray. No, no. Let's just put it all out on the table, Frank: Canada-U.S. relations are a crassly realpolitik zero-sum equation. Keeping out our cows? How do you like our gay marriage and marijuana! Take that! Sorry we can't help you out in Iraq, but would it make you feel better if we met up in Kabul instead? Still holding firm on softwood lumber? No missile defence partner for you!

We should be able to disagree with the U.S. without having to check the balance sheet ("Oh dear ... looks like we're a little low in the U.S. Satisfaction Account this month -- better agree to their plans to annex France.").

Ultimately I think we made the right decision, but I think we made it for the wrong reasons. I've heard the argument that we had little to lose by signing on and that we were unlikely to influence the U.S. either way. Fair enough. But given the significance of what we're talking about here, I don't think that's good enough. And I see value in delivering a strong and clear dissenting message to friends on issues of such importance, even if they are unlikely to have a major (direct) effect. I would go so far as to say one owes it to one's friends to do so. Sadly, our diplomacy, if you can call it that, on the BMD issue squandered the opportunity to deliver a message worth anything at all. No matter what decision we had taken, the way we handled the situation was pathetic and the U.S. deserved better. No doubt exasperated U.S. officials couldn't help but laugh when Martin followed up the official (Canadian) announcement with his "would you mind giving us a ring before shooting anything down over our heads?" request.

And so here's the irony in all of this. First off, for those who hoped BMD offered an opportunity for improved Canada-U.S. relations, the effect has been the opposite. I'm sure this stings much more than the infamous comment from a Chrétien political staffer (whether it stings more than the cumulative snubs of our previous Liberal government remains to be seen -- in the end Chrétien's populist style and directness may sit better with President Bush than Martin's dithering and flip-flopping). Second, the way we said "no" rendered the "no" essentially worthless.

Meanwhile -- and speaking of fleeting agreements ("we're in, we're out") -- If Frank's not careful, he may fall prey to the "now you're ambassador, now you're not" fate of Alfonso Gagliano.

* [Note: I've been sitting on pieces of this post for a long time, but better late than never, right?]

Posted by anatole at March 13, 2005 10:24 PM

[the system] wouldn't represent the best approach for addressing the threat even if it did [work]

Doesn't that depend on how you define the threat? One of the (many) contentious issues is just how big a threat ballistic missiles are to the mainland United States. I think you can argue there is some threat, but does it warrant such a disproportionately costly effort to counter it? As you say, we have the ingenuity as a species to solve this problem, given enough time and effort (and, by extension, money) but is it worth it? Proponents of the system would say it's worth any cost to keep a ballistic missile from reaching the U.S. Opponents would say you focus on the most realistic threats first. I don't see the U.S. doing that right now.

Posted by: Alasdair at March 14, 2005 02:36 PM

This is one of the better comments I've read on the subject ... I definitely agree with you on almost all points.

Unfortunately I think that not only has this come at a time when it's politically sensitive in Canada (budgets etc) ... it's also come at a time when many Canadians have felt a change in our relations with the US. Granted, I think too much stock has been placed in the "US Satisfaction Account" ... but there have been a string of very-high-profile issues (Iraq, Kyoto, Missile Defense) where we have taken the opposite side of our neighbors to the south. All for their own good reasons ... but it certainly makes people nervous. As much as Canadians want to be distinct from our US friends ... it freaks us out when they get too different, or if they get mad at us. As you so eloquently pointed out - we should be able to disagree in a professional, friendly manner and remain friends. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be working very well.

Some people are upset at canadians for disagreeing with the americans so often - I'm more scared that there's so much about the americans we disagree with. The real question is - if we used to get along so well, where has the change occured? I Seems like most of it has happenned south of the border.

Posted by: Nathan at March 14, 2005 04:15 PM

Your's is a very well reasoned analysis. : )

I heard John Manley talking about the future of North America joint Canada-US-Mexico report yesterday. To paraphrase, he said that: Canada is not in Europe, as much as as we might feel kinship, we will never join the EU. Canada is not in Asia. Canada is in NA and needs to find a way to make that work.

Both Nathan and you highlight the social changes that make our countries look so different. I find it amazing that our parliament is voting to legalize gay marraige at the exact same time the US administration is looking at a constitutional amendment to ban gay marraige. I think we need another Pearson; a PM that pushed Canada to go it's own way, but in a manner that respected both the US and international bodies. But where do we find one...

See this page for a good history of Pearson:

Posted by: Mike at March 15, 2005 09:28 AM

Nice post, Anatole! And I like the comments. I really haven't looked into this issue much, so this has served as a sort of primer.

I do think Martin's and others' waffling is a problem. He should have found a way to convince his party that collaborating on missile defence was the most reasonable thing to do. I think a realpolitik approach to Canada-U.S. relations is the only reasonable way to proceed given the current U.S. administration.

As for Canada-U.S. relations, I'm not really qualified to discuss those since I live in New York, where everybody is now (foolishly) wishing he were Canadian. My positive interpretation of the apparent divergence in the two countries' policies is that, since Canada has stayed clear of major military commitments, it is now able to pursue all sorts of experimentation in domestic policy. The U.S., stuck in a warrior mode for some time now, is unable to keep up.

Has the US really been so inactive on the Russian nuke front? Perhaps it's been quiet work. I remember a Walrus article about a Canadian firm (supported by the government somehow) helping to dismantle Russian subs in Russia. I have been assuming the Americans are also involved, in a much more heavy way, with cleanup and sequestering in the area. But I know nothing about it. Why am I writing, then? Thanks for the post, anyway, Anatole!

Posted by: George at March 17, 2005 11:26 PM

Alasdair: You make a lot of good points. Indeed a lot of this depends on how you define the threat, how you assess its extent, etc. Part of the problem, of course, is that the realistic threat (as reported publicly, anyway) appears to be nowhere near addressed by the highly scripted testing -- meaning they're not as close to solving it as it looks, and it doesn't even look that good at face value. Of course, all this assumes we know everything about the testing going on, which I can only assume we most definitively do not! And given the latest post-mortem on the U.S. Iraq WMD intelligence, I don't have much confidence in our understanding of the threat either. Interestingly, the longer I think it would take to develop effective BMD, the less inclined I'd be to pursue it because it would be easier to imagine faster alternative approaches (i.e. the argument might go: if it's going to take another five years to develop BMD to defend robustly against North Korea, and North Korea is genuinely a serious and immediate threat, can you really afford to wait for BMD?). It is, quite naturally, very difficult to disentange all this from the "any cost" argument and the question of prioritization, particularly since the characterization of this whole behemoth issue as "BMD is intended to defend the U.S. against an attack" vs. "BMD is intended to deter an attack" vs. "BMD is intended to deter the development of the capacity to attack" vs. "Development of BMD supports the persistence of a strong military-industrial complex" is in itself, well, complicated. :)

Which leads me (awkwardly and indirectly) to George's point on former Soviet nuclear material. Yes, it is happening (I remember that Walrus article). But unless there has been some major development in the past year or so, my understanding from my time at KSG was that efforts to round up "loose nukes" (and materials for such) were not nearly aggressive enough. The process (international, although with a heavy U.S. role) was underfunded and taking too long, in the opinion of the critics, which included several current and former U.S. Senators who had taken up the cause (Nunn/Lugar). Obviously many critics of President Bush linked this to the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the infamous nuclear posture report, and other signals that the administration's approach to nukes were messed up. In any case, tie this together with the argument that it would be much easier for the kind of actor with an interest in attacking the U.S. to acquire some dirty bomb material and smuggle it into the U.S., and you stumble back onto the prioritization issue.

Posted by: Anatole at April 1, 2005 12:50 AM