March 11, 2005

March 11, 2005 | WebMemo on

Canada's Self-Defeating Decision on Missile Defense

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin announced on February 24th that his government had decided not to enter into an agreement with the United States to facilitate broader cooperation in the field of missile defense. Viewing the issue from the U.S. side of the border, this decision is puzzling because it appears to be self-defeating. Is the Canadian government saying that it does not want Canadians to be defended against missile attack? While Prime Minister's Martin certainly did not state that this was his desire, the question is unavoidable.

Canada's decision appears all the more self-defeating because Prime Minister Martin's government was extraordinarily gracious in concluding an amendment in August to the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) agreement that allows NORAD to support missile defense operations. Americans are very appreciative of the fact that the considerable missile early warning and tracking capabilities of the joint NORAD command will be available to support U.S.-based missile defense systems, which are now being brought on line. This amendment was of keen interest to the U.S. government.

Direct Canadian Interests
The expectation was that a follow-on agreement for broader missile defense cooperation, which has now been rejected, would have contained provisions of greater interest to the Canadian side. Potentially, these included Canadian participation in the development of the technology, cooperation in the protection of Canadian expeditionary forces against shorter-range missile threats, and sea-based defenses for the protection of Canadian coastal areas, just to name several.

From the American perspective, it is puzzling that the Canadian government wants to kick away the opportunity to obtain these tangible benefits. While it is not for an American to determine what serves Canadians' national interest, it is clear that the majority of Canadians support the U.S-Canadian alliance. Certainly, Prime Minister Martin affirmed this central Canadian interest in his February 24th statement.

A Minority Agenda
It appears that a small group of committed opponents of missile defense in Canada is on the cusp of seizing control of the issue. It is important for both Canadians and Americans to understand what is driving the agenda of this fringe element because it is an agenda that necessarily undermines the U.S.-Canadian alliance. Alexa McDonough of Halifax, a vocal opponent of missile defense in the Canadian Parliament, expressed the purpose of this agenda succinctly on December 7th. Ms. McDonough stated, "Canadians want [their Parliament] to persuade Bush to say no to the militarization of space, the weaponization of space that is inherently built into the missile defense trajectory that the U.S. government is now launched on."

What Ms. McDonough is arguing for is a Canadian policy to block the ability of the U.S. to defend itself against missile attack. For its part, the U.S. has made clear to foreign governments interested in participating in the missile defense effort that its intention is not to force on them something they do not want. While the Americans might find it puzzling that the Canadians would not want to be defended against missile attack, that is a decision for Canadians. By the same token, it should not be Canada's aim to deprive the U.S. of something Americans think they need to defend their lives and well being.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Martin explicitly rejected the policy promoted by Ms. McDonough. He stated, "Let me be clear: we respect the right of the United States to defend itself and its people."

Protecting the U.S.-Canadian Alliance
Leaving aside the fact that it is beyond the means of the Canadian government, or any other foreign government, to veto a vital and legitimate U.S. self-defense activity, if the Canadian government were to adopt such a policy, it would only serve to undermine the U.S.-Canadian alliance. The same would be true of any U.S. attempt to veto a legitimate Canadian self-defense activity. Supporters of the alliance can only hope that Prime Minister Martin will continue to reject the counsel of Ms. McDonough and other determined opponents of the U.S. missile defense program.

The Canadian majority that supports the continuation of a healthy alliance with the U.S.-support that cuts across party affiliation in Canada-needs to assert itself and regain control of the missile defense issue. This is not because doing so will necessarily result in Canada reversing its recent decision to reject broader missile defense cooperation, but because it will avoid a needless confrontation that could strike at the heart of the alliance. For its part, the U.S. government should not reject a Canadian offer to re-engage in discussions on missile defense cooperation. At this point, there is no reason for American impatience.

A healthy defense alliance cannot long coexist if either party's policy is to block the other's legitimate self-defense. Nevertheless, a group of vocal opponents of missile defense in Canada are driving the Canadian government toward such a policy. Canada may choose neither to seek protection under the American-led missile defense umbrella nor opt for broader missile defense cooperation, as now appears to be the case. While that decision bypasses an opportunity to strengthen the alliance, it will not weaken it. A Canadian policy that seeks to undermine the ability of the U.S. to defend itself, by contrast, will do lasting damage.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy