Politics & Policy

Finally, Canada Begins to Consider U.S. Missile-Defense Partnership

Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets over Alaska during Vigilant Eagle exercises in 2013. (Photo: US Air Force/Handout via Reuters)
For years, only American moral responsibility has protected Canada from a missile attack. Now, Canadians want to change that.

Ever since North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) deputy commander, Lieutenant General Pierre St-Amand, testified that that “the extant U.S. policy is not to defend Canada” in the event of a North Korean missile attack, Canadians have begun reconsidering their opposition to missile defense. Efforts to overcome that opposition have failed a number of times in the past, because the perception that missile defense threatens Canada’s commitment to peaceful neutrality always trumped concerns over national security — and because Canadians took it for granted that NORAD and NATO would protect them in the event of an attack.

In fact, the mutual-defense clause in NATO’s charter only explicitly requires member nations to act following a direct attack, ambiguously referring back to the U.N charter on the question of collective self-defense. And NORAD is only a monitoring service; if a missile is detected, the decision of whether or not to intercept is left up to member nations themselves. St-Amand’s revelation of this dark reality has left Canadians scratching their heads: How has the Canadian government left them defenseless against missile attacks for so long?

Thirty-two years ago, during the incipient years of missile defense, President Ronald Reagan offered Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney the opportunity to join a space defense-research program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Mulroney’s decision not to participate was hedged in concern that doing so would uproot Canada’s role as a mediator during the Cold War, but he told reporters that he had great respect for the program and fully supported America’s efforts.

As early as 2003, President George W. Bush tried again, offering Canada the chance to buy into what was then named the Ballistic Missile Defense Shield (BMD). Despite a campaign promise to increase Canadian missile defense, Prime Minister Paul Martin, a Liberal, announced two years later that Canada would opt out of the program, bowing to public criticism and a lack of support in Parliament.

Both times, Canada’s opposition to joining America’s missile-defense program hinged on the same three issues: Its high cost, its low reliability, and, most importantly, the threat it poses to geopolitical stability. In 1985 and the early 2000s, the latter issue dominated criticism of the American program. Should a country begin preparing for a missile attack, the theory states, it will make volatile nations — the Soviet Union in the 1980s and Iran and North Korea today — feel less secure, and thus more likely to attack. This idea runs contrary to Canada’s international identity as a passively pacifist, neutral mediator; Canadians love staying out of the way, and missile defense, in their eyes, would be the opposite.

So far, to be sure, staying out of the way has worked. Canada is one of the few world powers — and arguably the only Group of 7 member — North Korea hasn’t threatened to destroy. Kim-Jong Un’s regime appears to regard Canada with none of the hostility it heaps on the U.S.: Returning from a successful mission to release a Canadian prisoner in August, national-security adviser Daniel Jean reported that Kim considers our northern neighbor to be a peaceful and friendly country. So the question of how the Canadian government could leave the nation powerless in responding to ICBMs has a simple answer: Missile defense is unpopular and unnecessary.

Indeed, St-Amand’s testimony was only half-right. While the United States has no obligation to defend Canada against a missile attack, there’s a big difference between what it is required to do and what it will do. Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded to St-Amand’s claims by reaffirming the U.S.’s long-standing friendship with the Canadian people: “They were there when we got attacked. We stand by them,” he said.

In reality, then, Canada has never been defenseless. If a missile is fired at it, whether intentionally or accidentally, it can rely on American protection.

That reality is, however, hard for many Americans to accept, especially considering how much help Canada could have provided the U.S. missile-defense program in its infancy. Since the program’s beginning in the 1980s, the United States has borne the brunt of the global cost to research and implement it, which the Government Accountability Office estimated at $123 billion as of May. The program has also faced withering criticism, derided as fanciful “Star Wars technology.” If Canada had joined early on, it could certainly have helped validate the effort and ward off critics, easing America’s burden and strengthening the bilateral relationship on which it now relies for protection.

A partnership between us would be mutually beneficial, lightening America’s financial burden and helping to keep missile-defense efforts funded and in place long after Republicans leave Congress.

Americans could easily argue Canada shouldn’t receive that protection for free, but that would be irresponsible and imprudent. The smarter course of action is to offer Canadians another chance to participate; for several reasons, they’re much more likely to jump on board this time.

First of all, much has changed since August, and Canadians aren’t blind to the increasing volatility of the West’s North Korea problem. In fact, the Canadian House of Commons’s Committee on National Defense (NDDN) called the hearing at which St-Amand testified to respond to concerns about Pyongyang. Many worry that rapidly escalating foreign tensions might lead to problems within, like NATO-required action or Canada’s becoming caught in the crossfire. In Canada, for the first time since 1985, national-security concerns are beginning to outweigh the worry that missile defense will disturb geopolitical stability.

Canadians aren’t blind to the charges that they enjoy American protection without paying for it, either. They seem to understand the pivotal role America has played in building the highly theoretical and unreliable missile-defense technology of the 1980s into something much more effective today. Andrea Charron, who directs the Centre for Security Intelligence at the University of Manitoba, rhetorically asked the committee if it’s wise for Canada “to continue to expect the U.S. to pay the lion’s share of the expenses.” She suggested that contributions to research and development would even help Canadian companies and universities, in addition to securing the country a spot in the defense network.

Robert Huebert, an associate professor in strategic studies at the University of Calgary who also testified at the hearing, pointed out another reason for newfound public support for joining the American program. “We are completely deluding ourselves,” he said to reporters after his testimony, “if we automatically assume that under every single possibility the Americans will come to the forefront and defend us.” The delusion comes not from an instinctive assumption that America will help Canada, but a practical reality: North Korea most likely has far more missiles than America has interceptors. If it comes down to protecting America or protecting Canada, Canadians know the U.S. will always choose the former.

Across Canadian media since St-Amand’s testimony, pundits and experts who are pushing the Liberal government to reconsider its anti-missile defense stance have started to see some movement. MP Mark Gerretson, who represents Kingston and the Islands, is the most recent convert, joining several former Liberal defense ministers and senators in the pro-U.S.-partnership camp. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested he was open to budging: “We have not changed our position at this point,” he said, “but we continue to engage in thoughtful ways to ensure we’re doing everything we can and we must do to keep Canadians safe.”

One final roadblock still stands in the way of a Canadian request for partnership. As Michael Byers, a professor in political science at the University of British Columbia, testified, “It’s not clear the Americans want us in missile defense.” So let’s make it clear: A partnership between us would be mutually beneficial, lightening America’s financial burden and helping to keep missile-defense efforts funded and in place long after Republicans leave Congress.

Canada, we’re ready when you are.


    The Navy’s Capabilities in ICBM Defense

    Our Missile-Defense Policy Should be ‘America First’

    The Case for Preemptive Force in North Korean Chess Match

— Philip H. Devoe is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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