TORONTO – Ottawa’s tendency to take contradictory or ambiguous political positions on sensitive issues will be put to the test in the current debate over the U.S. request that its northern neighbor endorse its controversial ballistic missile defense (BMD) program.
If it signs on to Washington’s project, Canada will have difficulty maintaining credible diplomatic opposition to the "weaponization" of space in international disarmament conferences, says Ernie Regehr, executive director of Project Ploughshares.
The Canadian government has hinted it might be able to participate in BMD without surrendering its opposition to weapons in space, an approach that worries many observers.
"There is a significant element of the Canadian diplomatic establishment that is very concerned about ballistic missile defense and the implication it has for our arms-control objectives," Regehr added in an interview.
Initially, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin supported Canada’s involvement in the plan to develop missiles that could be launched from space to intercept enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles headed toward the United States or another country.
"If there is going to an American missile going off somewhere over Canadian airspace, I think Canada should be at the table making the decisions," he told reporters in 2003.
But Martin has shied away from taking a definitive position after his government was reduced to a minority position in Parliament following the June federal election.
The prime minister faces strong opposition to missile defense from two other political parties in Parliament, as well from some members within his Liberal Party.
However, a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this month stirred up the debate. "I hope we’ll also move forward on ballistic missile defense cooperation, to protect the next generation of Canadians and Americans from the threats we know will arise," Bush said.
While the Canadian prime minister has promised a full, open debate on the question before taking an official decision, his government last August had already negotiated an amendment that will now allow the Canada-U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to share its global missile surveillance and warning information with the U.S.-only northern military command in North America (NORTHCOM), which would be responsible for the operation of missile defense
"The U.S. got what they wanted because that was the only question they had in their mind what role NORAD was going to play," says defense analyst Stephen Staples, director of the corporate security state project at the Polaris Institute.
Another defense analyst, David Rudd, draws parallels between Martin’s position on BMD and the pledge of "not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary," made by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King who, in the face of division between English- and French-speaking Canadians over participating in the Second World War, had to deal with the problem of insufficient numbers of volunteers to join the war effort in Europe.
Regehr says the United States is contemplating a space-based test as part of the BMD program in 2012. When that occurs, the post-World War II "international norm" for the peaceful use of outer space will have been broken, he added.
Governments of the United States and Russia (when it was part of the Soviet Union) tried to control the spread of nuclear weapons with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However with a perceived threat of missiles raining down on U.S. soil from so-called rogue states, the Americans in the early 1990s began in earnest to develop a missile defense system.
But a variety of scientists and disarmament experts have disputed whether such a system could provide sufficient protection against incoming long range ballistic missiles from states such as North Korea and Iran.
The U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists recently urged in a letter that the Martin government oppose Washington’s program on the basis that diplomatic negotiations still remain the most effective and cheapest means to limit the spread of new missile systems.
"North Korea has observed a fully verifiable moratorium on missile flight tests since 1998 and taking steps to keep this moratorium in place should be a top U.S. and international priority," said UCS co-director and senior scientist David Wright and retired U.S. ambassador Jonathan Dean, an advisor on global security issues for the same organization.
Staple says the main reason the U.S. president made his first visit to Canada on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 was to drum up support for missile defense among Canadian and European allies.
"Bush can’t get to European capitals and try to argue for greater participation in the war against terrorism when even Canada won’t buy into missile defense and we sit on the same continent as the Americans," argued Staples.
But some Canadians, including Regehr, want Ottawa to stick to its official position that long-term diplomacy is what is required to keep a lid on weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
"You can’t prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by either the Iraq strategy [i.e., a preemptive military assault on the government of former President Saddam Hussein] or a ballistic missile defense strategy," he argued.
Further complicating Canada’s role, says York University political scientist Ann Denholm Crosby, is that despite its decision not to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003, Canadian military personnel at NORAD’s U.S.-based headquarters in Colorado Springs have since 1996 been participating in "key support functions" for all U.S. military engagements worldwide.
This stems, she says, from a 1996 Canada-U.S. agreement on NORAD.
That deal established NORAD Command as part of a "system of interdependent [U.S.] commands that make important contributions to the security of the United States and Canada and bring the power of space to U.S. military operations worldwide," according to Gen. Joseph Ashy, commander-in-chief of both NORAD and U.S. Space Command, speaking to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and quoted by Crosby in a recent paper.
All of the surveillance data the United States collects by satellite through NORAD and other commands are pooled together, explains Crosby in an interview, so the idea of Canada (via NORAD) excluding itself specifically from BMD is questionable.
"There is a serious disconnect here between Canadian foreign policy and Canadian military activity," she added.