Saturday, March 12, 2005

Canada and the North American Missile Shield

A couple of weeks ago, after much anticipation, the Canadian prime minister Paul Martin announced that Canada would not be participating in the North American Missile Shield project with the United States. While most Canadians did not support this missile shield, I personally find this decision a disappointment for a few reasons.

Reason #1: Canada's longstanding relationship with America

Canada has a very deep and longstanding relationship with the United States. The United States is, by far, Canada's biggest trading partner, but Canada is also the United States' biggest trading partner. Canada and the United States are in a number of treaties together, including NAFTA, NATO, and NORAD.

The relationship between the United States is much like a marriage, or perhaps more like the relationship between Siamese twins. We are next to each other, and will always remain next to each other whether we like each other or not. So, better to do kind things to each other and foster a good relationship than a hostile one.

The United States has a real need for a missile defense shield. Being the sole remaining superpower means that America is also the biggest target. Twenty years ago, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology was with only two countries: the US and the Soviet Union. Today, however, missile technology has progressed in certain "rogue" states like North Korea, and it is expected that within 10 to 20 years, a number of states may have the capability to land a missile armed with a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead into the middle of Los Angeles or New York City. A scary thought indeed....

Canada has less to worry about in this regard: while we have big cities, we do not have a big army, and are not considered a "superpower", and so nobody really hates Canada. So, as the missile shield opponents in Canada would argue, Canada has less to benefit from the missile shield than America.

However, in any good relationship, if one party has a real need for something, it is something the other party should consider going along with just for the sake of furthering the relationship. In the case of the missile shield, all the United States needs is Canada's cooperation.

Reason #2: If Canada participates, Canada has a say in how the system is run

The United States has a legitimate need for the missile shield, and is likely to put it up with or without Canada's help. If Canada helps, Canada gets a say in how the missile shield is designed and how it is used. If Canada does not, Canada has no say in the system.

This is an important distinction, because when an inbound object is detected, someone is going to make a decision as to whether to shoot that object down or not. Ballistic missiles travel at an extremely high rate of speed, and some carry multiple warheads, which are split-off from the main warhead in mid-flight. To successfully disrupt the missile attack, you would want to hit it before it splits off these ancillary warheads. Also, with the extremely high rate of speed of a ballistic missile, the decision as to whether to shoot an incoming object down cannot afford any delay.

Canadian prime minister Paul Martin was quoted by several newspapers as saying, "This is our airspace, we're a sovereign nation and you don't intrude on a sovereign nation's airspace without seeking permission." Let's be realistic here: there are many large American cities that are very close to the Canadian border: New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, etc. A ballistic missile heading over Canada towards one of these cities, traveling in excess of 5 kilometers (3 miles) per second does not give much time to react, and certainly not enough time to wait for it to cross the border before shooting it down. If there were a nuclear missile traveling over Canada headed to New York, does Paul Martin honestly think anyone is going to care whether shooting it down would violate Canada's airspace? Given the choice between seeing New York or Chicago go up in a mushroom cloud or dealing with a little political flak from Canada, anyone in their right mind would choose the option of shooting the missile down.

But, if Canada is involved in the missile shield, Canadians would be active participants in making the decision of whether to shoot down an object over Canadian airspace, and would be quite possible that a Canadian air force officer's finger may even be on the button shooting it down.

If America is going to do this anyway, it is in Canada's interest to have a stake in the matter.

Reason #3: Fairness

For a long time, Canada has not been holding up its fair share of the load in terms of defense spending, preferring instead to spend generously on social programs and rely on the fact that its neighbor to the south would undoubtedly come to its aid if Canada were invaded. For decades, American taxpayers have been shouldering the brunt of Canada's defense needs and have asked for very little in return. Given this situation, how can Canada be justified in turning down this reasonable request from our neighbor?


Canada's decision to not participate in the North American missile shield is classic example of anti-Americanism run amok in Ottawa. Canadians may not like some of the policies of George Bush, and may not like what the United States is doing in Iraq, but they need to be able to look past this to the long-term relationship between Canada and the United States. In three years, George Bush will no longer be president in the US, and things will have hopefully calmed down in Iraq by then, but the American need for this missile shield will be greater than ever.

Fortunately, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Martin himself had stated his support for the North American missile shield during the recent election campaign, however since his Liberal party did not win a majority of the seats in the Canadian Parliament, he must pander to the desires of the other parties in order to avoid a non-confidence motion being passed in Parliament, forcing an immediate election. Thus, while Martin himself may personally support the idea of the missile shield, it would be political suicide for him to try to push it through now.

I sincerely hope that as things calm down in Iraq, the virulent anti-Americanism that seems to have infected Ottawa in recent years will wane, and the Canadian government will look more positively on our assisting America with the missile shield.