Too Close to the USA

Michael Byers

Canadians make much of something Pierre Trudeau said in a speech to the Washington Press Club in 1969: ‘Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’ Canada shares a continental market, the world’s longest undefended border, a language and increasingly a culture with the US, and seems, in recent decades, to have lost its ability to adopt a critical – or even guarded – view of its neighbour when developing and implementing its own foreign policy. Successive Canadian Governments, charged with managing an asymmetrical relationship from which there is no exit, have chosen to assume that the relationship is one between equals. But what if the decision-makers in Washington see things differently? What if, as far as they’re concerned, respect and equality are not part of the arrangement? What if their sole aim is the advancement of the American national interest, whatever the costs to Canada?

Over the next decade, a series of issues will test Canada’s assumptions about the benevolence of the United States. They include missile defence, global warming, energy and water exports, and control of the North-West Passage.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the aim of which was to develop the capacity to shoot down ballistic missiles launched at the US. Work on the project continued through subsequent Administrations, and now it seems that the necessary technology may soon be within reach. George W. Bush wants to push ahead with the scheme, and has committed the US to constructing a National Missile Defense system, at a cost of more than $60 billion. A successful test was carried out in July.

Canada’s co-operation is essential if the system is to be built. Any Russian, Chinese, North Korean or Iraqi missiles launched at the US would have to fly through thousands of kilometres of Canadian airspace. Moreover, they would have to be destroyed while still in Canadian airspace, which would in all likelihood mean that radar stations – and probably intercept launchers – would have to be built on Canadian soil. During the Cold War, Canada and the US co-operated closely in defending the continent against Russian bombers. Radar stations were built in northern Canada; American B-52s circled over the Arctic waiting for the signal to fly into the Soviet Union and drop their nuclear payloads. Together, the two countries still operate a string of automated radar stations and co-ordinate the North American Aerospace Defense Command, an organisation central to Bush’s missile defence plans.

Air defence co-operation was clearly in Canada’s interest; it is less obvious that the same could be said of a missile defence system. A new arms race between the United States, Russia and/or China would see Canada caught literally in the middle: by allowing missile defence installations to be built, it would make itself a target of any large-scale attack, although the ‘rogue states’ seen as the hypothetical justification for the scheme are unlikely to want to waste their few missiles on Vancouver or Toronto. Canadian taxpayers, meanwhile, would be asked to foot a substantial portion of the bill for missile defence – although the bulk of the jobs and profits would go to the United States.

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