December 16, 2003


There's been a good debate, as almost always, in Flitters, about Canadian defence recently. It started with the odd suggestion that Canada consider a nuclear deterrent, but has recently brought that back around to the cold reality of national interest. Insofar as it helped crystallize a few thoughts in my own mind, I'm thankful.

This is an important debate right now, as Canada launches its Martinite foreign policy and defence reviews. The question about getting nuclear weapons is an important one. In actual fact, a Canadian nuclear strategy was considered, and rejected in the late 1940s, because no one could consider a viable scenario under which Canadian interests would be served by having them. (Interestingly, at the time, Canada also had a relatively huge stockpile of botulinum toxin for freefall bombs, that it later disposed of, as part of the same rejection of deterrence politics.)

As bizarre as a debate about Canadian nuclear weapons might seem, the simple fact is that any argument one raises against them can be used even more effectively to argue against any kind of conventional deterrent force. Indeed, in Canada's case, there's no linear relation whatever between military spending and public safety. We can spend $22 billion a year or zero, and Canadians will feel just as safe as they do now.

The rational calculus underlying this is that Canada has no natural enemies in the world, and what threats it has ever had launched against it, or ever will, are a result of its alliances with other countries... specifically the U.S. And rational analysis indicates that, if an enemy can launch an attack against the North American continent, it will attack the higher value target to the south of us. Even if it does not, by declaring itself an enemy of American values, it guarantees the same retribution whether the attack lands in Edmonton or Boise.
Indeed, the only plausible scenario where Canadian interests could be attacked would be if those interests diverged from American ones: a fact that can be addressed just as easily (and more cheaply) by foreign policy free-riding as it can by military expenditure. In any case, it's hard to conceive of an attack on the North American continent that could be deterred or mitigated by any military force Canadians could reasonably apply.

Canada's need for a defence policy of its own, in any real sense, ended in 1885 at Batoche, if it even existed then. Since that date, the only reasons Canadians have fought and died, or expressed any interest in funding the fighters and die-ers, has been two-fold: altruism, and support for allies. Canadian military effort has always in the last century been dedicated towards advancing larger, for lack of a better word, "Western" values, to places we thought in our cockiness could benefit from them. It has been, in 1914, 1939, and 1992, an entirely selfless policy. If we chose as a nation to abandon our altruism, we could cut defence spending down to $6 billion a year, tops, providing solely the kind of local maritime sovereignty task (ie fishery and smuggler patrol) our naval leaders have decided cannot exist alongside our current international commitments. Pacifist isolationism is, for us, the default option, that lacking some other argument, we will always naturally return to.

To spend dollar one on defence past that, you must cast about for a larger Canadian role. It by definition must be in alliance with others. And it must be in support of values so clear that Canadians will continue to support them over the long run. The trouble is, at the moment, there are no such alliances. The American "coalition of the willing," as much as the UN, can not count on Canadian popular support: the values dear to those organizations no longer appear to be our own. So we cling to NATO as the be-all and end-all of our foreign and defence policies. And if it turns out to have been irreversibly sundered by recent events in the Middle East, too, then further rapid Canadian disarmament is the only popular course. Possibly the only sensible one, too.

Posted by BruceR at 06:18 PM