Say no to ballistic missile defence

Published in the "Globe and Mail"
Monday, April 3, 2000
Page A13

By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.

Washington's latest Star Wars project is a loose cannon that threatens worldpeace, says Senator Douglas Roche

The new ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, now under development in theUnited States, will severely alter international relations, destroy decadesof disarmament work, and tie Canada inexorably into ill-conceived U.S.military ambitions. Canada should say no to participating now -- before thenet closes on our options.

In hearings in the House of Commons' National Defence Committee and theForeign Affairs Committee on whether Canada should support such a defencesystem, witnesses have stated that BMD is the single most important issuefacing Canada-U.S. security arrangements. The missile system's Canadianproponents have insisted that "as the closest ally of the U.S., Canadashould unhesitatingly agree to participation."


What's missing from those who insist on participation, and see "a near totalabsence of any drawbacks to supporting BMD," is the ability to measure theglobal costs. Discussing ballistic missiles simply in terms of our relationswith the United States, where the issue itself is seldom framed outside ofpresidential campaign politics, is a dangerously narrow public debate. Make no mistake, the costs of deploying the BMD system will be high, notonly in terms of the $39-billion that the Washington-based Center forDefence Information says has already been spent, but in terms ofinternational stability. The project threatens to undo the whole structureof arms control agreements and inspection procedures built up over decades,substituting for them a doctrine of defence by the unilateral application ofU.S. might.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy testified on March 23 that thesecurity interests of Canada must be looked at through the perspective ofwhat can be done to strengthen the international disarmament regime. BMDundermines that regime.

First, the missile system project would violate the 1972 Anti-BallisticMissile (ABM) Treaty, which forbids a nation-wide missile defence system.The ABM is an essential part of the international arms control structure. Ithas long been recognized that constructing such national defence shields(leaving aside the improbability of their working -- and two recent BMDtests have failed) would spur opposing states to develop new offensiveweapons to circumvent defence systems. Thus arms races would keepaccelerating. Both Russia and China have warned that BMD deployment would bemet with greater deployment of nuclear warheads on their part. The U.S. recognizes that the project would violate the existing ABM Treatyand is therefore pushing for its renegotiation. Russia, suspecting changeswould propel the U.S. down a broader missile defence path, has, so far,adamantly refused. In a meeting last September with U.S. Deputy Secretary ofState Strobe Talbott, the Russian delegation claimed, "We are on thethreshold of disaster and a destruction of the whole arms controlframework."

The Americans, in response, have indicated that if Russia does not agree tochanges in the ABM treaty, Washington may simply abrogate it as not being inU.S. security interests. Although the ABM is a bilateral treaty between theUnited States and Russia, the predictable Chinese response to BMD would bedeployment of more ICBMs with greater sophistication, fueling an alreadyburgeoning arms race in Asia.

Second, the missile system project cannot be divorced from the other pillarof the international arms control structure -- the Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) currently under review by the international community. Should theUnited States proceed with BMD, and Russia and China respond with their ownbuildups, non-nuclear weapons states who are signatories of theNon-Proliferation Treaty will see this as a further violation of the NuclearWeapons States' obligation under the treaty to negotiate towards eliminatingnuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Canada has alwayschampioned, will be in ruins.

One member of the American arms-control delegation which met with Russianofficials in September on the BMD issue, Prof. Theodore Postol of theMassachusetts Institute of Technology, described the situation in chillingterms: "The Clinton Administration has put us on the path to an arms race. .. an international disaster of historic proportions." Yet military interests in the U.S. government have increasingly appliedpressure on Canada to participate in a North American-wide shield. Playingon the fears of a ballistic missile attack from some "rogue state," theyhave even conjured up the fantasy scenario of a North Korean missile attackagainst Montreal.

In fact, U.S. intelligence officials agree that an inter-continentalballistic missile is the least likely means by which a "rogue state" wouldattack. Such potential attackers would choose more unconventional means suchas smuggling bombs -- techniques that this missile defence system would bepowerless to stop.

Rather than supporting missile defence, Canada needs to emphasize that theresponse to the ballistic missile threat -- as much as there is one -- needsto be part of a broader concern for the international community. That's thepoint made by several NATO allies, particularly France. Canada must not onlyresist participating in the development of BMD but, as an ally of the UnitedStates, it must insist that the United States remains true to itsmultilateral commitments.

In spite of all efforts to reduce the number and political importance ofweapons of mass destruction, ballistic missile defence amounts to a renewedeffort to advance more sophisticated weaponry. Worse, it comes at a pivotalmoment as many of the world's nations prepare to argue for a reduction inthe number and saliency of weapons of mass destruction at the forthcomingNon-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, starting on April 24. The U.S. will not make its decision to deploy BMD until at least this fall(on the eve of the U.S. presidential election). Now is the time for Canadato signal to our closest ally that nations must work together to halt thespread of missile technology, not unilaterally devise ways to protectthemselves from it.

Senator Douglas Roche, former Canadian ambassador for disarmament, is authorof the newly published Bread Not Bombs: A Political Agenda for SocialJustice.