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Carpe Diem: A message to the PM by Lloyd Axworthy
Carpe Diem: A message to the PM by Lloyd Axworthy

December 12, 2004
CARPE DIEM. That's right, Paul, time to hark back to the wisdom of the Roman writer Horace and "seize the day." Let's face it, the recent visit of President Bush was not your finest hour. What was billed by anonymous political handlers as an opportunity to get chummy with the re-elected head of the American Empire through a staged ritual of photo ops, a private tete-a-tete, and the extravagant state dinner for the Ottawa lobbyists was exploded by the imperial command delivered in Halifax: Sign on to the pet presidential project of ballistic missile defence, or else. That outed the behind-closed-door strategy of the Defence Department and other missile-defence mavens from academe and editorial boards who desire Canadian integration with the U.S. military. Policymaking by stealth has long characterized decisions in the vital area of continental security, and we have been treated to an unending trail of obfuscation about government intentions in joining the controversial defence scheme. Well, the wily George W. took care of that stratagem and put it on the line -- he wants Canada to display its machismo for all the world to see. If we are to be true friends of his administration, theree must be a Canadian seal of approval on the yet-to-be-proven missile shield, which by the strange logic of Republican Washington is not directed against terrorists but against the possible threat from a gaggle of minor-league nuclear wannabes. The fallout from this verbal U.S. missile was toxic. Several Liberal MPs vowed to vote against any measure of support for BMD, revealing a split in the ranks of the government. The divide was further widened when the Quebec wing of the party voted to oppose any participation. The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois used the Bush statement to heighten their criticism of the Liberal government's unwillingness to have a public airing before any decision was made. Even the position of the previously hawkish Conservatives seemed to shift to a wait-and-see attitude. Not a very secure parliamentary perch for a minority government. That awkward political posture was exacerbated out there on the hustings. A recent poll of Canadians showed not only rejection of the BMD proposal but a strong feeling that the prime minister was not aggressive enough in advancing Canadian interests. The media finally cottoned on to the significance of the BMD issue and began printing a spate of stories contradicting the arguments that had so far been used by cabinet ministers to justify what looked to be a done deal. Such as: A retired U.S. general testified that the missile scheme being launched this year was a first-stage platform to an eventual space initiative. Down went the government's commitment that this last unarmed frontier would not be breached. Bland assurances that BMD would increase security without engendering an arms race were similarly harpooned by the Russian announcement that they are developing a new missile capable of penetrating any defence network. Will the Chinese be far behind? And last week, this newspaper carried reports from a professor at MIT that the current BMD interception trajectory would likely result in nuclear debris falling on the heads of Winnipeggers -- that is, if the technology ever progresses to the point that it can actually hit an incoming projectile. So what is a prime minister dropped in a political pickle by his newfound best friend to do? One conclusion is clear: He can't avoid making a decision without incurring the ditherer label that is already being bandied about in the coffee shops of the nation. Nor can he try to pass this off as an inconsequential policy matter, not worthy of too much bother by the Canadian public. Because it is important, and is seen as such by many Canadians and their political representatives. It will determine in no small way the path Canada takes in the world, and is thus deserving of serious and courageous decision-making. The best choice the prime minister could make is to put an end to the apparent indecision and announce before Christmas that Canada will not become an adherent to the missile-defence program. Why, you ask? Because such a decision will be in full accord with the deep-set feelings of most Canadians that this country should set its own course in the world and use our energy and imagination to build a safer global community. The Bush doctrine is a failed approach -- witness the quagmire in Iraq, the current divisive nature of transatlantic relations, the indifference to pending environmeental calamity, and the president's persistent attacks on international institutions such as the UN and the International Criminal Court, which seek to build a global rule of law. What's the logic of immersing ourselves in a scheme that only perpetuates such a flawed foreign policy? Past prime ministers have shown such leadership even when faced with tough American opposition. Mike Pearson refused participation in the Vietnam War. Pierre Trudeau launched a worldwide campaign for nuclear disarmament, against the wishes of the Reagan White House. Brian Mulroney took the lead on apartheid in South Africa. And Jean Chrétien kept us out of the folly in Iraq. What these examples show is that Canada can make a distinctive contribution without buying into the misadventures or miscalculations of particular U.S. administrations. This doesn't impinge on maintaining good relations with the Americans, nor is there any evidence that it affects trade and economic relations. The reality is that the U.S. economy is increasingly reliant on Canadian energy and resources, and no U.S. president, however vengeful, is going to put that connection at risk. What's more, Canada is already making a significant contribution to continental security. We're spending more than $9 billion on border-control measures and have agreed to have Norad surveillance capacity used as part of BMD. If we want to demonstrate added commitment, then there are other initiatives more relevant to deterring terrorists that can be taken. A new Senate report cites the need to bolster North American coastal protection and intelligence-gathering, for example. A firm resolve to eschew missile defence would be a liberating experience for Prime Minister Martin, and indeed for all Canadians. It would relieve the fractiousness that the issue now generates. It would put Canada in a very credible position to speak forcefully on issues of arms control and non-proliferation as we approach crucial international review conferences. It would set the stage for a clear-headed rethink of our continental relations. And it would free up hundreds of millions of dollars now being spent by the Defence Department on BMD-related research, allowing reinvestment in the peacemaking capacity of our armed forces and creating an enhanced capacity to undertake missions of humanitarian involvement in places like Sudan. In short, a decision to say no to missile defence would translate into a resounding yes to the kind of activist foreign policy Paul Martin is fond of talking about. Now is the time to turn a problem into an opportunity. Mr. Prime Minister, carpe diem. Seize the day. Lloyd Axworthy is president of the University of Winnipeg. He is a former Canadian foreign minister and senior Manitoba MP, and was most recently CEO of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.
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