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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.