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Ballistic missile defense: the time is now for ‘threat reduction strategy’

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In a turbulent and uncertain world where nationalism and religious zealotry are on the rise, Canada needs to consider actions that will safeguard and advance its national interests. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of nuclear proliferation as states like North Korea and Iran develop these weapons and with them a long range missile delivery capability. A good place to start would be to relaunch discussions with the U.S. for a partnership role in Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The most obvious threat at the moment is from the erratic regime in Pyongyang which is desperately pursuing its ambition to deploy a missile capacity capable of striking the U.S. homeland. One may discount the wild rhetoric and clumsy tests to date but there is little doubt that North Korea is determined to acquire a capability to threaten North America and hold our cities hostage, however perverse or irrational such a goal might seem to be. Conventional analyses simply do not apply on anything emanating from a government about which so little is known.

Like it or not, given the uncertainties about North Korea’s technological prowess, Canada would be as vulnerable as the U.S. Canada would almost certainly be on the flight path of any missile the North Koreans decided to fire at the United States should that day come. And there is no guarantee that a missile directed at Washington or New York, or even Seattle or Los Angeles, wouldn’t inadvertently land on Toronto or Vancouver. It would be prudent for us to act accordingly and begin to deal with this emerging security challenge now.

The infamous Kim dynasty has ruined the lives of millions of its own people, most of whom, apart from a privileged military and civilian elite, live in brutal, gulag-style conditions denied even the most basic means of livelihood. What little wealth North Korea generates, mostly through illicit drug and arms sales, is squandered heavily on military muscle and advanced weapons technology. What the newest Kim intends to do with its nuclear arsenal, assuming he really is in control, is as unpredictable as it is destabilizing. Even China, its closest neighbor and ally, is increasingly wary about spontaneous combustion on the Korean peninsula. The humanitarian and economic fallout would be devastating and not just in the immediate vicinity.

Canada came very close to signing a BMD agreement with the U.S. in 2004 but backed away at the last minute ostensibly to avoid a renewal of the arms race but more likely because of domestic, political allergies about doing anything on security with the George W. Bush administration. At that time, the former Liberal government of Paul Martin seemed to want a “say” in what was planned but was reluctant to make any kind of hard commitment to participate. As a result, we are on the outside looking in at what had the potential of refitting NORAD to a 21st century threat. (The initial purpose of NORAD was for a different threat in a different age). By standing down we simply became irrelevant.

A major priority for any government is the preservation of national security and, if anything, the risk of nuclear proliferation is greater today than it was a decade ago and not just from North Korea, but also countries like Iran, which appear intent on acquiring such capabilities. New initiatives are already underway to quash the threat from terrorists, including the home grown variety. Even more lethal are looming missile threats against which Canada has no practical defense other than to hope that our neighbor will act in its own interest and defend us against an attack, accidental or otherwise.

That is simply not good enough. The best antidote to the antics of North Korea is, as Nicholas Eberstadt contended in the Wall Street Journal recently, a “threat reduction strategy,” a combination of sustained military and civilian actions and not a repeat of offers of dialogue in the face of “bait and switch” extortion demands from North Korea attempting to gain rewards for bad behavior from all too gullible western powers.

A serious effort by Canada to join in Ballistic Missile defense could be a constructive and prudent part of this strategy, complementing our continued support for strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime, and would provide us with both a say and a role against missiles from other regimes as well. The time to act in our own security interest is now and a partnership in Ballistic Missile Defense should be the obvious priority.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Canada LLP and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States (1989–1993). Fen Osler Hampson is distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also chancellor’s professor at Carleton University.

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