How Paul Martin blindsided Washington’s man in Ottawa on missile defence

September 26 2005


How Paul Martin blindsided Washington’s man in Ottawa on missile defence

September 26 2005



The Maclean’s Excerpt

How Paul Martin blindsided Washington’s man in Ottawa on missile defence

THE SCOWLING PORTRAIT of John Diefenbaker that hangs in the Parliament Buildings Centre Block is a colorful reminder that missiles have been a recurring source of conflict between Canada and the United States. The Bomarc crisis of 1963 that led to the fall of Diefenbaker’s government was shaking relations between the two countries four decades before I arrived in Ottawa. Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government had a missile problem, if not a missile crisis, as did Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives. So I knew from my first days on the job that missiles would be a problem. As in the past, the bone of contention is Canadian sovereignty and the government’s concern that sovereignty would be compromised if Canada participated in the U.S. missile defence system. As someone told me, missiles are a kind of “third rail” issue in CanadianAmerican relations. Sad but true.

Paul Cellucci, U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2001 until March, was one of the most controversial foreign diplomats in Ottawa. He frequently spoke out on such hot-button cross-border irritants as Canadian defence spending and marijuana decriminalization. But nothing frustrated Cellucci more, as he writes in his memoirs Unquiet Diplomacy (Key Porter), than Prime Minister Paul Martin’s refusal to participate in the U.S. missile defence program.

Even so, I was astounded by Prime Minister Paul Martin’s announcement on Feb. 24,2005, that Canada would not take part. It just didn’t make sense to me. I knew that the government’s minority status complicated the picture, but my expectation was that Martin and his government shared our view and were willing to face down the

critics of Canadian participation in missile defense. How wrong I was.

Looking back, what is so strange about the missile defense debate is that the two sides seemed to be looking at quite different problems. The Canadians seemed to believe that they could bottle up Canada and its vulnerability quite apart from the rest of the continent. But the reality is a shared geography in which the border is a line on a map that can’t be seen from a missile launched from abroad. A missile targeted at Chicago, Seattle, Detroit or New York might well inadvertently hit Canada. It could even be targeted at Canada. Or, depending on its launch site, it could pass over Canadian airspace on its route to an American target. A missile destined for the U.S. is not going to vary its route so that it does not travel through or over Canadian airspace. Nor do the niceties of whose airspace is where figure in a U.S. response. Whatever the target, a U.S. decision to intercept would probably be made well before it was over American airspace.

Now, because of the Canadian government’s decision not to participate, Canadian soldiers assigned to NORAD duty will work to detect a missile launch and its track, but then they will be required to leave the room when a decision has to be made about whether to intercept it—even if the missile’s target is Canada! It made no sense then and it makes no sense now. Britain, Australia and Japan are already active partners with the United States in developing a ballistic missile defense system. Denmark is participating by agreeing to upgrades of the U.S. radar system in Greenland. Even Russia has shown interest. How Canada, our next-door neighbor with whom we effectively share airspace and to whom we are joined by ties more intimate than those between any other two countries, could remain on the sideline was beyond my comprehension. In the end, though, I understood that politics had carried the day over common sense and, I believe, over Canada’s national self-interest.

It was not an outcome that I would have predicted two years earlier. Cabinet was discussing the issue and several in Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government, including Defence Minister John McCallum, Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham had all spoken publicly in favour of co-operating with the U.S. on missile defense. And Canadian public opinion, while divided on the issue,

certainly was not strongly opposed to participation except in Quebec. I thought, and I still believe, that all that was necessary was for the Canadian government to exercise leadership. Instead, there was vacillation and delay.

I had expected that even if Prime Minister Chrétien wouldn’t support missile defense, his successor would. I liked what I heard from Paul Martin, the odds-on favourite, on this issue. It was clear and it made sense. “It’s conceivable that a missile could be going over Canadian airspace,” he said in April 2003. “And you know what? If a missile is going over Canadian airspace, I want

to know. I want to be at the table before that happens.” Something obviously happened between then, when leadership candidate Paul Martin made those comments and Prime Minister Martin’s decision in February to say no to missile defense.

One of the first warning signs was a vote in the House of Commons in June 2003. The Canadian Alliance, later to become the Conservative Party, tabled a motion in favour of having NORAD take responsibility for command of a continental missile defense system. This non-binding resolution was approved by a vote of 156 to 73. That was the good news. The bad news was that 38 Liberal MPs, most from Quebec, voted against the motion and that—although how bad was not obvious to me at the time— Paul Martin skipped the vote, saying that he found the Alliance motion to be “ambiguous” because it might permit the weaponiza-

tion of space. I understood that this was a delicate issue and that Martin was in the thick of a leadership race, so I didn’t attribute much importance to his unwillingness to support the motion.

I still believed that the right leadership could bring some people around. I knew what had happened to Diefenbaker, but I also knew about Pierre Trudeau, who had wrestled with the issue in the 1980s and won. As the vacillation on missile defense continued under Chrétien and then Martin, I wondered how it was that Trudeau, well known for his reservations about the military and his defense of Canadian sovereignty, was willing to stare down opposition to cruise missile testing. His successors seemed unwilling to show the same sort of leadership.

Once Martin was sworn in and we started to talk about a date for him to meet with President Bush, I was confident that we would be able to get the missile defense plan back on track. But time was becoming a factor. My government planned to begin the first stage of a missile defense system in October 2004, with interceptor sites in Alaska and California. We very much wanted Canada to participate.

I saw, however, that the politics of this issue in Canada were getting more complicated, given the election that everyone expected to be called sooner rather than later. As a longtime politician, I appreciated the fact that you never want to hand your opponent an issue that he or she can use against you. So Martin’s reluctance to commit himself one way or the other struck me as simple prudence. This was particularly so after his party’s polling numbers in Quebec dropped significantly as a result of allegations of fraud and corruption in the distribution of government advertising monies in Quebec. The prospect of a Liberal minority government, unthinkable only weeks before, suddenly became a real possibility. I knew that the prime minister would have enough to deal with without having to justify missile defense. But once the election was over and the dust had settled, a decision would need to be reached.

The June election did reduce Martin’s Liberals to a minority government. That obviously did not bode well for negotiations on missile defense, but I believed that the momentum we had developed and the support that we had in cabinet were enough to win the day. It would take leadership from the Prime Minister, but that’s

The Maclean’s Excerpt | >

what leaders are elected to do. Everyone knew the clock was ticking.

In the middle of the summer, the Canadian and American governments reached an agreement on NORAD, which I thought moved everything another step forward. The agreement was amended to extend NORAD’s aerospace warning and detection to include missile defense. Slowly, very slowly, the pieces of an agreement seemed to be coming together. We knew that the Canadian government did not want to spend any money on missile defense. The U.S. accepts that responsibility. Also, the Canadian government wanted an exit mechanism, so that if it decided participation was no longer in the nation’s interest, it could withdraw. The U.S. explained to Canada that if the president decided to deploy space-based interceptors, Ottawa could end its participation in the program as its sovereign right.

President Bush was scheduled to make his first state visit to Canada at the end of November. To my great disappointment, we couldn’t even get the issue onto the formal agenda. Two years of off-and-on negotiations and we still had to keep up the pretense that this was not a vitally important issue between us. Of course, the issue came up anyway during the talks in Ottawa. President Bush raised it because he couldn’t understand what the basis was for the Canadian government’s reluctance.

about the future of NORAD and how that organization can best meet emerging threats and safeguard our continent against attack from ballistic missiles.” The President made it clear that he hoped the Canadian government would sign on. Martin was obviously not at ease having to respond to the President’s unmistakably blunt words. But frankly, we were approaching the point where indecision was becoming paralysis. Something needed to be done to break the log-jam.

Even as all of this was happening and my frustration with a process that seemed to be stalled was mounting, the friendship that my wife, Jan, and I had developed with Prime Minister and Sheila Martin remained

shared family stories and updated the Martins on our travels across Canada. Even the occasional mention of missile defense didn’t spoil our private friendship.

Finally, a decision was announced. It was not the decision that I had hoped would be reached. I can’t say that I was surprised in the end, but I was perplexed. I just didn’t get it. It seemed to me quite obvious that it was in Canada’s sovereign interest to be at the table when decisions were made about the defense of North America, decisions with implications for Canadian territory.


After their private talks, when the two leaders emerged to make their statements to the press, Bush decided that it was time for him to do a bit of public diplomacy. He started by thanking the Canadian government and the Canadian people for their warm reception, “especially the Canadian people who came out to wave—with all five fingers.” When the president turned to the substance of his talks with Martin, some people were visibly surprised: “We talked

unshaken. This is one of the lessons that I’ve learned from over 30 years in public life. Don’t let policy differences poison personal relations. A few days into the new year, the Prime Minister’s Office called and asked whether we could join the Martins for dinner. Dress would be casual. An hour later, Prime Minister Martin rang the doorbell at the Residence and then the four of us were on our way to the Urban Pear in the Glebe. We had a wonderful evening together. We

Paul Martin had believed this too, I recalled, before becoming prime minister. Was that what Canadians wanted, for no Canadian to be part of the decision-making process should a missile enter Canadian airspace? Is that what the defense of Canadian sovereignty meant? Putting decisions about Canada’s sovereignty in the hands of another country?

Let’s imagine that the unlikely happens and an incoming missile is way off target and is heading for Canada’s North. Canada will be

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out of the protocols at NORAD. And with a decision that must be made very quickly— within minutes—Canada will be totally out of the loop. Canada will thus cede a sovereign decision to the United States. The U.S. may have different sovereign interests at stake from those of Canada. For example, the cost of taking out the missile. Canada’s sovereign interest could be protecting valuable natural resources and possibly people in that barren part of the country. It amounts to an amazing giveaway of sovereignty.

What added to the disappointment of the decision was the clumsy manner in which it was announced. Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew communicated the decision to Secretary of State Condi Rice at the NATO summit in Brussels. The timing and method of the announcement certainly were not well received in Washington. Just when the President was in Europe trying to show some unity with NATO allies after the rift that had opened over Iraq, our close ally and next-door neighbour chose that moment to signal its rejection of something that we considered to be crucial to our security. Then there was the fact that the Prime Minister did

not tell the President himself, although both were at the NATO meeting and at several points were standing side by side. All in all, it was an inept ending to a frustrating process.

In defense of Martin, he was not the only one whose leadership might have been judged wavering on this issue. The Conser-

vative Party was not exactly a model of clarity and principle. President Bush spoke with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper during his 2004 trip to Ottawa and received a positive indication from him about where the Conservative party would stand on this issue. But shortly before the government’s rejection of missile defense was announced, Martin said that he was thinking of putting troops into Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces. The very first person to raise objections was Stephen Harper. The Prime Minister ended up beating a hasty retreat. Was this the same party that took every opportunity to castigate the government for not being supportive of its American ally? Once again, politics took precedence over policy. But I also felt that there was more to this picture. In the final analysis I believe that much of the opposition to Canadian participation in missile defense was not based on the actual proposal at all. After all, we weren’t asking Canada to contribute money or allow interceptor rockets on its soil. And we were not intending to “weaponize” space, despite NDP leader Jack Layton’s claims that both the President and Colin Powell admitted to him that this was the plan. I don’t say that Layton was lying, but I think that either his hearing was off or he simply hears what he wants to hear. In the end, the government capitulated to a minority of its own MPs who, I believe, were uneasy about expanding military co-operation with the United States. In the case of some, this uneasiness was accompanied by a virulent dislike of President Bush and a belief that any policy he supported must be bad for Canada and the world. Our countries have long been the best of friends, but I know that alongside this friendship there has also existed an uneasiness among many Canadians and a belief that to get too close would somehow be damaging for Canadian independence. Apparently that is what Prime Minister Diefenbaker believed in 1963, when he went back on his promise to fulfill Canada’s NORAD obligations. Whether he was right or wrong I leave to Canadian historians. But I’m sure that the missile defense decision made by the Canadian government in 2005 is not one that historians will judge to have been in the best interests of Canadian security and sovereignty. Adapted from Unquiet Diplomacy by Paul Cellucci by permission of Key Porter Books