April 9, 2000
The date on the Globe and Mail clipping says March 23, 2000. The subject is the U.S. testing its national nuclear missile defence system, and efforts to push Canada to get with the program. The irony of the date, though, is unmistakable.
For those who remember such things, 17 years ago on that very date, U.S. president Ronald Reagan went on national television to announce his Strategic Defence Initiative, which euphemistically, or derisively, became known as “Star Wars.”
For 11 years, until the speech, the U.S. and the Soviet Union operated under the reality that anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence systems were destabilizing, and thus a threat to nuclear peace. That’s why in 1972 both countries signed SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) accords, which limited the kinds of defensive systems each side could have. Article V of the treaty expressly prohibited the development and testing of sea-based, space-based or mobile land-based ABM systems or components. (Although, that didn’t stop government officials from concocting sophistries two years later to show how the SALT treaty justified SDI research and development.)
Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, like any sane person, subscribes to the SALT view of national missile defence systems. He knows they complicate disarmament agreements and undermine existing non-proliferation agreements. “Unilateral efforts to build defences against these dangers are unlikely to provide lasting security,” he said in a March 22 speech.
The fact that we’re having this debate today is a disgrace, but then rationality has never been a strong suit of U.S. military policy. George “Dubya” Bush and most Republican senators now want a NMD for fear of a nuclear missile attack from the rogue states of North Korea, Iraq or Iran.
Yeah, right. Doubtless, foreign threats real or imagined, come a distant second to the need to suck up to the U.S. military-industrial complex and to present American voters with new, definable enemies. The false promise of ballistic missile defence was thoroughly aired in 1983, which makes you wonder which is the real rogue state.
When Reagan told the world of his plan for a crash program to build a space-based shield against nuclear missile attack, he didn’t just surprise the world—he stupefied it. The Pentagon had no idea what he was talking about. Cabinet secretaries were left in the dark until the last moment, and the scientific community was apoplectic.
Some 6,000 university researchers refused to accept SDI research funds or work on SDI programs, and signed petitions decrying it as “technically infeasible, politically dangerous, and economically wasteful.” In the late 1970s, defence-related research accounted for roughly 50 percent of all federal research funding; by 1987 it was 70 per cent.
The tragedy is that Reagan, himself, didn’t know what he was talking about, but then he rarely did. In Deadly Gambits, a chronicle of U.S. nuclear arms control policy, Strobe Talbott, then a diplomatic correspondent for Time, perfectly captured Reagan’s approach to policy-making.
“What he cared about was speeches—particularly his own speeches. He knew that his smooth delivery and easygoing, winning manner were huge assets. He would work at fine- tuning a speech with an enthusiasm that he rarely devoted to other duties. It was this aspect of Reagan’s approach to the presidency that led him to see the announcement of the proposal as an end in itself. If the speech worked as a speech, then the policy must be a good one. If the speech came off, the policy could be sustained.”
In his “Star Wars” speech, Reagan acknowledged the fallacy of his own argument, but carried on obliviously: “Defensive systems have limitations and raise certain questions and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy… But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community… to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons obsolete.”
From a military, scientific, engineering, ethical and financial point of view, SDI was dangerous and unsound. After the speech, though, everyone stepped through the looking glass to praise the emperor’s new clothes. Nobody in the administration dared criticize Reagan or SDI, which had mutated into a de facto religious crusade.
Today, we rightly look back upon the Reagan presidency as a time of benighted folly, a time when rational thought took a holiday, greed became a virtue, and the perception of leadership was the kind of reality most Americans craved.
Axworthy’s defence of principle and Canada’s political sovereignty represents a complete reversal of the pro-SDI sycophancy of previous Tory governments. Incredibly, in February 1985 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney actually defended Canada’s participation in SDI as an expression of this country’s sovereignty and willingness to pull our own weight.
By refusing to be stampeded into a bad decision, Axworthy is risking the favourable treatment bestowed on Mulroney by his American masters. Already, the U.S. is refusing to afford Canada its traditional privileged access to military technology, citing the dual-citizenship of Canadian defence workers as the reason. Whether there’s a connection, I don’t know, but even though Star Wars is dead, the Star Wars mentality lives on.