Donald Rumsfield and Andre Maginot

By John Spragge

Canadians now find ourselves more or less officially caught up in the debate over "National Missile Defence". Various American public figures, as well as a number of Canadian conservatives, have called upon the Canadian government to endorse the concept of missile defence. The debate of missile defence has proceeded with an odd omission: most of the discussion has gone on as though defensive policies involved no risks. Before anyone spends billions on a missile defence system, I recommend thinking this proposition through with some care.

The current missile defence debate proceeds on the assumption that even an unreliable defence shield makes sense. Since two out of three tests of the proposed system have already failed, few people can claim absolute reliability for the system. At least one proponent of missile defence dismisses the failures as a "quality control" problem, as though he believes that quality control issues appear only in testing, and not in deployed systems.

Fred Reed, the military writer, identifies the basic problem with missile defence; he acidly proposes that a third world country with nuclear bombs could just as easily FedEx them. While I hope someone at the FedEx hub in Memphis would give a hundred-kilo package from O. B. Laden, Kabul, Afghanistan a little special attention, including a once over with a Geiger counter, a smuggled nuclear or biological weapon poses a serious threat.

The people maimed or killed by a nuclear or biological weapon don't care whether it came via a missile that got through the national missile defences, or in the trunk of a suicide bomber's car. In either case, the defence would have failed. This raises the question: does any defence, even one that will probably fail, make more sense than no defence at all? In the ghastly logic of unrestrained war and terrorism, a partial defence may mean the difference between having a million people massacred in an attack on one city, and ten million deaths from attacks on ten cities.

Most of the backers of a national missile defence system would probably agree that any defence system makes more sense than none at all. But the historical record of national defensive systems raises many questions about the choice of ballistic missile defence. The most recent, and arguably the most appropriate, example involves the French Maginot line, a part of the defensive strategy which failed, disastrously, at the outset of the Second World War.

The example of the Maginot line by itself does not discredit the idea of ballistic missile defence. Rather, the experience of France with the Maginot line raises a series of important questions.

  1. Did the sense of security the Maginot line engendered have anything to do with the decision to appease Hitler? Similarly, would a missile shield reduce American willingness to address issues that could lead to wars?

    Considering the consequences of a successful terrorist attack on the United States with nuclear or biological weapons, it seems prudent to address this question carefully before deploying an imperfect ballistic missile defence. The world suffers from far too many of the festering injustices which breed dictators like maggots. If the American government ignores these problems and disengages from the world, the ballistic missile defence system may end up facing a severe test. And it seems hard to see how a missile defence system would encourage American politicians to commit resources to addressing the causes of global instability. After all, the American people will have paid a high price for a system to protect them and their allies from the consequences of just this instability. In the closest historical parallel available, the Maginot line certainly did not encourage the French to take the rise of the criminal regime in Germany seriously enough.

    The comprehensive test ban treaty would seriously hinder, if not prevent, the development of all nuclear weapons, including ones that fit in suitcases and FedEx shipments. Since preventing the development of nuclear weapons keeps us safer than trying to defend against them, the reluctance of the US Senate to ratify the test ban treaty gives reason for concern. It certainly looks like an example of a questionable defence system encouraging dangerous behaviour.

  2. Did the failure of the defensive strategy based on the Maginot line help lead to the collapse of France?

    The defeat of the Allies in France in 1940 had two major causes: atrocious bad luck, and the treachery of Adolf Hitler. The Germans, for example, could not have unhinged the Allied defence without perpetrating a dishonourable sneak attack on Belgium. And the death of one of France's most capable generals in a car accident had nothing to do with the Maginot line, or with Allied strategy generally. But, when evaluating the prospect of a strategic defence, we have to ask whether the French would have resisted better if they had not expected an impregnable wall to safeguard them.

    This naturally raises the question: how would the American public react to a sudden devastating demonstration of the limitations of their defences? It does not require an overwhelming pessimism about Americans, or indeed about human nature, to believe that if the United States had to face a homicidally insane enemy, Americans would do better if they accepted their vulnerability and the inevitability of some, perhaps terrible, sacrifices for freedom.

Of course, Canadians should ask these questions as concerned allies of the United States. Assuming the Americans answer them, or at least feel they have answers, what should the Canadian government do? American proponents of national missile defence have strongly urged the Canadian and British governments to support the initiative.

The Canadian government policy I would like to see would start with respect for American democracy. The American people will end up paying the vast majority of the cost of this system; the Canadian government should not lend support to anyone who wants to tell American legislators how to spend the taxpayer's money.

Some of the people who suggest Canada should endorse the plan for missile defence offer Canadians a free ride, suggesting the Canadian government needs only to say yes, not to help pay for the system. Canada has never needed a free ride on defence, and Canadians should not expect one now. Canadians have contributed to common defence policies in the past, and we should expect to continue. By the same token, we should reject imprudent, ineffective, or unjust defence proposals. In this case, the Canadian government should endorse and participate fully in a missile defence scheme if its proponents can show it will work, if it does not act as a substitute for more just and prudent measures, and if the American government ratifies the most important of these measures, the comprehensive test ban treaty.

Finally, if the Canadian government chooses to support a ballistic missile defence, Canadians should help to construct it. The Canadian government has never asked for a "free ride" on defence, and we should not do so now. Canadians have some expertise on remote sensing. If the Canadian government endorses an American ballistic missile defence program, we should offer this expertise to back up our endorsement.