Academic journal article International Journal

Hobson's Choice: Does Canada Have Any Options in Its Defence and Security Relations with the United States?

Academic journal article International Journal

Hobson's Choice: Does Canada Have Any Options in Its Defence and Security Relations with the United States?

Article excerpt

Enemy forces should not be able to pursue their way either by land, sea or air to the United States across Canadian territory.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, 20 August 1938

[W]hat we have to fear is more a lack of confidence in the United States as to our security, rather than enemy action... If we do enough to assure the United States we shall have done a good deal more than a cold assessment of the risk would indicate to be necessary.

Maurice Pope, April 1944

THE CANADA-UNITED STATES DEFENCE RELATIONSHIP has been a real bargain for the Canadian government, allowing it to enjoy a level of security it could never have reached with its own resources. In return, Ottawa must make sure that its territory will not be used as a forward base or a port of entry for eventual enemies of the United States. The problem is that Canadians do not necessarily share either American perceptions of what constitutes a threat or their view of how a perceived threat should be countered. Consequently, the government of Canada often adopts defensive measures that it does not always consider necessary. Thus, according to Paul Letourneau and Michel Fortmann, when faced with a Pentagon 'which almost unilaterally defines the nature of the threat, Canada essentially tries to limit American ambitions, whilst preserving the friendly character of their exchanges.'(1) This was certainly an apt description of the situation that prevailed during the Second World War and the cold war. It is our contention that little has changed in the dynamics of the United States-Canadian defence and security relationship since the cold war ended. The risks of diverging in any meaningful way from what the United States expects of Canada are still considered far too great for any Canadian government to contemplate seriously.

Since 1993, when the Liberal government came to power in Ottawa, bilateral relations between Canada and the United States have seemed to be nothing less than agreement and harmony, especially over questions of defence and security. Despite its rhetoric, which is full of references to the need for greater independence vis-a-vis the United States, the government of Jean Chretien has developed a good relationship with the administration of Bill Clinton in the United States.(2) Nevertheless, changes in United States threat perceptions and defence doctrines could force Canada to adopt measures that do not necessarily correspond to its priorities and might even conflict with some of its policies, notably in the areas of the fight against non-military threats and the defence of North American aerospace. Unfortunately, Canada has little choice. Refusal could endanger the very foundations of the American pillar of Canada's defence policy.


The different views of the two governments on what constitutes a threat and how to deal with it affect the grand orientations of Canadian and American security policies. United States strategic priorities have evolved over the last few years. The American government can hardly escape its 'international responsibilities,' that is, putting American interests first and protecting the country's dominant position, any more than it could during the cold war. Washington has no qualms about using force against perceived 'trouble-makers' such as Serbia, Iraq, or North Korea. But what changes the defence equation in the United States is the increasing number of insidious and unpredictable threats against its territory. Terrorism, drug trafficking, attacks against cyberspace, proliferation of missile technology, and sophisticated industrial spying have all become objects of increasing concern.

Nobody should be surprised that more and more Americans worry just as much, if not more so, about the security of the territory of the United States itself as about protecting their international interests, or that an important segment of the political elite is turning toward isolationism and defence of the homeland. …

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