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August 25, 2013

Canada's place in the world

Reuel S. Amdur

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There is a continuing on-and-off controversy about Canada's sometimes plan to purchase a fleet of F35 fighter jets.

Controversy has addressed the suitability of the jet: can it do the job needed and are there flaws in the plane?  However, the main question is that of cost.  After efforts by the Harper government to hide the real cost, it is now clear that it will be in the neighborhood of $45 billion.  That’s a mighty expensive neighborhood, considering that Canada’s total budget for 2013-14 is $282.6 billion. While the $45 billion is spread over many years, the magnitude of such an investment should raise concern.

Most of the criticism of the purchase of the F35 has been on the tendering process and the question of whether we can get something else as suitable or more suitable for less.  That brings us back to the “neighborhood”.  Suppose we find a bargain even as low as $30 billion.  Should we snap it up?

This raises a more basic question: Why do we need such expensive military hardware anyway?  What use is it to Canada?  Supporters of such weaponry tend to fall back to the argument that we need to do our share as members of NATO but more specifically in continental defense.  It is argued that we are under the American umbrella and must to our bit—not try to freeload. To this argument there are two responses.

First, what possible enemy is there against whom a fleet of F35’s could be of any use?  With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the current enemy turns out to be “jihadism”, or some such.  It is a target that an F35 cannot hit.

Second, the umbrella argument assumes that it is the United States that provides us with security.  This contention is not self-evident.  To explain, it is necessary to get a bit theoretical.

Let us go back to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in the 17th Century.  In his work Leviathan he posited a time in which men lived solitary lives, without society, in as he called it the state of nature.  In such a state, men lived in a state of war, in constant fear of others, because of a lack of a power (or government) to maintain peace.  As a result, in a famous phrase, he spoke of “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  A state of war against all.

Hobbes conceded that such a state of affairs may well never have existed in that pure sense, but he identified people to whom it is a present reality: “kings and persons of sovereign authority.”  There is no overarching control over such persons, and so they are engaged in constant spying and plotting against one another.  Whether they are or are not engaged in actual physical combat, said Hobbes, they are in a state of war.

Especially since World War II, governments have tried to move away from that state of war.  The United Nations was created.  While it was initially seen as an instrument to maintain the dominance of the Big Powers, it has since evolved.  It has many drawbacks, but it is illustrative of the effort to create a peaceful world.  One of the institutions created was the International Court of Justice, which replaced an earlier similar body.  It functions to judge on disputes between nations.

The case of Nicaragua vs. the United States of America came to the court in 1984.  Nicaragua charged that the United States was illegally backing the Contras in a civil war against the Sandinista government and that the United States had mined Nicaraguan harbors.  The Court found for Nicaragua and against the US.  At that point, the United States rejected the jurisdiction of the Court.  It had previously adhered to that jurisdiction, but the unfavorable decision led it to change its mind.  The US preferred the world of the war of all against all for the simple reason that it did not like the decision and had enough power to ignore the decision successfully.  This was the most serious blow to international order since World War II.  At a time when international institutions might serve to promote peace through strengthening them, the United States undermined the Court.  Canada’s real interests lie in promoting institutions of peace, while the United States prefers Hobbes’ state of war.

You may think that 1984 is a long time ago, but the United States flexes its muscles frequently, before 1984 and since.  It has run roughshod over Latin America, though it is no longer able to exercise the same level of control there.  And in exercising it power in the world it frequently acts in ways that are not even in its real interests.  In order to overthrow the Communist government in Afghanistan, it gave aid and encouragement to the Taliban and al-Qaida.  We know how that turned out.  Going back, in Iran British and American intelligence corrupted the military leadership in order to arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh, to prevent nationalization of the Iranian oil industry.  America installed the Shah, and we are now seeing the results of that “success.”  Do we want to be the loyal partner of a country that plays recklessly and dangerously in an effort to maintain its own power at the top of the heap—the fastest gun in the West?

One aspect of the war of all against all is that it drives leaders into a state of constant fear.  Consider the case of Maher Arar.  Consider Guantánamo.  And when Canada buys into the alliance with the United States it also buys into its hysteria, as the Arar case shows.  Of course there are others as well, for example Abousfian Abdelrazik, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin.

Canada’s interests do not coincide with those of the United States.  We want a world of peace, order, and good government with freedom, not a world in Hobbes’ state of war.  America’s power is declining, and that is a good thing.  There are many useful things Canada could do with $45 billion.  F35’s are not among them, nor would any “bargain” substitute fighter airplanes be.

In any case, being under the American umbrella is not an especially safe place to be.  Allying our interests with theirs makes us a target.  Who would want to do Canada harm if we were not an American ally?

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