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Canada says “No” to Star Wars


It was in late 1984 that President Ronald Reagan invited western allies including Canada and the UK to join a futuristic research programme formally known as the Strategic Defence Initiative, and popularly called “Star Wars”.

I was an international security policy advisor to Canada’s foreign Minister, the Right Honourable Joe Clark, in the newly elected Mulroney government. We immediately set about trying to learn as much as we could about the project which was controversial from its inception. It envisaged striking down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in one of three phases – shortly after take-off in the boost phase, during their mid-course in outer space and upon re-entry into the atmosphere before reaching the target – in the terminal phase.

Canada examined the arguments (including possible lucrative research contracts for Canadian industry) and decided that the negative impact on strategic stability outweighed any possible benefits.

While research was technically legal under the 1972 ABM Treaty, development of strategic defences was not. The rationale behind this enlightened arms control agreement between the Soviet Union and the USA was that any attempt to develop “defensive” missiles capable of shooting down incoming ICBMs would inevitably set off an offensive nuclear arms race, to ensure that the defensive missiles would be overwhelmed.

It is infinitely cheaper and easier to build offensive missiles than defensive ones.  And the latter have to work 100% of the time whereas only one offensive missiles needs to get through for horrendous damage to be inflicted. So the two adversaries agreed that any increased defensive capacity would be dwarfed by the threat from new offensive missiles.

To put this another way, the implications of SDI ran directly counter to the prevailing nuclear orthodoxy of “nuclear deterrence” through “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Only if each side had sufficient nuclear weapons to survive a first strike and be able to launch a devastating retaliatory blow would each side thereby be “deterred” from launching a nuclear first strike.

So how was it then that a newly elected Progressive Conservative government, anxious above all to get along with the USA, said “thanks but no thanks” to this very high profile, high stakes invitation?

With Canada hosting the “Shamrock Summit” of NATO leaders in Quebec City in March 1985, our Ambassador to the USA, the almost legendarily-powerful Alan Gotlieb, forecast utter disaster if Canada did not sign on to SDI.

Mr. Clark did not buckle but summoned the Director of the Arms Control Division and the Director General of the International Security Bureau in Foreign Affairs. Both had huge expertise and an equal determination that Canada make the right decision. They offered their best judgment that, despite Gotlieb’s dark warnings, the Americans had not “dug in their heels” and would likely agree to a Summit Statement referencing respect for the ABM Treaty. Mr. Clark, in turn, was able to secure the Prime Minister’s agreement to this approach.

So the Shamrock Summit, rather than endorsing SDI, instead highlighted the importance to international peace and security of limiting the deployment of strategic defences.

Canada gave its formal, very diplomatic, response to the American invitation in September, 1985:

“The Canadian government has reached the conclusion that the policies and priorities of Canada do not justify a government to government effort in support of SDI research.”

This story is a testament to what Canada can achieve with a principled, determined Foreign Minister backed up by equally fearless Canadian diplomats.


By: Peggy Mason, President of the Rideau Institute. The author wishes to note that nuclear deterrence is a deeply problematic concept but any move to make a first strike more likely is a move in the wrong direction. Private companies were still technically free to pursue contracts although there was little hope of attaining them without government backing.

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