The Liberal Defence Policy: Douglas Frith Answers Questions

On May 13, the Toronto Disarmament Network invited Liberal defence critic Douglas Frith to explain his party's defence policy in a public meeting. The following is an excerpt of that question-and-answer session.

By Toronto Disarmament Network (interlocutors); Douglas Frith MP (speaker)

Frith: I was asked by Mr. Turner about fourteen months ago, when I assumed the defence critic's role, to rationalize the raft of resolutions that emanated in 1986 from the Liberal policy convention. There are two processes that go on in the Liberal Party in producing a policy. The caucus itself produces policy because every time you answer a question in the House of Commons you are also establishing your own position to the question. But besides that, we have an election platform committee. It draws from the expertise that's available to the Liberal Party across the country. That committee will be producing campaign themes. I think that for the first time, probably in living memory, defence issues will play an important role in the election campaign. From a Liberal perspective, we will be establishing a choice for the public to make. Do Canadians in their foreign and defence policy, want to have a closer orbit with the United States, or do we want a more distanced view from the Americans? That is what the Liberal Party is advocating . So it augurs well for those of you who have a viewpoint on the peace process in this country. Unlike other campaigns, you're going to have a chance to question your candidates at the riding levels.

To turn to that review that Mr. Turner asked me to conduct: At the 1986 policy convention, two resolutions were passed by the party. One was an endorsement to Canada's continued participation in NATO; the other was a desire by the grassroots of the party to cease the testing of cruise missiles. I advocated in February, 1987 that Canada use the clause in the cruise missile test agreement that allows twelve months' notice to indicate to the United States that we're going to cease testing. This caused the first open split in the party.

In the ensuing months, I indicated we should view defence in the context of the larger term, security. I begin from the premise that Canada's international security is best achieved by arms control and disarmament. Those are the two key foreign policy objectives, I believe, of the Liberal Party. Nothing in our defence policy should contradict them. This is what led to many of the decisions that the party made later. Canada can best achieve arms control and disarmament by belonging to the multilateral institutions -- not only the United Nations, but also the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the defence of the North American continent with the United States. This is where we had a fundamental disagreement with the Conservatives because the White Paper reflects the Cold War rhetoric of the fifties and the sixties. I don't believe it reflects the needs of Canada for the next generation.

I did a tour of Europe, talking with many politicians in Germany, Britain, and France. I discovered that after the Reykjavik conference, many Europeans were surprised to see that Reagan was prepared to enter into an agreement with the Soviets that left out the European perspective. Europeans are very nervous. And since that time -- only 15 or 16 months -- there has been developing what they call the "European pillar" -- a true European perspective with regard to arms control and disarmament. Americans had better realize that Europeans are maturing. Gorbachev realizes that if he's going to reorganize the Soviet economy, he has to displace five percent of the budget from defence spending into consumer goods. To achieve that, he needs changes in his military system, not only in nuclear but conventional weapon systems as well. I predict, over the next seven years, meaningful reductions in conventional and nuclear weaponry systems as a result of negotiations between the Soviets and Americans and also the Warsaw and NATO Pacts. I expect bold initiatives by Gorbachev at the MBFR [conventional forces in Europe] talks. Then we'll be able to talk about a short-range nuclear force agreement between the Warsaw Pact and NATO.

When that is complete, you're going to have a different view of defence policy. Until now we have always thought of Canada's defence policy in the context of East-West.We visualize the world as a flat surface. But I'd like you to visualize it from the North Pole. From there, only seven countries form the real estate: the Soviets, a little piece of America at Alaska, Canada, and the Nordic Nations. After these things take place, there will be a shift in defence to the circumpolar region. You're going to find increased emphasis on weaponry systems -- particularly sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles. That is Canada must come to grips with the cruise issue. Why we must force the START agenda to reflect that new emerging defence world, the circumpolar region. All the political IOUs that we can build with the Nordic nations are going to take on more importance if we're going to achieve a demilitarized circumpolar region. That is why we should maintain our Norway commitment, because we're going to require the military commitment and the political IOUs of Norway. That's why the Liberal Party opposed the closure of the embassy in Helsinki. That would send the wrong signal to our Nordic neighbors. We are going to require Sweden, Finland, and Denmark if we're going to have a dialogue to demilitarize the region. Conservatives agreed to that, finally, and reversed themselves to keep the Helsinki embassy open. So the circumpolar perspective is an important element of our policy.

It is reflected in a speech Mr. Turner gave to the Vancouver Conference in February. In it, Mr. Turner pledged that we are no longer bound by the 1983 agreement to test cruise missiles. Under a Turner government, the U.S. would be informed that we would no longer be testing cruise missiles in Canada, and that we are committed to demilitarize the circumpolar region. If that is our objective , then what in heaven's name are we doing acquiring nuclear-powered submarines? A Liberal Government would halt the production of nuclear-powered submarines.

I've always found it strange that any government would recommend the purchase of submarines to protect Canada from our best friend and ally, the United States. We have to ask the U.S. Congress for approval to transfer technology to protect ourselves against them. This is hard to comprehend.

Frankly, the United States doesn't recognize Canada's rights to the Northwest Passage above the ice. There's no reason to believe that they're going to recognize our rights under the ice. I asked Mr. Beatty in Committee, "What is it that you expect the Canadian commander of a nuclear sub to do when he meets an American there underneath the Arctic ice cap? The Canadian is going to say, 'You're in our waters,' and the American's going to say, 'No, we're not.'" Beatty said, "We're going to ping him with the sonar system and we're going to log him to augment our case before the World Court in the Hague." I said, "Well, that's a pretty expensive expedition in law! Twelve billion dollars to prove a legal case!"

If our long-term geopolitical interest is to demilitarize that circumpolar region, it makes no sense to have nuclear-powered subs. That's the wrong message. You should be doing everything to build confidence. When we reviewed our policy on defence, we decided not to turn our backs on what has been accomplished since the War, in arms control, disarmament, our role in peace-keeping, our commitment to the armed forces. There isn't going to be a significant reduction in defence spending. In debates between the three political parties, all of us --Blackburn (the NDP), Beatty, and I -- agreed that the floor would be real growth of plus two percent and the ceiling would be a real growth of plus three percent.

Question: Your policy doesn't wholly hang together. You say that you're opposed to cruise testing, because the majority of Canadians now are opposed to cruise testing. Why do you continue to support low-level flight training? It's the same kind of policy. It's the testing of nuclear weapons delivery systems in Canada. Why do you support one and oppose the other?

Frith: You're going to have to have a common defence of the North American continent. Low-level air defence flights in Northern Canada reflects our commitment to that defence. That means that there are responsibilities that go with that commitment to NORAD. How else are we going to train? We still have commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As a result, we have the Goose Bay Training Centre. Why do we say we'll stop cruise and not low- level defence? Well, with cruise, we go back to the twin track approach NATO took when the Soviets brought in the SS-20s into the European Urals. We tied the deployment of cruise and Pershings to SS-20 withdrawal. So now we have SS-20 withdrawals, and the original decision for Canada to be involved in the cruise no longer is a requirement.

Question: I'm puzzled by the lack of interest in cooperation in the North. There have been opportunities that have not been taken. The Murmansk speech by Gorbachev on October 1 said many of the same things that you have been saying in intent. The response from Ottawa was, there is no point in talking to the Soviets about it because they can't possibly make any concessions on the militarization of the Kola Peninsula, and their Northern Fleet is in the Barents Sea and therefore they can't be really serious. After that, the Soviets said that they would be glad to talk about the Kola Peninsula. Mr. Ryzhkov in Oslo had five different proposals. The Scandinavian countries are very keen to form a collaborative venture on extracting oil, protecting the environment, and so on. The hostility of Canada to these overtures is really disturbing. If you were Defence Minister, how would you respond to these possibilities?

Frith: I don't want to defend the Conservatives, but I don't underestimate the difficulties when such proposals are made to step out of the alliance and just take an initiative from a Canadian perspective. So I think the next step would be to hold a conference, to at least find out if we have common definitions. Maybe at the end of the discussion we find that there isn't any common ground. We should have a dialogue with the Soviets on what they mean by Zones of Peace. But I do know that within NATO the jury's still out on Gorbachev. I accept this as a fact: Since the days of Peter the Great, Russian foreign policy has been expansionist. I don't think you're going to find much more acceleration in arms control discussions until something happens on European soil. You see, the SHAPE military analysts are giving Gorbachev less than a 50-50 chance of living because there's a very conservative element that doesn't like these changes that he's proposing. What the West fears most is that Gorbachev is deposed midway through these reforms. However, that shouldn't stop Canada from initiating dialogue with the Soviets because Canada is a middle power between the two.

Question: Continentally, Canada is under enormous pressure to become militarily, technically, politically integrated with the United States. Along with cruise missiles, we have the air defence initiative (ADI), SDI, the North Warning System. So my question is, will the Liberal government in power be able to change that direction?

Frith: If you're asking for our position on the upgrading of the North Warning System and the development of Air fields in Northern Canada, we're in agreement with that. We say you have to maintain a vigilance against the Soviets, but at the same time we would be prepared to initiate a series of dialogues, conferences, to delineate the problems of the circumpolar region. If you accept that you have to deal from strength, we had to upgrade the warning system. I think that Clark has at least been consistent on this, and I give him credit. He has consistently said to the United States, there should be no abrogation of the ABM Treaty. Canada does not to wish to participate on a government-to-government basis on Star Wars. I still am not sure what the Tory position is on ADI. But I can say from our standpoint, we also are opposed to participation on a government-to-government basis on SDI and that also holds true for ADI (Air Defence Initiative).

Question: But related to that, you say you want to stay in NORAD, but you don't want to be exactly in ADI. And I don't see how you can separate them.

Frith: Well, if the Americans want to deploy this system, they require our cooperation. If there's no cooperation, they don't deploy it. They happen to be on Canadian soil. We still control that. We renegotiate the NORAD agreement every five years. If you have a difficulty, you put it back into the agreement. Now, I may not be able to blame the Tories. I may have to blame the Trudeau Liberals for this. We did the NORAD renewal in 1985, correct? So 1981 was the last time the Liberal Government negotiated the NORAD Agreement and it was '81 when we removed the reference to the ABM Treaty. So we all stand guilty.

The Liberal Party believes in the Common Defence of the North American continent with the United States. I think the NDP is wrong. Not because of polls. I think they're wrong to think they can do it alone. That's isolationist.We all have a responsibility in the Western alliance to common defence. I'm not philosophically opposed to the withdrawal of Canadian troops from European soil. I don't find the debate with the NDP on that mind-boggling. You're going to find a lot of pressure on the American President to withdraw their troops, 330,000 strong. I think that over the next 5-7 years you'll see that happen.

Question: You talk about negotiating from strength. Arms don't cut the mustard anymore. Costa Rica has no army.

Frith: History shows that all countries have armies. You either have your own or you have somebody else's. Every nation's definition of sovereignty, of nationhood, is its ability to defend what you value as a society, as a nation. One can argue that because of Canada's small size, our military doesn't play much of a role, and that's true. If we didn't have it, there wouldn't be much response from the NATO alliance. But the Americans would be up here. If you believe that the Americans wouldn't come and fill in the void, I think you're naive. Canada occupies the space between the U.S. and the Soviets, which influences the American view of us. So now we can have a debate. Do you want seven percent, or ten percent of the envelope going to defence? But if you want zero, I don't think that's a starter.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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