Changing Luck and North America’s Wars

FEATURES | June 27, 2011     

Changing Luck and North Americas WarsAs the continent emerges from its luckiest geopolitical century, it will have to adjust, in culture and capabilities, to a far more difficult next hundred years

In the 20th century, North America was the world’s luckiest continent. While every other continent endured significant warfare on its territory, ‘core’ North America – Canada and the US – was, exceptionally, exempt from battles on the home front. (Pearl Harbor, in 1941, was, to be sure, not an attack on continental North America.) Indeed, but for Australia, which endured heavy Japanese aerial and naval bombardment on its northern front in WW2, we might go so far as to observe that continental North America was alone among the continents in not having been the theatre for any land warfare whatever in all of the last century. Each of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, for their part, were at various times in that century devastated by military conflagration, especially by land – still the most destructive of all forms of warfare.

North America’s geopolitical luck in the last century was not only latitudinal in nature – that is, across or among the continents – but also very much longitudinal: the continent had, until then, intimate experience of land warfare in every single century since the arrival of the French and British in the early 1600s. From the Pequot War in the mid-17th century to the Seven Years’ (French and Indian) War and the American Revolution – respectively in the mid- and late 18th century – and, in the following century, the War of 1812, the American Civil War and the Fenian Raids, North America has, quite unexceptionally, been scarred and raped by terrific bloodshed resulting from the clash of more or less organized military foes.

That human agency – skill (diplomacy, political brokering), culture (rights, majority-minority accommodation), institutions (Parliament and Congress, rule of law, flexible federalism) and indeed prior brutality (particularly vis-à-vis Native Americans) played some part in this ‘warless’ century can little be disputed. Canada and the US – once arch enemies – brokered their final peace in the 1871 Treaty of Washington. That this human dimension was buttressed, if not completely overwhelmed, by non-human factors like excellent geography (apart from Mexico on the southern US border, ‘perfect’ borders in the form of three oceans; indeed, one frozen) and bountiful natural resources – conducing in many respects to effective self-sufficiency – is also hardly debatable. In their aggregate, these various factors – human and non-human – combined to yield to the North Americans of the last century the most peaceful real estate on Earth.

For all practical intents and purposes, therefore, North America in the 20th century was the world’s luckiest continent, governed by people who largely shared its great luck. (Here we paraphrase a famous idiom by the late Donald Horne in respect of Australia and its own good fortune.) This geopolitical luck meant that, while wars raged on other continents, North America could, as a general rule, calmly debate, plan and build prosperous societies underpinned by energetic economies, a relaxed, educated population, and advanced infrastructure that – to be sure – would not be bombed. At best, war in a distant land (on another continent) was often discretionary (that is, non-existential in consequence); at worst, even a necessary war offered little threat – distance oblige – of retaliation by the enemy on the home front. Indeed, because of the absence of land warfare, North America was also exceptional in often being able to profit from very significant economic growth – sometimes booms – on the backs of wars fought on other (less lucky) continents (against less lucky people). Bref: the modern military-industrial complex thrives most and best – as it has in the US, in particular – when the home front is not under constant bombardment.

Of course, the consequences of North America’s geopolitical luck have not only been material, but, just as importantly, socio-psychological. In Canada, an entire century of exemption from war on the home front has concretized a genetic national disinterest in – if not naïveté about – strategy and foreign affairs – stamped on the national psyche by the country’s original colonial masters at Westminster. Juxtaposition and eventual formal alliance with the American superpower only served to affirm this posture among Canada’s leaders. In the US, this same exemption equally concretized a general national ambivalence about the broader world (part original distrust of imperial adventure, part obsession with the national, insular self); however, having freed themselves from their colonial cage far earlier and more assertively than the Canadians, the Americans fought numerous extra-continental wars during the last 100 years, often in the serene certainty – sometimes bordering on arrogance – that the adversary could nary retaliate, on American soil, in any meaningful way. American soldiers were therefore bloodied in, say, Vietnam or, at the very dawn of the 21st century, in Iraq or Afghanistan, but terra americana still ticked over without skipping a beat; not so for cities like Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Baghdad or Kandahar.

To be sure, Nazi Germany and the Soviets (with the Cubans) came close to – and were certainly technically capable of – foisting warfare on continental North America in the last century. That they did not likely only served to reaffirm in the minds of the continent’s governing class that the ‘action’ of international war came with no (equal or opposite) ‘reaction.’ The implicit – perhaps unconscious – assumption underlying all of North America’s military doctrines was that of essential ‘non-retaliation’ on the home front – leave alone any initiation of hostilities on the home front – by the enemy; that is, the near impossibility or general improbability thereof.

And this is where things stand – more or less – in early 21st century North America: a general and still strong presumption of enemy non-retaliation and non-initiation of (military) hostilities on continental soil. To be sure, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the US may have started to pierce the ‘armour’ of this idée fixe, in both the US and Canada, of territorial impregnability; but only just. For terrorism is not full-blown warfare: it produces neither the human casualties nor the physical devastation of the latter; nor does it, in most cases, demand the sustained mobilization of a large part of a society’s resources and assets. (Israel, for instance, may endure a terrorist attack or two, but the national Israeli posture in response to such an attack would be far less ‘energetic’ than the one provoked by a bona fide war with a regional enemy – in particular, an enemy that could engage Israel on its own territory. The same is largely true of, say, Russia or India – countries with difficult borders, and that are often targeted by terrorist attacks.)

All of this lends itself to the plain observation that modern North American statecraft – and the strategic psychology of North America’s statesmen and stateswomen – has not to date (more precisely, during the last century-plus) been disciplined by any serious prospect of proper warfare being visited on the continent. Indeed, on paper and in the abstract, plans for enemy attack – conventional and asymmetric – on North America evidently exist, and institutions like NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command), NORTHCOM in the US and CANCOM in Canada certainly attest to the likely form of continental response to such attacks. But these plans are not felt, and these institutions – while certainly not merely pro forma – are little tried and tested in the context of the extraordinary circumstances and pressures that come with strategic conflict at one’s borders, or on one’s soil. Moreover, this absence of ‘feeling’ and dearth of ‘testedness’ are unlikely to change in the near future in virtue of a simple truth: North America’s strategic leaders do not, at this time of writing, think about – or indeed even conceive of – conflict at home because they do not and cannot believe it to be part of the realm of reasonable ‘strategic futures.’

This new century, however, will almost certainly offer up a ‘new’ – or, as it were, historically truer – strategic reality for the continent. Three key drivers – taken together or individually – will dramatically transform North America’s geopolitical luck. First and foremost, this century’s technology and technological revolutions will not permit of the prospect of a serious country going to war with a North American power without having the means to attack it with some effect on its own soil. Whereas only a handful of states – typically the great powers – had such retaliatory (or initiation) capabilities in the last century, there cannot be any doubt that both major powers (China or Russia or even a renegade European state) and even secondary or regional powers (Iran, Turkey, North Korea, Brazil, Pakistan, Venezuela) will, by the middle of this new century, have the technical means to directly and even regularly strike North American territory (by intercontinental missile, by air power, by offshore bombardment – leaving aside cyberpower), or even to land military effectives on continental soil. Such a prospect, if properly assimilated into the strategic geist of a country, focusses the mind.

Second, the Arctic ice on North America’s – in particular, Canada’s, but also, to a lesser extent, America’s – northern border is melting. Within a decade or two, foreign ships – private and military alike, friendly and hostile, competent and negligent – will begin to pass through the Northwest Passage and Arctic waters at large – at least seasonally – just as they do today through the Straits of Malacca, the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. Economies in travel time from Europe to Asia (and the reverse) will prove irresistible, as will the vast resource deposits – hydrocarbon and other – of the Arctic seabed, still awaiting recovery. The new-century ‘great game’ – right at the continent’s edge – will, over time, assuredly introduce a new strategic consciousness into the decision-making of North America’s political class; a consciousness – and, before long, a new strategic culture – enabled by a popular paranoia about foreign interests promiscuously penetrating the continent’s theretofore near-perfect territorial sovereignty.

Third, the US, North America’s great power, is in relative strategic decline. It will uncontroversially be the preeminent strategic power until about the halfway point of this century, but the return of reasonable strategic parity of effective capabilities among other non-American, historic great powers – China, Russia and even Europe – poses both psychic and very practical consequences for North American strategic culture and doctrine. Psychically, diminished American strategic weight and prestige – coupled with a newly porous Arctic border (a reality that will sooner dawn, in its totality, on Canada than on the US, to be sure) and an understanding of the onshore devastation that could be wrought by enemies enabled by new-century technology – heighten the sense of vulnerability of the US and Canada, and also radically alter the risk-reward preferences and calculations of both countries. For the US, for instance, a more acute sense of susceptibility to material retaliation on the home front from a serious foe might lower the inclination (or increase the threshold) for certain types of military adventure or extroversion. (It might also drastically increase the intensity of American military attacks – if only to avert, discourage or indeed punish such retaliation.) For Canada, diminished American power and increased American vulnerability to attack should destabilize the long-held, implicit strategic assumption – one never articulated, but always felt in the gut of political elites – that the American superpower (theretofore unrivalled) will almost certainly defend the northern part of the continent should Canada come under attack.

Of course, this begets the very practical reality that an America in relative strategic decline might very well raise the threshold beyond which it would be willing to directly defend – or intervene to defend – Canada in the event of attack. The opportunity costs of such indirect defence, as well as very real potential differences between the US and Canada in national perceptions of interests and threats, could very well mean that a Canada under attack or in some form of military confrontation on its maritime borders (say, in the High Arctic) or even on its soil – say, in remote parts of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, or even in the northernmost reaches of Quebec, Ontario or Manitoba – could well be fending for itself. The little studied Turbot ‘War’ of 1995 between Canada and Spain off the coast of Newfoundland may, in this regard, have been a small sign of larger things to come: that is, fundamental US neutrality and effective non-interference (except to urge an end to hostilities) in a conflict pitting its continental neighbour against another state. The behaviour of the US was doubtless largely due to its perception that critical American interests were not in play in the conflict, and that strategic defeat of Canada – something that would have a terrific destabilizing effect on the entire continent – was not a possibility. For Canada, were the conflict more prolonged and more difficult, such strategic laissez-faire from Washington would have come as a shock; that is, it would not even have figured in the contemporary national strategic imagination.

Such a reading of the Turbot War and of the coming strategic winds would seem to commend to Canada a course of strategic reform that would enable it to stand respectably on its own two feet in the event of important future discord – especially discord threatening to spill over into military confrontation – with another serious country (short of a great power) on its borders (as with the Arctic) or even on parts of its own territory (say, in the High North). This strategic reform would have two central dimensions, originally intimated by the author in “Canada – Population 100 Million” in GB’s Spring/Summer 2010 issue: first, a transformation of the strategic culture (or geist) of Canada’s leaders, from one currently beset by colonial assumptions about ‘the possible’ (and comfortable in its strategic lassitude in virtue of the said good geopolitical luck) to one that is brutally honest about the coming of a geopolitically more difficult 100 years; and second, a proper – indeed, ruthless – calibration of Canadian strategic capabilities (demographic, economic, military and diplomatic) to ensure that Canada is better prepared to defend and advance its interests in the strategic theatres and contests of these next 100 years. This reform will not be easy, and will likely not be driven by any intellectual rationale alone; only a combination of strategic or tactical ‘events’ (like another Turbot War, or a new border incident, including in the Arctic) and courageous political (strategic) leadership – sustained over a decade or more – can drive the migration of mentality and consciousness that is prerequisite to all subsequent investments in practical capabilities and assets. Failure to reform, however, could well result, over the course of this less ‘lucky’ century, in a Canada that is a strategic cripple.

Some of the pressure for such reform will doubtless issue from the US, as its strategic leaders and system begin to assimilate (gutterally) the verity of the three key dynamics of this new century and their implications for North American security and prosperity – or, as it were, for North America’s geopolitical comfort. A US more preoccupied with serious retaliation or even pre-emption by an enemy on the home front will demand far greater seriousness of performance from Canada in respect of investments in strategic capabilities. It will threaten to ‘do the job’ for Canada if such investments are not made. However, because of diminished relative power, and given countless competing strategic imperatives and seductions, such American threats will not always be credible or carried out. This will mean that a Canada that is ill-prepared or otherwise in denial about its changed luck will be left largely to its own devices to face hostile interests at its borders or on its soil. (If the US does not come to Canada’s defence in a given battle, it is wholly unlikely that another country will.) Just as it did in the immediate aftermath of the recent overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the US of this new century, not having been able to greatly influence the ‘battle,’ will likely fold or hew to – and even provide rhetorical justification or narrative for – the post-bellum reality, so long as that reality does not operate in diametrical opposition to critical or existential American interests. In other words, the US of this new century – for better or worse – will let many sleeping dogs lie.

An America that is keen to minimize warfare on its soil will, as a rule, be even more fastidious in its choice of external wars, although not necessarily altogether more economical in the extent to which it privileges the military instrument. And, as mentioned above, where it does choose to engage in war, assuming that there is a risk of serious retaliation on US soil, one might wager that the assaults or volleys by the Americans will – in order to minimize such retaliation – be peculiarly ferocious in intensity.

Some of the weapons and battle plans of this said ferocity have not yet been invented or divined. But the geopolitical character of the century in which they will be used will be far more ‘historical’ than that of the last century. North Americans will come to realize this sooner rather than later.

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Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Luba Lukova)

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