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Oh Canada: A Canadian Risk Assessment of the United States

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Image credit: Adam Scotti, Prime Minister’s Office

POLICY PERSPECTIVE

by Paul Rosenzweig
June 2022

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Oh Canada: A Canadian Risk Assessment of the United States

Recently, two respected groups of Canadian experts (many retired from extensive government service) have published reviews of the Canadian national security strategies. They had an unusual warning for Canada. Along with a focus on issues you might expect, such as global warming and competition with Russia, the University of Ottawa review voiced this surprising concern:

The [Canadian trucker] protests [at the U.S.-Canada border] also pointed to a broader and potentially existential question for Canada: the implications of democratic backsliding in the United States. Should scenarios of widespread political violence in our southern neighbour materialize, how should Canada respond? This question would have been fanciful only a few years ago, but it is very real today … An increasingly unpredictable and unilateral United States – especially if Donald Trump, or a like-minded Republican, wins the presidency in 2024 – could raise difficult questions. The United States is and will remain our closest ally, but it could also become a source of threat and instability.

Which raises a fascinating question. There must be a Canadian intelligence threat assessment of the United States, because to fail to have one would be professional malpractice of the highest order and the Canadian intelligence services are too competent to have ignored the question. On the other hand, no Canadian government could publicly acknowledge the existence of such an assessment, because doing so would be intensely politically embarrassing and disclosing the contents of the assessment would, of course, be contrary to Canada’s national interests. So, the assessment must be buried under the highest security classification possible, and we can only imagine its contents. 

But we can speculate: What does the Canadian assessment of the United States actually say? Herewith some thoughts about what the executive summary of such a document might contain. We might imagine the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service writing as follows:

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Threat Assessment

  • We assess with a high degree of confidence that the United States will continue to experience significant political polarization for at least the next decade, if not longer. Though the Americans like to think of themselves as a melting pot, the reality is that there is significant economic and cultural disparity across the country. For many years, their system of federalism, combined with a shared commitment to ideals of American exceptionalism, masked much of this disparity. Past polarizing incidents (such as the Vietnam war and Watergate) soon yielded to instincts of commonality. Today, under pressure from increased cultural and economic divergence, fueled at least in part by the fractionalization of political discourse that is enabled by social media, the common thread of the American experience is unravelling. Americans increasingly talk only to like-minded citizens and increasingly view those with whom they disagree as ill-motivated. The trend lines over the past decade are clear and we do not anticipate an easy or prompt reversal. President Joe Biden’s stated goal of binding the nation back together has not been achieved, by any reasonable metric. Over the next decade (at a minimum), we expect American political polarization to continue.

  • We assess with a moderate degree of confidence that the polarization will lead to an increasing trend of politically related violence. The polarization we anticipate is, to a large degree, driven by perceptions of difference. Claims that Black Lives Matter are met with claims that Critical Race Theory is ahistorical. Central to these claims of difference and disparity are underlying themes of animosity, bordering on hatred. As the degree of polarization increases, we are moderately confident that the animosity will likewise increase with a concomitant increase in the possibility of political violence. Already, political rhetoric speaks of the need for a “civil war.” The trend will be exacerbated by the widespread availability of guns in America (while difficult to track, it is also having a collateral effect in Canada). While there is a significant residue of inherent good will in the American polity, we fear that the instinct for violence will only increase in the years to come.

  • We assess with a low degree of confidence that the anti-democracy/authoritarian political viewpoint will emerge as the controlling political viewpoint in America. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict with any high degree of confidence how America’s political future will play out in the coming years. On one hand, the institutions of democracy in America have thus far proven resilient and resistant to anti-democratic impulses. Most notably, the January 6 assault on the Capitol was unsuccessful in forestalling the transfer of power. On the other hand, there are signs that political operatives are attempting to take control of the electoral system in ways that are reminiscent of Viktor Orban’s success in Hungary. Local election boards are at risk, as are state-level election systems. We assess that resistance to those authoritarian impulses is thus far disorganized, and only partially effective. It remains to be seen whether the democratic institutions will be suitably reinforced. Our guarded, pessimistic, tentative view is that they will not be sufficiently resistant.

  • We assess with a medium degree of confidence that the United States will increasingly pursue isolationist trade policies that impact trade with other nations, with either direct or collateral adverse effect on Canada. The dominant wing of the Republican party is increasingly isolationist in its tendencies. Former president Donald Trump’s use of tariffs to “punish” perceived adversaries has already had adverse impacts on the Canadian economy. But the anti-trade impulse is also shared by the more progressive elements of the American polity, who see international trade agreements as a threat to American jobs. Increasingly, the centrist consensus in favour of global trade is eroding in America (as it is around the world) and we foresee a further modest erosion of that consensus in the near term. To be sure, America will never be able to completely divorce itself from the global economy, but we expect it to increasingly seek to minimize its reliance on foreign trade. The challenge for Canada is to convince Americans that for reasons of mutual benefit, Canada should be included within the trade and security perimeter, as it was able to do after 9/11 with the Smart Border Accord.

  • We also think with a medium degree of confidence that the United States will continue the trend of disengagement from international military obligations in Europe and Asia. America’s relative disengagement from international obligations began under former president Barack Obama. It accelerated under Trump, whose antipathy to NATO and to treaty obligations in Asia is well-documented. Biden has stemmed the trend for now, but his success is contingent. Most obviously, it is at risk from a return to isolationist policies in the next administration. The small, but vocal number of Republican politicians who oppose assistance to Ukraine is emblematic of that risk. However, we also assess that the current interventionist consensus on the American left is unlikely to be sustained. Since the Vietnam era, many liberals have doubted the utility of America’s role abroad and that trend, too, will likely continue. Therefore, we foresee a lessening of America’s overseas commitments. While we assess that the trend line is clear, we are unable to assess with confidence the rate and pace at which the lessening of engagement will likely occur.

  • We assess with a high degree of confidence that discussions about the dissolution of the United States will be normalized. Canadians, of course, are familiar with this kind of debate given the separatist movement in Quebec and Western Canadian feelings of alienation. Today, the concept of dissolution – the idea that some states may secede from the American Union – is the topic of fringe discussion in corners of the web. Increasingly, however, mainstream political figures, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have begun to notice the concept and have given it greater public saliency. Given the way in which social media functions on the American right, we are highly confident that the idea of seceding from the Union will soon begin to receive serious treatment in think tanks and through conservative media channels. There will soon be symposiums devoted to its analysis at conservative educational institutions. However, we assess that the actual dissolution of the United States is unlikely. The United States fought a civil war 160 years ago to reject that very premise and it seems unlikely it will fight another one over the same subject. However, the turmoil created by discussion of the topic will only further fuel political instability in the United States.

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Implications for Canada

  • We assess with a high degree of confidence that political polarization in the United States will have spill-over political impact in Canada. We have already seen evidence, in the 2022 trucker protests, that America’s political polarization is resonating with a portion of the Canadian polity. There is also clear indication that at least a portion of the funding for this political movement originates outside of Canada. To the extent that the authoritarian anti-political party in America gains further influence south of the border, it is inevitable that its success will have collateral effects in Canada. Therefore, Canada urgently needs to strengthen its ability to respond to the anti-democratic impulse. We need to build institutional capabilities to counteract disinformation originating in America and to short-circuit the ability of American actors to influence Canadian politics. Working with the provinces, civics education needs to be re-emphasized, as well.

  • We assess with a medium degree of confidence that trade between Canada and the United States will continue to be adversely impacted in the coming decades. This means Canada will need to continue our Team Canada advocacy efforts with Congress, state and local governments as well as U.S. interest groups, involving not just the national government but members of all parties at the different levels of government, working in tandem with business, labour and civil society. As we noted earlier, America’s trade policy is likely to grow more isolationist. As one of America’s largest trading partners, and with America as Canada’s largest export destination, any change in how the United States views trade will have a direct impact on the Canadian economy. Canada can never be economically independent from the United States; our economies are too deeply intertwined. But it is in our best strategic interest to diversify our overseas export and import base as rapidly as is practicable.

  • We assess with a medium degree of confidence that cross-border travel between Canada and the United States will become increasingly difficult. We foresee a tightening of the American southern land border, whether by virtue of direct efforts under a new Republican administration or because Democratic leaders necessarily react to the flow of illegal migrants through Mexico. As Canada did after 9/11, we will need to continue our efforts to differentiate between the two borders, reminding Americans that Canada is a reliable ally (NORAD and NATO); that we have essentially harmonized our visa regime; and that our information-sharing practices are working to ensure perimeter security. In either case, the current situation at America’s southern border cannot be sustained. Any tightening of the southern border will likely have an impact on travel across America’s northern border with Canada. We have seen (e.g., the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) that America acts unilaterally with respect to its border with Canada when it deems that to be in its interests. We are reasonably confident that the pattern will not change and that further travel limitations will gradually be implemented in the coming years. This, too, will require a revision to Canadian expectations and a modification of our own travel regulations.

  • We assess with a medium degree of confidence that American disengagement globally will create opportunities for adversary nations to destabilize the existing international order. If, as we posit, America is likely to disengage more from world affairs, the implications of that disengagement are clear. We have already seen adverse impacts, notably in Chinese adventurism, and more recently, in the Russian assault on Ukraine. We can hope that other Western nations in NATO and in the Five Eyes will take up the slack, but the reality is that America has been, and remains, the essential Western power. As we learned during the Trump administration, efforts led by the French and Germans to create an alliance for multilateralism were ineffectual. Its retreat from global responsibilities will inevitably create a multi-polar world of greater instability. Canada will need to reinforce its alliances with other Western nations and stand at the forefront of defending the existing world order. We will likely need to significantly increase our investment in the military in order to sustain our efforts.

  • We assess with a high degree of confidence that Canadian border security will need to be upgraded. In this report, we have sought to identify some likely scenarios for the next 10 years. But even if our scenarios are inaccurate as to the specifics, we are highly confident in our prediction of the general trends in America. We foresee a significant degree of social, political and economic disruption in the United States over the coming decade. No matter what form that disruption ultimately takes, the 5,525-mile-long border we have with America will need to be reinforced to guard against the effects of that disruption being felt here in Canada. To that end, we need to ensure that the Canada Border Services Agency and the policing and other security and intelligence agencies that support its work are fit for purpose.

  • We assess with a high degree of confidence that a military confrontation between the United States and Canada is unlikely. We know that at least as recently as the 1930s, America had war plans for the invasion of Canada, and the social disruptions we anticipate may well exacerbate political tensions between the United States and Canada. But, given the isolationist tendencies we have identified and the anti-military engagement themes we see strengthening in America, we remain confident that a military confrontation with America is highly unlikely, especially given our military alliances and the close co-operation between our security and intelligence agencies.

Of course, all of this is speculation. However, Canadians must be wondering what the future holds, and it is a reasonable bet that their own perspectives on the future bear some moderate resemblance to the foregoing. It is not for nothing that the late comedian Robin Williams’ quip about Canadians feeling like they live above a meth lab enjoys continued popularity as a meme, but there has always been an element of schadenfreude vis a vis our superpower neighbour.  And that, in turn, is a depressing thought – for both Canadians and their downstairs neighbours.

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About the Author

Paul Rosenzweig is an accomplished writer and speaker with a national reputation in cyber security and homeland security.  He is the founder of Red Branch Consulting PLLC, a homeland security consulting company.  He is also a Senior Advisor to The Chertoff Group.  Mr. Rosenzweig formerly served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Department of Homeland Security.

He is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow in the Tech, Law & Security Program at the American University, Washington College of Law.  He serves as an advisor to and former member of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security, and a Contributing Editor of the Lawfare blog.  He is a member of the ABA Cybersecurity Legal Task Force and of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Advisory Committee on Admissions and Grievances.  He serves, as well, as a Hearing Committee Member of the District of Columbia Board of Professional Responsibility.  In 2011 he was a Carnegie Fellow in National Security Journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.

Mr. Rosenzweig is a cum laude graduate of the University of Chicago Law School.  He has an M.S. in Chemical Oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego and a B.A from Haverford College.  Following graduation from law school he served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson, III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

He is the author of Cyber Warfare: How Conflicts in Cyberspace are Challenging America and Changing the World and of three video lecture series from The Great Courses, Thinking About Cybersecurity: From Cyber Crime to Cyber Warfare; The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You; and Investigating American Presidents.

He is the co-author (with James Jay Carafano) of Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom and co-editor (with Jill D. Rhodes and Robert S. Litt) of the Cybersecurity Handbook (3rd ed.).  He is also co-editor (with Timothy McNulty and Ellen Shearer) of two books, Whistleblowers, Leaks and the Media: The First Amendment and National Security, and National Security Law in the News: A Guide for Journalists, Scholars, and Policymakers.  Mr. Rosenzweig is a member of the Literary Society of Washington.

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

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Showing 3 reactions

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  • Karl Milhon
    commented 2022-07-02 12:17:49 -0400
    Seriously, in looking at your threat assessment and then at root causes, one thing that is common to every human in the world is that humanity is at the beginning of a transition from one thing to another that represents a paradigmatic change. This change will make that of the industrial revolution look like a walk in the park comparatively speaking. It will change our very nature as a species and either destroy us and not just U.S., but is a threat to every human. The US being what it is, is simply the canary in the coal mine for the challenges humanity will face until it either internalizes and acclimates to the new “digital” world differences from the old “analog” world humanity has grown up in.

    Many people still think about the nuclear threat as the most dangerous one to humanity but as we are seeing, the threat of environmental “contamination” and the threat to humanity that can be extrapolated from that is now becoming an evermore proximate threat and of note, that threat began with the Industrial revolution to illustrate the long term impacts of human…relative…progress. The most proximate threat I now see is the impact of technologies like CRISPR… It takes a huge investment of societal resources to create nuclear weapons. With technology like CRISPR, a technician with a few years of training can alter genomes… Every small college with a biology program now has one. Very few societal resources have to be galvanized to create biological horrors. That digital technology tied to the fragmentation now occurring in human societal infrastructures is a clear and present danger to humanity as a whole. My question is will we survive it.

    A digital “reality” will be entirely different than the analog one we arose from and no one can conceive of the impact it will have upon the species as we do not have the referents from which to discern. We can point to some indicators as you do in your threat assessment which in the whole is pretty accurate for Canada. Imagine living down here in America with a discerning mind…

    In your assessment you note, “Today, under pressure from increased cultural and economic divergence, fueled at least in part by the fractionalization of political discourse that is enabled by social media, the common thread of the American experience is unravelling.” You further note, “We have already seen evidence, in the 2022 trucker protests, that America’s political polarization is resonating with a portion of the Canadian polity.”

    The common factor in this is the impact that digital technology is having on human beings who have historically had limited resources, somewhat centrally influenced if not controlled for information… The firehose of information provided to a population that is unprepared by education and culture to recieve it is drowning them metaphorically speaking. All humans will be subject to this threat including Canadians as our future unfolds. You are closer to the source than others and quite similar in many respects.

    My suggestion is that you make U.S. a bit less of a discrete “threat” and look to the broader implications a “human” world in transition at a fundamental level and begin to understand the dynamics of said world as a gestalt. It’s no longer black and white, us or them, right or wrong and certainly not good or bad. The old analog ways of imagining our reality are insufficient and we had better recognize that quickly or we will kill ourselves…one way or the other…
  • Karl Milhon
    commented 2022-07-02 11:53:40 -0400
    US Citizen – Hey, wait a minute. I resemble that… Oh wait, resent, resent…
  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Policy Perspectives 2022-06-29 16:05:47 -0400
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