American Disintegration and Canadian Security

John Thompson is a Canadian Army Reserve Officer, and has been involved with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies and the Mackenzie Institute. He is presently on the board of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, and he is also the Vice-President of Intelligence for the Strategic Capital Intelligence Group.

“The United States has been in trouble before – it is hard to think of any government since the days of George Washington where the chains of the Constitution’s checks and balances were not being tugged and rattled by struggles between the President, the Congress and Senate, and the Supreme Court….” – John Thompson.

I found this article on the internet, and it is re-printed here with the permission of the author. I am placing it in my “Guest Column” category as well as “American Interest” and “Canadian Interest”.

Some of the footnote references can be viewed through the internet.

Here is the article:

A spectre is haunting the world… the spectre of American disintegration and Canadians have reasons to shiver about it.

In the popular imagination spectres are ephemeral, translucent, and – with privately reserved feelings for most of us – fictional. We imagine that they may provide a foreboding warning. They do not let us feel easy or secure. The spectre of American disintegration may be ephemeral and fictional but the Great Republic may not have reason to feel assured about its longevity nowadays. There are a lot of Americans who quietly think its days are numbered.

There is an angry and surly undercurrent in the United States, and it is not hard to find private pessimism about the future among one’s American friends. The IRS is being used by the Obama administration to harass Republicans; there are a growing number of police and security agencies with ever-more intrusive powers; and the Constitutional chains that balance the components of government seem more frayed than ever. Already there is quiet talk beyond the usual fringes of the possibility of civil conflict.[1][2][3][4]

The economy of the United States has been in a prolonged rocky patch since hubris and incompetence ushered in the ‘Great Recession’ in 2008. The middle class is restless and living off its capital, particularly with high unemployment, and the government debt-load is astronomical. However, proportional to GNP, the US has been in worse debt before.[5] Their economy may also be more resilient than many expected.[6]

The worry of a break-up might be idle, the Americans have a long and contentious history and much of what we are seeing today has been seen before. Even so, ‘things’ happen and even the most stable relationships can slide into destructive animosity with little warning. Prudence demands Canada keep a close eye on developments.

Christopher Lasch warned of the coming division between elite opinion and the general population in his last book – aptly titled The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy.  The emerging elites were described as a technocratic class with the vices of an aristocracy and none of its virtues, and disdainful of the traditional myths and values that unite much of the rest of the United States.[7] Lasch had been an extremely astute observer of American society and the book was published after his 1994 death.

Taking things forward in the twenty years since Lasch’s death America seems caught up with two viciously bickering political parties that both seem under the firm grip of a stale political elite; while the hubris of a new generation of speculators and financiers have upended its finances. The news media seems irrelevant – and despised. There is much else that has gone seriously wrong.

The bookshelf with Lasch’s warning on one end could be piled high with other books now… Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 argues that the economic and social decay of the United States is also being experienced by what used to be the core middle class.[8] Murray’s number crunching always draws its share of cynical detractors, but only the most ignorant would ignore him. There is also a plentiful supply of books detailing how Wall Street and Washington combined to let the ‘Great Recession’ get started.

The true end book on the shelf would be Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes – a journalist who explores how corruption and incompetence have marched through so many American institutions in recent years.[9] A Canadian might also skip to the end chapters of Conrad Black’s Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States; for Baron Black’s articulate and pointed assessment of the current state of the Republic’s affairs.[10]

The United States has been in trouble before – it is hard to think of any government since the days of George Washington where the chains of the Constitution’s checks and balances were not being tugged and rattled by struggles between the President, the Congress and Senate, and the Supreme Court. Viewing-with-alarm and handwringing by the partisans of factions and parties is a normal part of politics in a democracy, and the Americans have gone deep into political factionalism before in the 1830s, the 1890s and the 1920s without descending into violence.[11]

Compared to the Know Nothings, the Nativists, or the Klansmen of the 1920s, today’s Tea Party movement are genteel lambs while the Occupy Movement seems more hazy and less focused than these activists of yore. One might think that if marijuana ever got legalized in more states, the Occupy Movement would soon be in real trouble. With so little ferocity among partisan movements, the likelihood of an American break-up seems remote.

However, since 2008 firearms sales in the United States have skyrocketed and ammunition sales have resulted in major shortages – perhaps exacerbated by record government purchases of ammunition for the Department of Homeland Security.[12] At any rate, both the citizens and the government are stocking up on weaponry.

Given that gun rights and gun control seems to be one of the starkest issues dividing American elites from citizens, tensions are growing most strongly on this subject. In recent weeks, a demand in Connecticut that all citizens register ‘military-style’ rifles with the state police by December 31st was deliberately ignored by the great majority of the state’s gun owners.[13] There have also been many police officers who have been openly stating their intention to not enforce new gun control laws.

While the Americans have always had their fair share of conspiracy theorists who believe their government is plotting against them, the growing militarization of American police forces and recent exercises by the DHS and various National Guards against “Right Wing Extremists” have been fodder for many more believers. The Edward Snowden leaks about the NSA and its capabilities have only amplified the alarm of many citizens while the behaviour of the TSA at airports all over the US is a constant irritant to many others.

One could argue that the US security culture that has grown so much since 9/11 has generated a new enemy – the nation’s own citizens. The deadlocked politics and elite/common cultural split have yet to be addressed and situations like this have taken down other nations before now. Neither the disintegration of the United States, nor a major civil conflict, or the imposition of a dictatorship is likely or wanted by America’s citizens. Regardless, these things are all possible as tensions rise and tempers flare. What might they mean for Canada?

Even after the onset of the Great Recession, the United States remains Canada’s greatest trading partner. In 2013 alone, Canada and the US traded $632.4 billion (US) in goods back and forth across our border.[14] Anything that endangers this trade is a serious threat to the Canadian economy. While Canadian trade with the US has diminished over the last 12 years, the US market remains more important to us than all others combined.[15]

In some ways this can’t change. Canada is a long thin strip of settlement stretching some 6,000 kilometres from Halifax to Vancouver; the nearest large markets for both lie in the United States. Toronto’s natural markets all lie around the Great Lakes. Most of Canada geography makes it seem easier to send a trailer loaded with hogs, steel pipe, or reams of paper to the south than to the east or west. In the coming decades Canadian governments might strive to build up our trade with Asia, Latin America and Europe, but it will always be easier to trade with the Americans.

It might be startling to recall how often affairs in the United States have generated refugees for Canada. Arguably, the United Empire Loyalists – the first major wave of English-speaking settlers for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and parts of Quebec — fled from the American Revolution. The American Revolution and wars in the American northwest frontier of the 1790s and 1810s also generated First Nations refugees who settled in Canada; which was also the destination for Sitting Bull’s Sioux hostiles in 1876 and the Nez Perce in 1877. The escaping slaves who reached the Canadian terminus for the Underground Railway might also be considered to be refugees.

While Canada is a nation comprised of immigrants and refugees and their children, our ability to absorb newcomers is limited. High immigration rates over the last decade have meant that some 20.6 percent of our population was born outside Canada and some of our major cities – particularly Vancouver and Toronto – seem to be bursting at the seams.[16] Our annual intake currently involves somewhere around 250,000 immigrants. In 2006-09, Canada usually accepted some 20,000 refugees per year. [17]

If the US was to begin to experience a major violent upheaval of some sort, Canada might receive an influx of refugees that is quite beyond our current ability to host them. With a population of 313.9 million (US 2012 figures), even if one percent of the population of the US were to flee to Canada, we would have to handle some 3.2 million people.

The closeness of Canadian-US relations has been natural for decades even before the 1940 Ogdensburg Agreement that has been the foundation to Canada’s collective defence arrangements with America. Dozens of treaties, even more agreements and MOUs, and hundreds of formal and informal institutional ties have stitched the strong natural ties even closer together – so much so that one might almost forget that the United States has often harbored major non-governmental security threats to Canada.

The Hunters Lodges in the aftermath of the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada and the Fenians of 1866-1870 marked the ability of private American citizens to mount operations against Canada.[18] The Northwest Mounted Police were created in 1873 because of complaints about the behavior of American traders in the Canadian West, and their deployment was accelerated because of the Cypress Hills Massacre of that year. Three years later, in 1876, it was probably the presence of the Mounties that kept the American border safe from crisscrossing border raids by hostile Sioux in Canada and vengeful US cavalry in the aftermath of the Little Big Horn campaign.[19]

Were the United States to descend into some manner of violent ideological squabble, Canadians could easily expect incidents and threats of a number of different kinds. These could include high handed hot pursuits, raids on refugee camps suspected to be sources of support for insurgents; attacks on sympathizers for one or another of potential factions, and attempts to intimidate or deceive Canadian authorities. Examples of all of these behaviours have been seen many times in regional conflicts elsewhere in the world over the last few decades.

The very light security along the Canada-US border has been an underappreciated benefit of our cordial relationship. The costs of fortifying the frontier with the United States dismayed Britain in the early 19th Century.[20] Today’s costs for providing armed light armoured vehicles and similar material for a beefed-up border security force might be just as burdensome to the Crown as maintaining Martello towers and fortified gun batteries were some 200 years ago.

Astute strategists such as the late George G. Bell, Colin Gray, and others who have looked at the foundations of Canadian defence policy have noted at times that Canada is incapable of defending its own territory without outside help. Our vast distances and small population dictate that we keep an enough on hand to demonstrate a good effort at maintaining our sovereignty, but otherwise look to collective defence arrangements to handle more serious threats. It is surely no coincidence that Canada has normally been closely partnered to the world’s leading naval power – Britain before WW2 and the United States thereafter.

If our defence arrangements with the United States were to end, who might Canada then look to and what would the rump or fragments of the US think about it? Could it be that the next nation we look to enhance our security ends up endangering it?

A bitter and fragmenting United States, or one wracked by a vicious internal ideological struggle is something no sane Canadian would ever hope to see. For that matter, few Americans would desire such an outcome either. Such a state of affairs is not inevitable, but it is always possible.

Sound security policy depends on the anticipation of contingencies and making plans against them. Hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is always a sound practice. Our friendship with the Americans has been good for us and we should hope to continue it, but at this time we should spend some thought on preparations against a more undesirable relationship.

[1] Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb, “IRS officials in Washington were involved in targeting of conservative groups”, The Washington Post, 13 May 2013. 

[2]Alex Newman, “Obama Flooding U.S. Streets With “Weapons of War” for Local Police”, retrieved from www.thenewamerican.com, 14 February, 2014 – Mr. Newman’s article is but one of a host of similar articles coming from conservative and libertarian Americans. A more comprehensive long-term view can be obtained from Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, 2013, PublicAffairs, New York. 

[3] Laura Hollis, “Obama’s Anti-Constitutional Pattern”, retrieved from www.townhall.com, 14 February 2014; Joseph Curl, “Obama’s a domestic enemy of the U.S. Constitution”, The Washington Times, 17 June 2012; Warren Richley, “Obama ‘crossed the constitutional line’, House panel is told”, Christian Science Monitor, 3 December 2013. 

[4] As examples of the Left-and-Right opinions on this, see: Paul Rosenberg, “US Civil War Redux”, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/10/us-civil-war-redux-20131089528858855.html, last updated 09 October, 2013; or Arthur Herman, “America’s coming civil war – makers vs. takers”, Fox News, 12 July 2012.

 [5] Matt Phillips; “The Long Story of U.S. Debt, from 1790 to 2011, in 1 Little Chart”, www.theatlantic.com, 13 November 2012.

 [6]U.S. oil price climbs on hopes of economy recovery”, Xinhua News Agency, 11 February 2014.

[7] Christopher Lasch, the Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. 

[8] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum (Random House), New York, 2012.

[9] Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy; Crown Forum (Random House), New York, 2012.

[10] Conrad Black, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2013.

[11] Heather Cox Richardson, “American Political Partisanship in Historical Perspective”, http://histsociety.blogspot.ca, posted 14 June 2011.

[12] Frank Miniter, “Is the Obama Administration the Cause of Gun Ammunition Shortages?” www.forbes.com. Posted 20 October, 2013.

[13] Dan Haar, “Untold Thousands Flout Gun Registration Law”, Harford Courant, 10 February 2014.

[14] US Census Bureau, “Trade in Goods with Canada”, retrieved from http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c1220.html, 18 February, 2014.

[15] Derek Burleton and Diana Petramala, “Canada’s Declining Reliance on the U.S. – Where to Grow from Here?”, retrieved from http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/dp0212_trade.pdf. 18 February 2018.

[16] “National Household Survey: Canada’s immigrant population surges”, Canadian Press, 8 May 2013.

[17]By the Numbers: Refugee Statistics”, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa, retrieved 18 February, 2014.

[18]See: Oscar Kinchen, The Rise and Fall of the Patriot Hunters, Bookman Associates, New York, 1956; and Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Allen Lane, Toronto, 2011.

[19] John P. Turner, The North-West Mounted Police, 1873-1893, Volume 1, The King’s Printer, Ottawa, 1950.

[20] Ged Martin, Britain and the origins of Canadian confederation, 1837-67. UBC Press, Vancouver, 1995. The expense of Canadian defence was not a major impetus for Canada’s confederation, but it certainly was a factor.

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