Militarizing a pandemic: Defence experts say idea of sending U.S. troops to border makes no sense

As if there wasn't enough COVID-19 chaos in the world already.

A U.S. Homeland Security proposal to put up to 1,000 American troops on the border with Canada — a notion that seemed to have found some favour with the Trump administration — had the potential to be an extraordinary and unnecessary diplomatic distraction, say national security and defence experts.

"It is the symbolism and the signalling that is particularly damaging," said Stéfanie von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"It breaks with the precedent of an unmilitarized border."

The U.S. proposal, first reported by Global News, called for 1,000 American soldiers to conduct surveillance of irregular crossings and reinforce the country's border patrol agency.  A senior U.S. administration official confirmed to CBC News on Thursday that the measure was under consideration but no decision has been made. 

The official, who spoke on background, said every option to help slow the spread of the virus and minimize health threats entering the country is under consideration.

By Thursday evening, the Wall Street Journal reported Washington was prepared to ditch the idea - something the Canadian government was unable to immediately confirm.

Regardless, foreign policy experts were appalled.

"Diplomatically, neither of the two countries need this distraction right now when there is so much going on in terms of responding to this crisis," said von Hlatky. "You don't need to add a diplomatic crisis to the mix."

At a White House briefing late Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump seemed untroubled by — even somewhat oblivious to — the consequences of the measure, noting that there are American troops along the southern border with Mexico and stationing them next to Canada would be "equal justice."

Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

He then went on a tangent, complaining about steel and aluminum imports and praising the tariffs his administration had slapped on Canadian industry.

Should the U.S. follow through and deploy soldiers to within 30 kilometres of the Canadian border, von Hlatky said, the decision would alienate Canadians even more than the tariff battle did.

'No logic'

The political fallout of declaring Canadian steel and aluminum a national security threat, as the Trump administration did, would pale in comparison to Canadians' reaction to seeing troops on what has been for over a century an undefended boundary.

From a military and national security perspective, said one former Canadian naval commander, there is "no logic at all" to the proposal, which appears to be driven entirely by political optics.

"It would, from the American perspective, be a political piece designed to shore up and show the American people the strong support the president and the administration [have] for keeping their border absolutely secure from this virus," said retired vice-admiral Bruce MacLean.

"From a military point of view, I can't see what this would actually do."

The blame game

According to U.S. government data, over the last year American border patrol officers apprehended 1,185 people who attempted to cross illegally into the States from Canada at uncontrolled points. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned in a recent order that many of those people were from China and Iran, where there have been major COVID-19 outbreaks.

The number of illegal crossings is tiny when you compare it to the over 33 million legal border crossings that take place every year, said MacLean.

"It just leaves me scratching my head," he said.

The temptation to play the political blame game south of the border will be overwhelming, von Hlatky said — particularly in light of the fact the United States became the international leader in coronavirus cases on Thursday, with 82,000 recorded so far.

"The response to the virus in the United States has been characterized as a bit of a disaster ... Trump is used to using fear-mongering and pointing to external threats in order to justify his actions, as opposed to focusing on what needs to be done domestically," she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair have all worked the phones with their American counterparts to push back against the notion of sending troops to the border.

"Canada is strongly opposed to this U.S. proposal and we've made that opposition very, very clear to our American counterparts," said Freeland, acknowledging with a shrug that the decision is up to Washington.

From a wider perspective, said von Hlatky, what is equally concerning is the fact the pandemic response is being increasingly framed in a  "militarized" and "securitized" way.

"This one seems to be a particularly misguided one because the potential for the spread of the disease in this way is very low," she said.