THE United States has invited its allies to participate in the research phase of its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The invitation would seem an opportunity to take part in the development of a 21st-century defense technology which could have enormous commercial spinoff. Yet despite their desire to keep apace of US innovation, Western Europe, Japan, and Canada have all hesitated to leap aboard. Why? The Canadian ambivalence stems from some factors that are unique to American-Canadian relations. But it also reflects concerns that are shared by most other allies of the United States. If America cannot persuade Canada -- its partner in continental air defense and its closest economic ally -- to take part in ``star wars,'' it is unlikely to persuade many other allies.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was initially quite positive about SDI.
Mr. Mulroney viewed Canadian endorsement of ``star wars'' as a chance to cement a close personal relationship with President Ronald Reagan. He lost little time in declaring that Canada supported the research phase of SDI as a necessary offset to Soviet work on space weapons.
Recent public opinion polls show that 53 percent of Canadians favor a research role. Yet the government has backtracked from its early enthusiasm and has postponed any decision until at least September, when the results of public hearings by a parliamentary committee will be known.
Both opposition parties in Parliament want Canada to stay aloof from SDI, as does the influential anti-nuclear movement. These critics say that ``star wars,'' rather than make nuclear weapons obsolete, could make nuclear war more likely and would certainly spur the nuclear arms race.
The US government has not helped matters with its tactlessness. Its invitation to participate in SDI included a 60-day deadline, which seemed like an attempt to arm-twist allies (and has since been extended). US defense officials who visited Ottawa made statements which implied that the US might eventually invoke its partnership with Canada in NORAD -- the joint military command for continental air defense -- to involve Canada operationally in ``star wars'' and perhaps even to deploy anti-missile weapon s on Canadian soil. Subsequent clarifications from Washington failed to allay Canadian unease.
This skittishness could probably have been overcome by a powerful appeal to Canadian economic self-interest. Canadians, after all, had elected Mr. Mulroney primarily because of his commitment to create ``jobs, jobs, jobs.'' But the Mulroney government has been unable so far to indicate the likely SDI benefits to the Canadian economy. Even the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, in its submission to Ottawa in favor of Canadian involvement, said the potential benefits could not be quantified.
Canadian companies active satellites, electronics, and computer software might win contracts from the US Defense Department or its contractors. But concerns have been expressed that Canadian or other outsiders will be exposed only to the less sensitive aspects of the research and that any breakthroughs they help to achieve will be patented by the Defense Department. The commerical spinoffs would, therefore, be mainly in the US.
Canada also has yet to receive a clear indication from the US as to whether it expects financial participation by foreign governments. If Ottawa were expected to underwrite the participation of Canadian companies, it might do better to finance other projects of more direct benefit to Canada. Conversely, if Canada and other allies are not expected to provide funds, it is difficult to envision the US Congress approving money for SDI contracts to be let abroad.
Finally, Canadian policymakers harbor suspicion that US overtures to its allies are an attempt not only to enlist their scientists and money in ``star wars'' research, put to bind them politically in support of its eventual deployment. Canada is wary of a repetition of its role in the US cruise missile program. The involvement of Canadian industry in the manufacture of the missile's guidance system later made it virtually impossible for Ottawa to refuse US testing in Canadian airspace.
Canada does not wish to foreclose its option of lobbying against deployment of space weapons, especially since these and other forms of antiballistic-missile defense are restricted by the 1972 ABM Treaty. The best way for the US to ease Canadian concerns is to reaffirm its commitment to the treaty and rule out unilateral deployment of space weapons in contravention of the treaty. Other US allies would likely be reassured, too.
Sheldon E. Gordon is an editorial writer on foreign affairs for the Globe and Mail of Toronto.