Preparing for the Unthinkable: Canada's Strategic Approach to Potential US Civil War

The "Disruptions on the Horizon" report by Policy Horizons Canada explores the necessity for comprehensive preparedness against a range of potential future threats, including the unlikely but impactful scenario of a civil war in the United States

by Sededin Dedovic
Preparing for the Unthinkable: Canada's Strategic Approach to Potential US Civil War
© Pool / Getty Images

When Justin Trudeau meets with Joe Biden at the G7 summit in Italy this week, Trudeau is unlikely to ask if the United States is at risk of a civil war in the next few years. However, a center within Trudeau's government is already contemplating this question, according to Politico.

In a report titled “Disruptions on the Horizon,” the government office Policy Horizons Canada suggested a potential new civil war in the United States as a scenario for which Ottawa might need to prepare. This hypothesis is presented in a 37-page document, which states: "Ideological divisions, democratic erosion, and internal unrest are escalating in the US, pushing the country towards civil war." Alexander Burns, a columnist for Politico, writes that it's unsettling to realize that your closest neighbor is anxious about the possibility of horrific violence in your country.

Apocalyptic forecasts about American politics have not been lacking since the Trump era, he notes. Since the 2016 election, leftist non-profit organizations, political commentators, and academics have indulged in endless speculations about how they might defend democracy.

In practice, nothing concrete has been done. One hysterical episode in 2020 involved a war game simulation that ended with Biden and his allies encouraging the entire West Coast to secede from the US. However, the columnist adds, the mentioned report is not dark fantasy, but a sober branch of an America-friendly government considering its national disintegration.

The report, he notes, surveyed hundreds of experts and government officials about events for which Canada might prepare. The authors then classified these scenarios based on their likelihood of occurring, how quickly they might happen, and how much chaos they might create.

The American civil war was ranked as an unlikely event with an ultra-important impact. Other scenarios included the development of biological weapons; the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens leading to mass deaths and food shortages; and the outbreak of World War III.

John McArthur, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who sits on the advisory board of Policy Horizons, told Politico that this report more indicates Canadian anxiety about US politics than literal concern about a war between states, akin to that of 1861.

Emphasizing that he speaks for himself and not for Policy Horizons, McArthur noted that the rise of American protectionism and isolationism during the Trump administration shook the way Canada thinks and changed decades-old economic relationships.

Donald Trump's politics and personal behavior towards Canada – including insulting Trudeau after a previous G7 meeting in Quebec – left a painful mark.

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau (R) speaks with U.S.

President Donald Trump during the G7 official welcome at Le Manoir © Leon Neal / Getty Images

"Any sense of undermining your closest sovereign relations, any disruption within that country, represents a deep concern, I think, from any Canadian perspective.

Canada's place in the world has become more complex and required new navigation," he said. The credibility of the civil war scenario, he said, depends on "how you define civil war." Catherine Baudry, a professor at Polytechnique Montreal who analyzed the report at a Policy Horizons panel in May, sounded more skeptical.

She sees the value of this report in setting a network of hypothetical events worth preparing for, so that experts and officials can see if and how they are interconnected. By dealing with such a scenario, they can later be prepared for different events that will actually happen.

Many scenarios in the report, she said, point to the urgency of mastering new technology: the threat of cyberattacks disrupting infrastructure, for example, or emergency services being overwhelmed. The government could set its priorities based on this scenario.

The practical application of the US civil war scenario is not so obvious. "You know, a world war breaks out – there are things over which you have very little control, and there are things over which you have complete control," she said.

In a future report, she said, it might be good to consider "the degree to which the government has the tools to act" regarding different contingencies. The "Disruptions on the Horizon" report by Policy Horizons Canada highlights the need for preparedness in the face of unlikely yet impactful scenarios, such as a potential US civil war.

While the likelihood is low, the report underscores the importance of anticipating and planning for diverse disruptions. This forward-thinking approach helps Canada strategize responses to various threats, from technological challenges to geopolitical instability.

The presidential election campaign is heating up, trials are underway against former President Donald Trump and the son of current President Joe Biden. With a very unstable geopolitical atmosphere, such conclusions from Canada should not cause surprise, but we have to be prepared for all cases, because currently the USA has many enemies in the world and internally.

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