Discarding deterrence: What Canada must do to help achieve nuclear disarmament

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, News, Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 3 Autumn 2021

“You can ignore reality,” said Russian-American author Ayn Rand. “But you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

Canada needs to heed this warning. While it continues to support the policies of nuclear-weapon states, the multilateral policy landscape on which nuclear disarmament negotiations occur is being reshaped. And all parties that continue to shelter under a nuclear umbrella will be increasingly isolated.

Non-nuclear-weapon states are increasingly impatient over the disregard that nuclear-weapon states display for their obligation to disarm. They also want demonstrable progress toward nuclear abolition. The adoption (July 2017) and subsequent entry into force (January 2021) of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW or Nuclear Ban Treaty) has come to embody the frustration of the majority of the world’s countries with policies and actions that perpetuate nuclear weapons.

These include the multi-billion-dollar modernization of nuclear weapons and related infrastructure by virtually all nuclear-weapon states and the stationing of U.S.-owned weapons in the territories of NATO members that are officially non-nuclear-weapon states. Also food for frustration is the failure of the international community to create effective policies in response to potential flashpoints in which nuclear conflict could emerge.

Although Canada presents itself as a responsible non-nuclear-weapon state, it embraces an overt nuclear deterrence doctrine as a valid security policy, effectively legitimizing the weapons held by nuclear-armed allies.

Ongoing challenges to the current global nuclear disarmament regime include unstable strategic relations between Russia and the United States (and, more generally, between Russia and NATO), the pursuit of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, the overt nuclear deterrence policy endorsed by all NATO members, and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

Canada’s outdated stand

Last May, during a virtual conversation organized by the Canadian Council of Churches, I asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the Canadian government’s position on nuclear disarmament. His response, which focused on the security benefits of nuclear deterrence provided by the nuclear-armed members of NATO was unpersuasive, if predictable.

Like most NATO members, Canada had boycotted multilateral negotiations on the TPNW—as the United States had asked. Although Canada presents itself as a responsible non-nuclear-weapon state, it embraces an overt nuclear deterrence doctrine as a valid security policy, effectively legitimizing the weapons held by nuclear-armed allies.

Apprehension and consternation about such a stand by Canada is widespread among Canadian civil society experts, academics, former ranking diplomats, and a host of prominent citizens. More than a thousand recipients of the Order of Canada continue to call for Canada to lead in efforts that will lead to nuclear disarmament.

Deterrence a stumbling block to disarmament

As Mr. Trudeau indicated, Ottawa still believes that nuclear deterrence works as a security strategy. The underlying idea is that we are safe from attack because we live under a nuclear umbrella and our enemies—or potential enemies—will not attack us and risk a nuclear reprisal.

But does nuclear deterrence actually work? And is this even the right question to ask? Even if nuclear deterrence works sometimes, in some circumstances, to some extent, the fundamental question ought to be this: Are the real or perceived benefits of deterrence outweighed by the risks of the continued existence and potential use of nuclear weapons?

The answer: Yes, they are. The risks clearly outweigh any possible benefits. Nuclear weapons are widely acknowledged to pose a real, demonstrable threat to the continuation of human civilization as we know it, perhaps only comparable to environmental catastrophe. The recognition of this outsized risk does not require an agreement on the question of whether deterrence actually works. And it is precisely this approach that proponents of nuclear abolition need to make repeatedly and compellingly.

For decades, nuclear deterrence has been a doctrinal security tenet among nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-dependent allies; its purported benefits constitute the ultimate rationale for the continued possession of nuclear weapons. If there is agreement on this basic principle, it follows that, to achieve nuclear abolition, there must be a major alteration in the conditions and assumptions that have undergirded the global security architecture since the end of the Second World War, including the strategic stability between the United States and Russia, the two major nuclear-weapon states.

But this belief in deterrence as a basis for security has now become the subject of much dogmatic debate. And even though the prospect of security dividends can be valid, it is used by some actors only to justify their dogma. Thus, while there is value in cool-headed dialogue on the supposed value of nuclear deterrence, the point, for many policymakers today, is simply to support their own unswerving position.

Strong deterrence advocates are as far from the position of nuclear abolition advocates as they have ever been. Neither group is likely to change their position based on the arguments of the other side. If and when nuclear abolition happens, it will not be because the nuclear-weapon hawks have all seen the error of their ways and accepted the arguments of their opponents.

Upcoming opportunities for Canada

NATO’s policy on nuclear weapons is clearly out of sync with the views and expectations of most states. The current perils that the use of nuclear weapons would unleash clearly outweigh real or perceived benefits of deterrence There is now a growing global recognition of the need to build a new security framework that does not rely on nuclear weapons.

Canada would be wise to work with its allies and engage with would-be adversaries in formulating security arrangements that do not pose an existential threat to human civilization. As a NATO member state, Canada surely has the prerogative to raise such issues within the alliance.

If Canada wants to be seen as a leader in rebuilding a better post-COVID world, it must step up its efforts to make significant progress in achieving nuclear disarmament. Critically, it must strive to identify the types of security arrangements that would assure all stakeholders of the security dividends that nuclear abolition could offer. Canada must help the world move from opposing dogmatic beliefs on nuclear deterrence to a multilateral system based on mutual security, the rule of law, and robust dispute resolution mechanisms.

While some elements of this necessary transition relate to security, not all do. As noted earlier, the nuclear-weapons infrastructure is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, heavily supported by certain political interests and elements of society.

Among the factors that will have to be thoughtfully considered are the perception of some that nuclear disarmament is a national security concession, and the weight and political influence of the nuclear-weapons industry.

Basic assumptions about the efficacy of nuclear deterrence need to be challenged because these assumptions are at the heart of arguments to retain nuclear weapons. Although the conversation has been going on since the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, considerable work remains to be done to identify where changes should be made in policy and practice. At present, general policy recommendations call on states with nuclear weapons and their allies to formulate security arrangements that do not rely on nuclear deterrence. We need to get beyond this elementary stage.

In 2022, Canada will have two concrete opportunities to act more decisively on its stated commitment to nuclear abolition. The Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will have sessions in January. Canada is a State Party to this treaty and will be expected to make a significant contribution. In March, there is a scheduled first Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canada is not a state party to this agreement, but can and should attend as an observer. Such an act would indicate Canada’s commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In each of these forums, Canada can clearly show its intent to change course and more credibly support nuclear disarmament efforts.

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