Now is the Time for Canada to Resist US Nuclear Planning

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2002 Volume 23 Issue 1

Washington’s active exploration of ways and occasions to use nuclear weapons, as set out in the recently leaked January 2002 US “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR), stands in stark, opposite contrast to Canada’s own version of a “nuclear posture” statement, issued in April 1999. Canada’s official attitude toward nuclear weapons was outlined in a formal response to the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy. The committee had studied the issue when the current Foreign Minister, Bill Graham, chaired that committee, and urged the Government toward an activist disarmament policy.

Under then Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s tutelage, the Government’s central point was this: “Canada will continue to resist any movement to validate nuclear weapons as acceptable currency in international politics.” Well, if ever there was a time for such resistance, it is now, as Pentagon planners work overtime to construct scenarios in which nuclear weapons are intended to have decisive political and military currency.

Canadian resistance is significantly compromised by its share in the NATO assertion that nuclear weapons continue to be “essential” for its security, but Canada’s formal objective is “to reduce the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of their progressive reduction and eventual elimination.” Pentagon planners articulate a different objective: to increase reliance on nuclear weapons and portray them as legitimate, positive means of “assuring allies and friends,” of “dissuading competitors,” of “deterring aggressors,” and of “defeating enemies.” Under policies advanced by the NPR, nuclear weapons would cease to be weapons of last resort to become active options in a widening range of circumstances.

As the New York Times put it, if another country were to take the actions recommended in the NPR, including the development of new weapons and the contemplation of pre-emptive strikes against non-nuclear states, “Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state.”

If Washington follows through on what the Pentagon advises, the result will be at least five crippling blows to nuclear disarmament objectives (and we do well to keep in mind that the administration has already begun to implement the January 2002 NPR, citing it to justify a budget request for FY 2003 that includes research and development and industrial infrastructure to “develop, build, and maintain nuclear offensive forces and defensive systems”).

First, the NPR proposes a major expansion of numbers and types of battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons for deployment with American forces in a wide range of circumstances. Canada’s April 1999 statement called on “Russia and the U.S. to negotiate confidence-building and transparency measures for tactical weapons such as a freeze on deployment, storage of all such weapons well away from and out of control of operational units….” The Pentagon plan would reverse the virtual elimination of such weapons from Western Europe, for example, and seriously undermine international calls on Russia to accelerate its decommissioning of tactical nuclear weapons.

Second, the NPR proposals would move the United States away from traditional nuclear deterrence theory, which threatens nuclear weapons only in response to the threat of other nuclear weapons, to obscured boundaries between conventional and nuclear weapons. That boundary or threshold is threatened by the NPR’s overt insistence on America’s right, indignantly rejected by the US for all other states, to introduce nuclear weapons into any conflict, and by the effort to develop low-yield nuclear weapons to perform particular, limited tasks like “bunker-busting,” similar to tasks now assigned to conventional weapons. The dangerous implication, and objective, is to make nuclear weapons more useable, and to portray them as having military and moral equivalence with conventional weapons.

The third implication of the January 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review would be, if implemented, to renounce what are called negative security assurances. In 1978 and again in 1995 the United States pledged never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that were parties to the NPT, except in the case of an attack in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. With the new NPR, that assurance appears to be off the table. The NPR proposes that nuclear weapons be available to respond to chemical or biological attacks; to launch pre-emptive strikes against biological, chemical, or nuclear stocks of other states; and even to respond to what it calls “surprising military developments.” The NPR calls for contingency planning for nuclear attacks on several states, five of which are non-nuclear signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has written of the new NPR, it is now apparent that “the US reserves the right to target any nation with nuclear weapons whenever it chooses to do so.”

Fourth, if the US acts on the NPR proposals, a resumption of nuclear weapons testing is sure to follow. The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is designed to prevent testing and so prevent the development of new generations of nuclear weapons, but an accelerated US move to develop new nuclear weapons, inspired by the NPR, will require testing and a violation of the CTBT (even though the US has not ratified the CTBT; at the 2000 NPT Review Conference it agreed to an ongoing moratorium on testing until the Treaty enters into force).

Canada has made the point that the CTBT, now signed by more than 150 countries, including the United States, “represents a formidable international consensus against nuclear test explosions in all environments,” which means that US testing would violate both an NPT commitment and a hard-won international consensus.

A fifth implication of the NPR is its utter dismissal of the formal obligation, as well as the repeated commitment, of the United States and other nuclear weapon states to achieve, under the NPT, complete nuclear disarmament. At the 2000 Review Conference the US joined other nuclear weapons states in “an unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament.” The NPR assumes, contrary to NPT obligations and political commitments, the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons. The US along with the others also promised “further efforts … to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally” – the NPR promises unilateral expansion of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

Through its active exploration of options for nuclear attacks on a number of listed states, coupled with the pursuit of National Missile Defense, the US is in danger of provoking renewed vertical and horizontal proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Russia will, at the very least, be reluctant to continue reducing strategic or tactical arsenals in the face of a declared US intention to enhance its capacity to attack Russia with nuclear weapons. China will be encouraged toward an accelerated build-up of its nuclear capabilities, and some non-nuclear weapon states will regard provocative American nuclear attack planning as an incentive to acquire whatever weapons of mass destruction they can manage in order to present a credible threat in return.

The first Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2005 NPT Review begins in April of this year. It is now the primary forum available to the international community, and to Canada, to mount a vigorous political and moral challenge to the proposed developments in the United States nuclear posture.

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