Nuclear Policy Statement Released

Tasneem Jamal

Bill Robinson

The Ploughshares Monitor June 1999 Volume 20 Issue 2

The Canadian government’s new nuclear weapons policy takes some significant steps in the direction the anti-nuclear movement has been recommending, but it also remains disappointingly mired in the nuclear theology of the NATO Alliance.

The Canadian government released its response to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s nuclear policy report, Canada and the Nuclear Challenge (see March 1999 Monitor), on 19 April. The response came in the form of two documents, a statement entitled Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Advancing Canadian Objectives and a companion document entitled Government Response to the Recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy.1 The final product of a review process that lasted nearly three years, the two documents spell out in detail how the government proposes to address nuclear weapons issues at the beginning of the 21st century.

The government’s new nuclear policy contains elements worthy of both celebration and condemnation. While it places one foot on the solid shore of nuclear disarmament and global security, it leaves the other stranded on the rusty hulk of NATO nuclear doctrine, dubbing the awkward straddle that results “an appropriate balance” between Canada’s disarmament objectives and its security requirements. (DFAIT 1999b, p. 1)

A “balance” it may be, but a long-term sustainable posture it is not.

Nuclear abolition

Canadian governments have long expressed a commitment to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. But, in practice, this commitment has been treated as a matter not for the present but for some unimaginable time in the distant future – bearing few if any consequences for current activities. Project Ploughshares asked the Canadian government to “adopt nuclear abolition as a real objective, calling on the nuclear weapons states and other states to begin negotiations on a convention to eliminate all nuclear weapons.” The report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (SCFAIT) generally supported this position, recommending that the government “support the call for the conclusion of a nuclear weapons disarmament convention” and “encourage the nuclear-weapon States to demonstrate their unequivocal commitment to enter into and conclude negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Unfortunately, there is little in the new policy to indicate that the government accepted the call to make abolition a real objective. The SCFAIT declined to recommend a target date for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but it implied that the process should take less than half a century. The government has no such vision. It accepted that “The only sustainable strategy for the future is the elimination of nuclear weapons entirely,” (DFAIT 1999a, p. 1) but it also signed NATO’s latest Strategic Concept document, approved at the 23-24 April Washington Summit, which declares that NATO will retain nuclear weapons “for the foreseeable future.” (NATO 1999a, para. 46)

The new policy rejects negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention as “premature” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 25) and sidesteps the call to encourage the Nuclear Weapon States to “demonstrate their unequivocal commitment” to nuclear abolition, arguing instead that “For the foreseeable future, it will be up to the Nuclear Weapon States to negotiate among themselves the reduction of their nuclear arsenals.” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 6)

The SCFAIT also recommended that the government “work consistently to reduce the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons” as a means of contributing to their reduction and eventual elimination. The government did endorse this recommendation, pledging that it “will continue to stress the necessity to devalue the political significance of these weapons” (DFAIT 1999a, p. 19) and “will also continue to resist any movement to validate nuclear weapons as acceptable currency in international politics.” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 1) Here, too, however, the government’s commitment must be read in the context of the new Strategic Concept, which proclaims that “The fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political,” and that in this regard they “fulfil an essential role.” (NATO 1999a, para. 62)

Immediate measures

Project Ploughshares also recommended that the government support a number of immediate measures to reduce the threat currently posed by nuclear arsenals and pave the way towards abolition, including adoption of a “no-first-use” policy and the de-alerting of nuclear forces and placement of their warheads in storage. Here the picture is more positive.

The call to de-alert nuclear forces, which the SCFAIT also strongly advocated, was accepted by the government, which announced that it “supports the concept of de-alerting and other measures which contribute to the safety and security of nuclear arsenals and the stability of U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear relations…. The Government also supports de-mating (separating warheads and/or guidance systems from their delivery vehicles) which provides an even larger measure of safety and stability…. Canada calls on both Russia and the U.S. to negotiate to de-alert and de-mate their nuclear arsenals to the maximum extent possible.” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 8)

The government declined to comment, however, on the suggestion made by many groups that simple de-alerting measures ought to be implemented before the end of 1999 to ensure against any accident caused by the Y2K computer problem. It also declined to comment on the suggestion, recommended by the SCFAIT, that the other Nuclear Weapon States and nuclear-weapons-capable states be brought into a de-alerting agreement. Nonetheless, the government’s support for de-alerting and de-mating is an extremely important and highly welcome development in government policy.

The question of no-first-use is a more delicate one for the government, as it would require an explicit reversal in stated NATO policy. It was apparently for this reason that neither the SCFAIT nor the government was willing to formally embrace the suggestion. Both did imply, however, that Canada would support such a change. The government’s response noted, in particular, that “Canada will continue to express the view that its understanding of nuclear deterrence is that the only function of nuclear weapons is to deter the use by others of nuclear weapons, notwithstanding that nuclear weapons may have a deterrent effect in the mind of a potential aggressor.” (DFAIT 1999a, p. 19) This view of the function of nuclear weapons is essentially the same as the view taken by the Canberra Commission.

Like-minded states

The anti-nuclear movement and the SCFAIT both proposed that Canada could pursue its nuclear disarmament goals more effectively if it worked in concert with like-minded states such as the members of the New Agenda Coalition and reform-minded members of NATO. This recommendation was broadly accepted by the government, which had in fact already begun to undertake such efforts, working to build support among NATO members for a New Agenda Coalition-sponsored United Nations resolution during the fall of 1998 and spearheading, along with Germany, efforts within NATO to build support for revisions in nuclear policy.

The government’s response states that Canada proposed “that the Alliance agree at the Washington Summit that NATO review its nuclear policy and its relationship to proliferation, arms control and disarmament developments.” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 27)

Such a review was indeed agreed at the Washington Summit, which announced that “In the light of overall strategic developments and the reduced salience of nuclear weapons, the Alliance will consider options for confidence and security-building measures, verification, non-proliferation and arms control and disarmament. The Council in Permanent Session will propose a process to Ministers in December for considering such options.” (NATO 1999b, para. 32)

Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy assured the House of Commons afterwards that this statement “issued clear instructions that there would be a review of the nuclear policy for NATO.” (Hansard 1999) However, NATO officials denied in a recent meeting with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War that NATO’s nuclear weapons policies would form part of the promised review of arms control and related measures. (Santa Barbara 1999) Clearly, high-level government attention will be required to prevent NATO officials from sweeping the issue under the carpet.

As for future Canadian co-operation with the New Agenda Coalition, the degree to which such co-operation will actually take place remains to be seen. Anti-nuclear groups would have liked to see Canada formally join the New Agenda Coalition, but the government has made it clear that it intends to remain outside the group, co-operating only on an ad hoc basis.

Canada and the “nuclear umbrella”

Finally, Project Ploughshares and other anti-nuclear groups called on the Canadian government to renounce Canadian reliance on the “nuclear umbrella” and bring an end to Canadian support for the nuclear weapons of other countries (such activities range from political and diplomatic support for NATO’s nuclear policies to the provision of airspace and facilities for nuclear bomber training and the hosting of visits by nuclear armed submarines at Nanoose, British Columbia). Neither the SCFAIT nor the government addressed these questions, however.

The government did promise that it “will continue to urge NATO partners to consider the impact on potential nuclear proliferators when considering the characterization of the purpose of NATO nuclear forces,” (DFAIT 1999b, p. 27) but it appears as yet unwilling to acknowledge that its own practice of continuing to treat those weapons as a useful – even necessary – element of Canada’s defences might also undermine collective non-proliferation efforts. This position is perhaps justifiable if its purpose is to avoid a public break that might undermine Canada’s ability to work for changes in the nuclear policies of NATO as a whole, but it cannot be seen as a position that is sustainable over the long term.


There is much to applaud in the government’s policy statement. Its support for de-alerting/de-mating, for example, and its apparent determination to work for changes in NATO’s nuclear policies are important and commendable initiatives. The new policy makes it clear that the Canadian government is not yet willing to abandon the NATO nuclear ship, but it does confirm that the government has begun to develop a commendable interest in tugging the derelict vessel closer to shore.

The new policy’s chief failing is that it continues to define immediate efforts such as these to be the only possibilities for progress for the “foreseeable future.” What makes these steps foreseeable but abolition not? The government can be reasonably sure that achievement of its more limited goals is not impossible, and it can be reasonably sure that by bending its efforts towards those ends it will make their achievement more likely. To this extent and no more is any element of the future “foreseeable” to the human race.

But these factors also apply to the abolition of nuclear weapons. There is no reason to believe that the abolition of nuclear weapons is impossible. And it is only through the efforts of all countries, including Canada, that we can hope to succeed in making nuclear abolition a reality. Where is the wisdom, then, in abandoning “for the foreseeable future” the very goal that the government itself recognizes to be the “only sustainable strategy for the future”?

The government acknowledges that nuclear weapons must go: “Given their catastrophic potential and the frailties of human nature, the only safe and realistic course is to eliminate them.” (DFAIT 1999a, p. 19)

What a shame, then, that it is not yet able to foresee a future without them.

1 The full text of the reports can be found here.

Excerpts from The Alliance’s Strategic Concept

Characteristics of Nuclear Forces

62. The fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war. They will continue to fulfil an essential role by ensuring uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the nature of the Allies’ response to military aggression. They demonstrate that aggression of any kind is not a rational option. The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies.

63. A credible Alliance nuclear posture and the demonstration of Alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements. Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe. These forces need to have the necessary characteristics and appropriate flexibility and survivability, to be perceived as a credible and effective element of the Allies’ strategy in preventing war. They will be maintained at the minimum level sufficient to preserve peace and stability.

64. The Allies concerned consider that, with the radical changes in the security situation, including reduced conventional force levels in Europe and increased reaction times, NATO’s ability to defuse a crisis through diplomatic and other means or, should it be necessary, to mount a successful conventional defence has significantly improved. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated by them are therefore extremely remote. Since 1991, therefore, the Allies have taken a series of steps which reflect the post-Cold War security environment. These include a dramatic reduction of the types and numbers of NATO’s sub-strategic forces including the elimination of all nuclear artillery and ground-launched short-range nuclear missiles; a significant relaxation of the readiness criteria for nuclear-roled forces; and the termination of standing peacetime nuclear contingency plans. NATO’s nuclear forces no longer target any country. Nonetheless, NATO will maintain, at the minimum level consistent with the prevailing security environment, adequate sub-strategic forces based in Europe which will provide an essential link with strategic nuclear forces, reinforcing the transatlantic link. These will consist of dual capable aircraft and a small number of United Kingdom Trident warheads. Sub-strategic nuclear weapons will, however, not be deployed in normal circumstances on surface vessels and attack submarines.


DFAIT (Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) 1999a, Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Advancing Canadian Objectives, April.

DFAIT 1999b, Government Response to the Recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on Canada’s Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy, April.

Hansard (House of Commons Debates) 1999, 27 April.

NATO 1999a, “The Alliance’s Strategic Concept,” Press Communique NAC-S(99)65, 24 April.

NATO 1999b, “Washington Summit Communique,” Press Communique NAC-S(99)64, 24 April.

Santa Barbara, Joanna 1999, “Informal Report on IPPNW Delegation to NATO, Brussels, June 9, 1999,” distributed on CNANW e-mail list, 17 June.

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