Toward a nuclear weapon-free world

Paul Meyer Nuclear Weapons

Paul Meyer

A former career diplomat and Ambassador of Canada for Disarmament, Paul Meyer is currently an Adjunct Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Fellow, The Simons Foundation in Vancouver.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 3 Autumn 2014

A ‘to do’ list for Canada

A history of opposition to nuclear weapons

This stand was implicit in the early decision of the Canadian government to forgo acquiring atomic weapons despite its role in their development during World War II. The government of the day benefited from exceptionally perceptive analysis as to the implications of the atomic bomb provided by one of its leading diplomats: Lester B. Pearson.

In a November 1945 memorandum for the Prime Minister, Pearson recognized that the atomic bomb was a “revolutionary” development and that its unparalleled destructiveness required some form of supranational control. If left in the hands of competing rivals (he foresaw that the atomic bomb monopoly would be short lived) the world would be subjected to a disastrous arms race, which “like every other armament race in history would follow the same course, of fear, suspicion, rivalry, desperation and war; only in this case the war would probably mean national suicide” (see Eayrs 1972, p. 278).

Pearson’s hope for effective international control of this revolutionary weapon was not realized, with the advent of Cold War mistrust. Yet Canadian aspirations that the threat posed by nuclear weapons could somehow be negated coloured official and public opinion for years. Significantly, this goal of nuclear disarmament animated the policies of subsequent Canadian leaders as diverse as John Diefenbaker and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The abolition of nuclear weapons has also been a formal feature of NATO policy aims, even while the Alliance continues to adhere to a doctrine of deterrence that requires a nuclear component in its mix of forces. Prompted by President Obama’s eloquent endorsement of the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world in his April 2009 speech in Prague, it has, since the issuance of NATO’s Strategic Concept in 2010, also been the official aim of the Alliance to which Canada belongs.

A practical strategy

Yet as anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows, articulating a goal and devising an effective strategy for realizing it are two very different steps. As a former career diplomat, I have a professional disposition toward developing practical strategies to achieve concrete results. This sort of operational implementation of policy goals is not readily accomplished in the realm of nuclear weapons, where the armaments in question are held by only a few parties and genuine progress toward fulfilling disarmament commitments can be difficult to measure.

The goal of nuclear disarmament is often treated by states as if it were self-executing, as if articulating and endorsing the aim were a sufficient act of commitment. As some sage has remarked, however, a vision that is divorced from a strategy and the resources to carry it out is nothing more than a hallucination. It is incumbent on those who exercise power to do more than pay lip service to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons; they need to devise and implement a plan to help bring it about.

Canada is well placed, I believe, to play a leading role in the global effort to ensure nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. This will mean, in part, reviving the political and diplomatic effort that characterized Canadian governmental engagement in earlier periods. For example, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1998, after extensive hearings, produced a major study entitled Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-first Century. The title of the report reflected a critical conclusion, that the most important focus of Canadian policy should be “on de-legitimizing and reducing the political value of nuclear weapons” (p. 10).

This call to move beyond the prevailing dependence on nuclear deterrence and the “status”-driven nuclear proliferation that the world had just witnessed in South Asia was a vital contribution to official thinking about nuclear disarmament. The Parliamentary report elicited, in April 1999, a comprehensive response from the Government entitled Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Advancing Canadian Objectives, which laid out a strategy for advancing Canada’s nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament goals. No more authoritative statement of official policy has been produced and the goals of the strategy issued in 1999 still largely inform Canadian governmental action.

Much of that strategy was premised on the assumption that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the regime based on it would remain the solid, core foundation for international security. The NPT has, however, been under major strain for several years. It has been challenged by clandestine nuclear programs in member states such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, and seemingly Iran; an outright defection by North Korea; the abdication of the goal of universalization by states keen to strike nuclear deals with non-NPT members; and the failure of Nuclear Weapon States to honour many of their specific commitments for nuclear disarmament.

This central treaty has also continued to suffer from “institutional deficit” and lack of supporting infrastructure. With no standing executive body and no dedicated implementing organization or secretariat, NPT states parties lack the mandate and capacity to respond in a timely manner to the various real world challenges that threaten the integrity and core purposes of the treaty.

If Canada and other NPT member states are to continue to benefit from the relatively stable nuclear order that the treaty represents, they need to become much more active in its defence. Such engagement must go beyond rhetoric to concrete and purposeful action.

Canada’s action list

Following is a short list of steps that Canadian leaders, officials, and parliamentarians can take to advance nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament goals.

The Canadian government can, in accordance with the unanimous Parliamentary motion of December 2010, devise and launch a major diplomatic initiative to support our nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament objectives.

Canada can become more engaged in the 12-nation grouping of non-nuclear weapon states led by Australia and Japan (the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative) and help galvanize it to press fellow NPT members to greater efforts to reinforce the treaty.

As current chair of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, Canada can press for the launch of actual negotiations in a forum not subject to the veto of spoiler states.

Canada could join the majority of states that, in line with the NPT 2010 Review Conference outcome, are stressing the humanitarian imperative for nuclear disarmament. Canadian endorsement of future statements on this theme would be an initial step. More importantly, Canada should champion measures to prevent the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, such as de-alerting those U.S.- and Russian-deployed nuclear forces maintained on high alert.

Canada could revive its late, lamented verification research program and help to develop verification solutions to contemporary arms control and disarmament problems.

Canada could resume its support for having the NPT parties adopt accountability mechanisms, such as empowered annual meetings and systematic reporting that would strengthen the authority and effectiveness of the treaty. Some institutional reform of the NPT is needed if its authority is to be sustained.

Canada and likeminded states could devise a diplomatic strategy to get the remaining eight holdouts to agree to the entry into force of the Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty—a key piece of unfinished business 18 years after this treaty was first opened for signature.

Canada, in concert with allies, can work to wean NATO off its formal attachment to nuclear deterrence and enhance the political and conventional military capabilities that the Alliance requires in contemporary conditions.

Canada could reinvigorate its dormant leadership position on outer space security in recognition of the close interrelationship among issues of space weaponization, missile defences, and the potential for nuclear disarmament.

And last but not least, Parliament can revive the lapsed practice of holding annual sessions with Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament and arrange for meetings of the parliamentary committees responsible for foreign affairs and defence that would be devoted to the topic of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Globally, Canadian parliamentarians can agitate for implementation of the resolution “Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World” that was adopted by consensus at the 130th International Parliamentary Union Assembly in March 2014.

These are practical suggestions for Canada to consider. The list is not exhaustive and others will no doubt have additional suggestions. These recommendations require no major policy departures or resources. They do require a consistent and coherent effort to move from words to deeds. However appealing it is to pay lip service to the aim of a world without nuclear weapons, it will take tangible, constructive measures to actually progress toward it. Canada can and should be part of that progress.


Eayrs, James. 1972. In Defence of Canada: Peacemaking and Deterrence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Government of Canada. 1998. Canada and the Nuclear Challenge: Reducing the Political Value of Nuclear Weapons for the Twenty-first Century. Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Ottawa, December.

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