Paul Meyer: Canada, NATO, & The Nuclear Ban Treaty

Does the TPNW complement existing treaties? What are its aims and what gaps could it fill?

Supporters of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) characterized it as filling a “legal gap”. This refers to the fact that of the three categories of WMDs—chemical, biological, and nuclear, only the first two categories are subject to comprehensive prohibition treaties. Nuclear weapons are only constrained by the 1968 (Nuclear) Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT has a far lower standard of restriction on nuclear weapons. The treaty commits its state parties to work towards nuclear disarmament and oppose any proliferation, but the NPT is actually silent on the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Article VI of the NPT outlines an obligation to engage in good faith negotiations to bring the arms race to a cessation at an early date, and for nuclear disarmament. But the NPT lacks the comprehensive prohibition of the other treaties. What’s especially significant is that the TPNW also prohibits the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Why has Canada not signed on to the TPNW? Could Canada benefit strategically by joining?

Currently, NATO is supportive of a policy of nuclear deterrence. That, I would suggest, is probably the main stumbling block for Canada with respect to the TPNW. Canadian officials have also cited the “ineffectiveness” of the treaty, in that none of the nine nuclear weapons-possessing states are supportive of it. Some have cited a lack of verification provisions in the TPNW, or its supposed incompatibility with the NPT. These objections are rather weak. The purpose of the treaty over the longer term is to stigmatize nuclear weapons as immoral and illegal WMDs. It is intended to influence the attitudes of nuclear weapons-possessing states and their populations.

I think the negotiators of the TPNW took the most prudent route on verification, recognizing that attempting to elaborate verification provisions lacking input from nuclear weapons-possessing states would have yielded a product likely subject to ridicule by those states. Each situation with respect to a nuclear-armed state joining the TPNW is going to require tailored verification arrangements. Ultimately, it is not verification but the concept of deterrence that is the chief constraint for the adoption of the treaty by nuclear allied states like Canada. I think the Canadian government felt uncomfortable with its rejection of the TPNW, given its longstanding advocacy on disarmament matters.

A resolution supporting the treaty was apparently passed at the 2016 Liberal Party’s policy conference. The government rejected it, instead emphasizing the work that Canada has led with respect to the eventual negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), long a priority for the NPT. While this treaty has been proposed for decades, there hasn’t been even an initial day of negotiation on it. Canada continues to subscribe to the position that this treaty would have to be negotiated in the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD), which has frankly been in a state of paralysis for over 20 years.

To ensure compatibility with the TPNW, Canada could try to pursue reform of nuclear policy within NATO, something which we have done in the past. In 2018, the House Standing Committee on National Defence published a unanimous report on Canada and NATO, contained a recommendation that explicitly called for Canada to initiate a discussion within NATO on creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. NATO functions based on consensus decision making, which means that even if there was support among some members for changing Alliance nuclear policy, it might not be possible for it to gain universal acceptance. This would leave the option of taking national action as has been done in the past—by Canada, for example under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he terminated any nuclear weapon role for Canada. Other NATO non-nuclear weapon states have dissented on NATO nuclear policy statements in the past through national “footnotes”.

Does the re-emergence of great power competition put the world at risk for another nuclear arms race?

I would suggest we’re already in one, especially in light of the modernization programs that nuclear weapons-possessing states are currently engaged with. The U.S alone has embarked on a nuclear force modernization program estimated to cost over a trillion dollars. We are witnessing a significant acceleration of the development of nuclear forces by all nuclear-armed states. This trend as well as the bellicose rhetoric that’s occurring between Moscow, Beijing, and Washington are legitimate reasons for concern. The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review from 2018 essentially expanded the rationale for nuclear weapons. Hypothetically, they could now be used to counter a significant cyber attack. Also of concern was the dismantlement of arms control by the Trump Administration including its repudiation of the CTBT, its termination of the INF Treaty, its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, and its prevarication about extending the New START treaty.

I think, the JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal), which Trump rejected does represent a solid, diplomatic solution to a nuclear non-proliferation challenge. I think it was a very positive attempt at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains civilian in nature, as it has always claimed. Biden has suggested he will try to re-enter it. He has also discussed adopting a policy stipulating that the sole purpose of the U.S nuclear arsenal should be to deter a nuclear attack against America.

Biden may be able to end the development and deployment of low yield nuclear warheads, which were authorized under the Trump administration. There is a basis for cautious optimism going forward. But I think there are a lot of very vested interests that lie behind the maintenance of overkill capacity in the U.S nuclear arsenal, as well as in other countries. The Military Industrial Complex has ensured a network of bases and facilities that are tied in with local economies and congressional interests and which has pushed military spending in the U.S to astronomical levels. That pattern will be harder to break with under any Administration, but there is hope for improvement regarding arms control policy though.

What new strategies can be taken to build broader support for the treaty from across the aisle? Especially considering that many signees of the TPNW are in nuclear weapons-free zones, are neutral or anti-nuclear states.

The articulation of risk reduction measures is a potential area of common ground between nuclear weapons-states and non-nuclear weapons-states. The postponed 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is now scheduled for August of this year. There’s a lot that could be done to try to ensure a positive outcome, especially since the 2015 conference failed to adopt one. It would be a helpful gesture if nuclear weapons states embraced, even partially, the various proposals that non-nuclear weapon states have put forth at NPT meetings. As a member of the 12-member nuclear non-proliferation disarmament initiative (NPDI) group, Canada has advocated for greater transparency. The NPDI has espoused a common reporting format that would require nuclear weapons states to share details of nuclear weapons-related policies and postures. The reported actions of NPT nuclear weapon states would provide the basis for judging their progress in fulfilling their Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations in a more empirical and objective fashion. Regrettably, to date the nuclear weapons states haven’t accepted the NPDI’s transparency initiative.

There’s also the concept of de-alerting measures—taking certain deployed strategic nuclear forces off high alert, where they have so-called “launch on warning” capabilities, which put any decision maker under extreme time pressure. With the quantity of secure-second strike forces that the US possesses, there is no reason for having any of its missiles on a “hair-trigger” alert. There is a long and alarming history of close calls involving nuclear weapons. Anything that provides time during a crisis to determine whether there was any kind of nuclear attack going on is extremely prudent.

The five nuclear weapons states (P-5) under the NPT have established a consultation process. Their activities to date have chiefly produced a glossary of nuclear weapon terms, which has been received with faint applause by the NPT membership. Consultation is fine, but I think there is an obligation under the NPT for those five states to, in effect, carry out negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The European Leadership Network has recently posited the idea of a permanent forum for P5 states to discuss more ambitious goals that would be relevant to reducing nuclear risks.

I was disappointed when the Standing Committee on National Defense made a very explicit recommendation to the government to take a leadership role within NATO on the topic of nuclear disarmament. This recommendation received a disingenuous reply from the government, stating that it agreed with the committee’s recommendation, but there’s no sign whatsoever that the government actually took any action on it.

Civil society groups are currently calling for a hearing by a Parliamentary committee, such as the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs & International Development regarding the government’s stance on the TPNW. I think that is a near term step that really is incumbent on a democratic government to take in order to show that it is responsive to views from parliament and the broader public concerned with the risks posed by nuclear weapons in the current international context.

Paul Meyer is a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament and an Adjunct Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He is the current Chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group

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