Nuclear Threats and Canada’s Disarmament Diplomacy: A Way Forward

Nuclear Threats and Canada’s Disarmament Diplomacy: A Way Forward


A former Canadian Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, Allan Gotlieb, once described Canada’s strong role in disarmament activity as having “always been a natural calling, with broad public support and strong specialized constituencies”. While Canada has in the past pursued disarmament diplomacy as if it was a national vocation, this has not been much in evidence in recent decades.


The commemoration this December of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conclusion of the Ottawa Convention banning landmines reminds one that 1997 represented a high-water mark of Canadian disarmament activism. The end of the Cold War and the reduced profile of nuclear weapons contributed to a degree of quiescence in Canadian disarmament diplomacy. 

Nuclear weapons and their existential threat to humanity have assumed a new saliency in the last months. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, accompanied by persistent nuclear “sabre-rattling” and the blatant use of these weapons as instruments of intimidation and coercion has rudely reminded global society that huge arsenals of these weapons of mass destruction remain. But this unsettling situation could rapidly become worse. Humankind could be faced with the actual detonation of a nuclear weapon, demolishing a 77-year-long taboo against their use.

So, where does Canada stand in light of this deterioration of the security environment, and what role could it play in advancing shared nuclear disarmament objectives? I think Ottawa taking up any of the following suggestions would represent a positive contribution to the struggle against nuclear dangers.

First, a more respectful attitude towards the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is warranted. The TPNW was adopted in July 2017 and entered into force in January 2021 and currently has 68 states parties and 91 signatories. Before the TPNW process got underway, it was easy for Canada to proclaim its support for the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), including its core, but vaguely worded, Article VI disarmament commitment. The TPNW, with its more demanding requirements and explicit stigmatization of nuclear weapons and the threat to use them, posed a dilemma for Ottawa. It would have to choose between its support for nuclear disarmament and its support for nuclear deterrence. As it happens, deterrence trumped disarmament, and Canada has stood aloof from the TPNW since its inception. 

Canada has suggested that adherence to the TPNW would be inconsistent with its NATO commitments. There is no legal requirement for NATO members to support the Alliance’s nuclear policy which is simply a policy subject to change. Several NATO members have dissented on nuclear weapon-related issues without imperilling their Alliance membership. Regrettably, Ottawa missed a key opportunity to act as a bridge-builder by refusing to attend as an observer the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW held this June. Many voices in civil society urged the Government to participate. Still, Ottawa refused, mumbling about NATO commitments even though fellow NATO members Germany, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands were all present. As a sovereign state, Canada has the choice of signing up for an international agreement. Still, it doesn’t burnish your multilateralist credentials to snub those with whom you have some disagreement. 

We are facing a grim state of affairs, but with pragmatism and resolve, the nuclear demons can be kept at bay and ultimately eliminated.

Second, Canada should be more active in shaping NATO policy. In June 2018, the House Standing Committee on National Defence issued a unanimous report on NATO, including a series of recommendations. One of these focused specifically on nuclear threats and reads in part: “That the Government of Canada take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons. That this initiative is undertaken on an urgent basis in view of the increasing threat of nuclear conflict…”

The Government, in its reply, stated that it agreed with this recommendation but gave no indication of how it intended to carry out this initiative. Subsequently, there was radio silence regarding what Canada was advocating at NATO as part of the Alliance’s “Strategic Concept” review and no evidence that it had acted upon the Parliamentary direction. This “Strategic Concept” was adopted at the June 2022 NATO Summit and largely reiterated the status quo regarding nuclear matters. An alternative tack would have Canada encouraging the Alliance to adopt a “No First Use” doctrine to reduce nuclear risks and the role of nuclear weapons in security policies. 

A thermonuclear bomb, produced in 1962, exhibited at the Memorial de Caen (France). The bomb was a Type 28 F1 Mark (also described as a B28 FI). (CC Wikicommans)

Third, Canada could take more leadership role in cooperating with other like-minded states to promote disarmament goals. We are more likely to be followers of international security initiatives that others are leading. An example is the 16-nation Stockholm Initiative on Nuclear Disarmament, a Swedish initiative to mobilize non-nuclear weapon states to strengthen the NPT in the runup to its 10th Review Conference (which was finally held in August but failed to agree on an outcome document). The Stockholm Initiative has held six ministerial-level meetings since its inception in 2019. At none of these was Canada represented at the ministerial level. Woody Allen once said, “90% of success in life is just showing up,” and we should heed this advice. Even more appropriate would be for Canada to offer to host a Stockholm Initiative meeting and provide further impetus to its work. 

Fourth, it is time for Canada to take a new tack on a long-standing disarmament goal. This is the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), an agreed objective of NPT states, which envisages a ban on producing fissile material, the essential ingredient for nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapon states have said they support this treaty, although there remain significant questions regarding its scope, chiefly whether existing stockpiles as well as future production would be restricted. Canada has led several expert studies of key issues relating to the fissile material treaty, which will likely need the pressure of actual negotiations to be resolved. But for all the lip service paid to the “immediate” commencement of such a negotiation, it has never seen the light of day. This is a direct result of Canada and several other states insisting that negotiations can only occur in the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament. This body operates under such an extreme consensus rule that it has not been able to agree on a Program of Work for over 25 years. To continue to confine any negotiation to this moribund forum is to bury it effectively. 

Those who seriously wish to advance multilateral disarmament negotiations need to do so via authorization by the UN General Assembly, which makes its decisions by majority vote and can’t have its work stymied by the vetoes of a handful of states. Canada should opt now for a General Assembly route to get negotiations for an FMCT underway.

We are facing a grim state of affairs, but with pragmatism and resolve, the nuclear demons can be kept at bay and ultimately eliminated. It is time for Canada to reinvest in its nuclear disarmament diplomacy and help bring us closer to that world without nuclear weapons that humanity aspires to.

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