Divided Nations: Canada Ducks Disarmament Challenge

On December 23 – the day after US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted his intent to “greatly strengthen and expand” American “nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” – the United Nations General Assembly voted to open negotiations next year on a treaty outlawing all nuclear weapons. Of the UN’s 193 member states, only 35 tried to block the move. Canada was among them. To understand why, we need to appreciate the politics and priorities not so much of Ottawa as Washington.

Speaking in Prague in April 2009, President Barack Obama famously stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” a commitment already made, though never honoured, by America and the other nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council (Russia, France, Britain and China) under the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), explicitly designed as a transitional arrangement leading to a global nuclear ban.


Barack and Michelle Obama, Prague. By adrigu [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack and Michelle Obama, Prague, 2009. (Photo by adrigu, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In April 2010, Obama returned to Prague to sign the US-Russia ‘New START’ (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty, reducing each side’s deployed long-range arsenals to 1,550 warheads by February 2018. As Treaty ratification required two-thirds support of the Senate, Obama offered the Republicans (vehemently opposed to his anti-nuclear vision) a generous olive branch: a systematic modernization of the US nuclear arsenal, an act contrary in spirit, and many say letter, of the NPT.

That overhaul is now expected to cost $1 trillion over 30 years and prove more extensive than the Republicans dared hope, strengthening all three legs of the strategic ‘triad’ (land-, air- and sea-based weapons) and featuring, among other ‘highlights,’ hundreds of B61 bombs, to be stationed in Europe, redesigned to be more accurate, flexible and ‘usable.’ A major irony of Trump’s tweet is that it sets a goal already being met – though if he is hinting at entirely new nukes, rather than upgrades and enhancements, we could see the first American nuclear tests since the early 1990s.

Trump, though, is also promising to restore positive, peaceful relations with Russia, a goal obviously unattainable in the context of a new arms race. The Obama modernization, in fact, can be seen as both cause and consequence of Russia’s own elaborate and exorbitant nuclear modernization, and its new willingness to go nuclear to ‘de-escalate’ conventional conflicts. As argued in this September column , however, such nuclear extremism on the part of Moscow is itself a response to NATO’s own folly in pushing east and seeking permanent military advantage after the supposed end of the Cold War.

And it is the question of NATO, now openly abandoning détente in favor of ‘deterrence,’ that cuts to the heart of Canada’s stand against banning the Bomb. For why would Canada object to a resolution aimed at finally fulfilling the long-broken promise of the NPT unless it was resolved to place NATO solidarity over nuclear disarmament? Ottawa’s official objection (singing from the Washington hymn-sheet) is that such talks would split the NPT and threaten to unravel the existing non-proliferation regime. As that regime is already buckling, however, under the strain of inaction by the nuclear-armed states, might not the real concern be NATO’s unraveling? For decades, NATO has described nuclear weapons as the political ‘glue’ holding its transatlantic wings together: a rather repellent and expensive adhesive, perhaps, but one its members are now being asked (and cajoled) to cling to for dear life.

Of the 35 ‘No’ votes on December 23, 24 were from NATO, including, of course, nuclear-armed America, France and Britain. For reasons not yet clear, three NATO states, previously opposed to  the resolution – Albania, Estonia and Italy – voted in favor, while another, the Netherlands, abstained. Two of the remaining Nays came from nuclear-armed states, Israel and Russia (China, India and Pakistan abstained; the new nuclear kid on the block, North Korea, didn’t vote), with the remainder drawn from close US allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea. Not a single state from Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean voted ‘No;’ overwhelming support was forthcoming from Southeast Asia and the Pacific; and a number of non-NATO European states (Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Malta and Sweden) also joined what the Canadian disarmament activist Ray Acheson has rightly called “a revolt of the vast majority of states against the violence, intimidation, and injustice perpetuated by those supporting these weapons of mass destruction.”

In a telling example of such ‘intimidation,’ the UN vote, originally scheduled for December 5, was postponed at the request of the US so the UN’s Budgetary Committee could provide an estimate of how much the negotiations – to be held in New York from March 17-21 and June 15-July 7 this year – would cost. On December 6, the Committee provided a precise answer: $692,000. In a closed-door meeting a few days before the rescheduled vote, according to a report from ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the US “attracted the ire of other nations when it objected” to the “funding request” until, “under intense pressure from supporters of nuclear disarmament, it eventually withdrew” its complaint.

UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly (Photo by Jérôme BLUM CC By 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

What a woeful anticlimax to Obama’s Prague speech: a leader awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in significant measure for his apparent embrace of nuclear abolition, directing his diplomats to block disarmament talks on the grounds they would cost too much – if not quite the $60 billion a year, and rising, his administration has spent annually on its arsenal. Between them, in fact, the world’s nine nuclear-armed states spend over $12 million an hour ($300 million a day) on their weapons, compared to an annual budget of around $10 million for the United Nations’ Office of Disarmament Affairs. (More hair-raising statistics here).

So, revolt or unraveling? We have seen that some NATO states voted for talks, while a NATO abstainer, the Netherlands, has declared it will take part, along with other uncommitted or even opposed states (including Japan, the world’s only nuclear-attacked nation). Will Canada take part?  The answer may depend on how much media coverage the process gains (to date, reporting, at least in the West, has been desultory) and, as a related matter, whether public opinion can be mobilized. Faced with a US president whose finger can’t be trusted on a smart-phone, let alone the nuclear button, the potential may exist for a revival of major anti-nuclear protest, just as an historic push for a global ban begins in New York.

The fundamental issue, in our incredibly, intolerably vulnerable world, isn’t the sanity of Trump, or Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un — the fundamental issue is the insanity of the Bomb.


Featured image: UN General Assembly (Photo by Lowlova (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He can be reached here.



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