Joined-Up-Thinking: A Connected Approach to Disarmament

Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to the memory of Celia Lorway (1944-2017), a member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and for many years a dedicated, articulate champion of human health, social justice, nuclear disarmament, and a world free of the scourge of war.

At UN Headquarters in August 2002, in a city recently scarred by sudden, massive and indiscriminate violence, Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a landmark report on disarmament and non-proliferation education, intended to transform the teaching of both war and peace at “all academic levels: primary, secondary, and in particular the university and postgraduate levels.”

“Since the end of the Cold War,” Annan reasoned, “changing concepts of security and threat have demanded new thinking. Such new thinking will arise from those who are educated and trained today,” empowered “to make their contribution, as national and world citizens,” to the search for a more peaceful, cooperative and compassionate world order.

In July 2016, Annan’s successor Ban Ki-moon updated the General Assembly on progress made in advancing the goals of the 2002 study. Noting positive developments “in some cases,” his report summarized voluminous “feedback from civil society, including tertiary academic institutions, concerning their activities to raise awareness of the threats.” Much, however, remains to be done to “bring the discussion of these critical issues to schools in all countries to inform and empower young people to become agents of peace by helping them to mobilize, act and promote the importance of disarmament and non-proliferation.” (The UN maintains an admirable website on Disarmament Education.)


Striding toward the abyss

In contrast to these small steps toward a culture and curriculum of peace, the 2002-2016 period saw multiple strides towards the abyss: obscene and growing levels of military violence and spending, especially but not solely in the Middle East; the grave weakening of international law in the still-spreading wake of the Iraq war; the accelerated erosion of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime; the tragic revival of Cold War hostility; the entry of North Korea into a now 9-nation ‘nuclear club;’ and the real and rising risk not only of the further spread but the accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. The increasingly crude, simplistic ‘language’ of international relations – the stunted script of our times – highlights the crying need for what the Irish government has taken to calling “joined-up thinking,” a conceptually articulate response to ‘old thinking.’ But what will it take to make this leap?

In the 1980s, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev identified the common, overriding goal – overcoming the nuclear threat – around which ‘new thinking,’ the humanization and thus demilitarization of world politics, could cohere. In a Working Paper presented to a May 2017 meeting of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in Vienna, Ireland described “nuclear disarmament as a fundamentally interconnected issue,” the defining issue that can and should connect our thinking and coordinate our actions.

“It is time,” Ireland declared, “to embed nuclear disarmament as a horizontal issue, recognizing its impacts on broader rights and entitlements, as well as on obligations and responsibility. We need to generate informed public concern, which in turn will serve to drive the necessary political will.” And the best way to ‘embed’ disarmament – to grasp it as the key to the future – is in the most fertile ground of all: the hearts and minds of the young.



In principle, this is an aim Canada wholeheartedly supports. Together with 11 other states (Australia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates), Canada is part of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), formed in September 2010 to advance the goals of the NPT.

While differing strongly on the best path to disarmament – on the wisdom, for example, of negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons now, or adopting a more gradual approach – all NPDI states stress the need to prioritize disarmament and non-proliferation education. At the NPT meeting in Vienna, an NPDI Working Paper argued that “besides placing importance on critical thinking” at all levels of schooling, “efforts to promote awareness-raising” in society more generally could act as “a catalyst which leads individuals to an aspiration to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.”

In its National Report, Canada highlighted its support funding for the Vancouver-based Simons Foundation, a respected NGO which in the last year has awarded eight scholarships “to postgraduate students at Canadian universities who produced research papers on disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.” The Report also notes that on April 10, “Global Affairs Canada held consultations with experts from Canadian civil society organizations to promote transparency, openness and education on disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation issues” (though no mention of the consultations appeared on the Global Affairs website).


Checkered record

While such actions and gestures are better than nothing, a sustained peace education effort will require not only more resources and a higher profile – a federal-provincial ministerial roundtable in Ottawa, perhaps? – but an honest acknowledgment of Canada’s own checkered record in the atomic age. Such candor should start with Canada’s pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, the secret project to build the Bomb heavily dependent on Canadian uranium, mined – with devastating cultural, health and environmental effects – at Port Radium on the shores of Great Bear Lake, Sahtú Dene land in the Northwest Territories (see “From Great Bear Lake to Hiroshima: Canada’s Forgotten Role in the Manhattan Project,” by Concordia University professor Peter C. van Wyck).

In addition to studying the context and content of the NPT, a treaty expressly dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons, students should know that Canada participates in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), regularly reviewing nuclear deployment, modernization and use options, including the first use of such weapons. While such information would not prove that Canada cannot remain true to both NATO and the NPT, it would encourage reflection on the serious contradictions in Canada’s current stance, for instance its absence from UN-mandated nuclear ban talks


Deeper issues

As Ireland’s call for ‘joined-up thinking’ implies, nuclear disarmament cannot be considered in isolation from broader and deeper issues of what the NPT calls “general and complete disarmament’: fundamental questions of war and peace, violence and non-violence, militarism and patriarchy, etc.

For Canada, this would mean re-examining the extent to which its wars and warriors are glamorized and glorified, particularly in relation to the Great War of 1914-18 that supposedly helped make Canada great, the bloody ‘birth of the nation.’ Certainly, to judge by media interviews with high school and University students during the ‘celebrations’ of the centenary of Vimy Ridge in early April, Canada’s role in that fateful imperial conflict is obviously being taught as an achievement deserving our admiration: a ‘noble sacrifice’ for ‘freedom and democracy.’ Not only can such adventure-story language have a pernicious personal effect – persuading, perhaps, some boys to become ‘real men,’  i.e. soldiers, one day – it can act to affirm the post-9/11 ‘common sense’ view of war as at worst a necessary evil, at best a valiant enterprise.

To be clear: peace educators should not teach students to reject or disrespect the uniform, but rather to reflect with care on the varied histories and realities of military service, weighed against non-military means of serving one’s nation and the wider world. Neither should students be taught that all war is and has always been unnecessary (though the contention that it is always evil should at least be discussed and debated). The point, instead, is that in the nuclear age, confronting the irreparable destruction of human civilization and the natural environment, failure to explore all reasonable alternatives to war and militarism is a dereliction not just of national but of human duty.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Canadian Pugwash. He may be reached here.





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