Some Assembly Required?

We have committed the fatal sin in public policy of becoming cynical and arrogant with respect to decisions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people. We have trivialized the likelihood that deterrence might fail, thus providing easy moral cover for ignoring the consequences. We have learned to live with a weapon that numbs our conscience and diminishes our humanity. We need to hear voices of reason, urging us to a higher standard of rectitude and global leadership. We await your call. — General Lee Butler, Retired Commander of US Nuclear Forces, to the Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, July 1998


My recent interview with Federation of American Scientists (FAS) analyst Matt Korda  explored the depressingly remote prospect that the Biden administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will constitute a serious appraisal of options for reducing nuclear dangers. As Korda worried, the seeming surrender of the review process to Pentagon hawks may leave the Trump administration’s hair-raising (and hair-trigger) 2018 NPR – embracing new weapons while lowering the threshold and broadening the ‘rationale’ for nuclear use – essentially intact.

Matt Korda

Matt Korda

I followed-up on our exchange by asking Korda if he saw any merit in urging members of the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance, NATO, to conduct nuclear policy reviews of their own? Such reviews, I suggested, should confront the question of the humanitarian and environmental consequences of a range of nuclear use scenarios, and consider the compatibility or otherwise of any use with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Environmental Law (IEL). “After all,” I asked, “if a purportedly good global citizen like Canada is prepared to base its national security on weapons capable of destroying cities in seconds, crippling the climate in the process, shouldn’t it at least be prepared to subject that position to strategic, scientific, and public review and critique?” Korda confessed himself “somewhat split” on his reaction:

On the one hand, I certainly see the value in engaging lawmakers more directly on Canada’s nuclear weapons policy; however, on the other hand, the risks of policy blowback are not insignificant. The current political and media climates are not particularly conducive to rational threat assessments or reasoned policy debates. In this context of political “point-scoring,” one could imagine a situation where a formalized parliamentary review of Canada’s nuclear strategy could be negatively influenced by Cold War-style fear-mongering – thus prompting the adoption of more regressive nuclear policies.

Korda does “hope,” though, that:

…Canada includes some consideration of nuclear weapons in its soon-to-be-released Feminist Foreign Policy. Nuclear weapons detonations disproportionately affect women – not only in terms of the biological effects of ionizing radiation, but also in terms of the social, economic and psychological impacts of the weapons themselves. If the Trudeau government does not intend to consider any changes to its approach to nuclear weapons, I would be very interested to see how this government plans to reconcile its engagement with the nuclear status quo with its supposedly ‘feminist’ foreign policy.


Korda’s right: with both main federal parties uncritically supportive of NATO as a nuclear-armed alliance, any governmental and/or parliamentary review would be far more likely to consolidate than challenge the orthodoxy. ’Twas not ever thus, however, and I’m grateful to veteran Canadian disarmament scholar Ernie Regehr for drawing my attention to a 1998 report, ‘Canada and the Nuclear Challenge,’ by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and International Trade (FAIT) Committee. Commissioned by Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, the report urged his government to “issue a policy statement which explains the links between Canada’s nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament policy and all other aspects of international relations”: to produce, in effect, something which disappointingly failed to materialize – a Canadian NPR.

The committee also insisted that the government “encourage” informed “public input” on “the exorbitant humanitarian, environmental and economic costs of nuclear weapons as well as their impact on international peace and security;” that it persistently encourage deep disarmament by the five nuclear-armed members of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – China, France, Russia, UK, US – as well as the three non-NPT nuclear-armed states – Israel, India and Pakistan (North Korea had not yet joined the ‘mushroom cloud club’); and that it make the case for new nuclear thinking in a NATO alliance still committed – despite its overwhelming post-Cold War conventional superiority– to the first use of nuclear weapons. At least until 9/11, Ottawa did advocate, publicly and privately – becoming known within NATO as ‘the nuclear nag’ – for a new approach; but the recommendation for public education and engagement went largely unheeded.

Lloyd Axworthy, Richard Myers, 1999

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Lloyd Axworthy (left), is greeted by US Air Force General Richard Myers (2nd from right), Commander in Chief, North American Aerospace Defense Command, and Canadian Forces Lieutenant General George E. C. Macdonald at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, on 11 March 1999 (Photo by SSGT Alex Lloyd, USAF, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

By 1998, Axworthy had already proven himself a ‘new thinker’ on disarmament, playing a key role in the innovative ‘Ottawa Process,’ an alliance of progressive states, international organizations, and civil society groups pushing to ban landmines. The ‘product’ was novel too, as the 1997 ‘Ottawa Convention’ not only prohibiting the use, manufacture, transfer or sale of those vilely indiscriminate weapons – creating a powerful legal norm that even most non-signatories (including the United States) soon came to respect – but broke ground in its humanitarian and environmental provisions, specifying mechanisms and support for mine-clearance, decontamination, and victim assistance.

“Drawing on the lessons of the Ottawa Process,” the committee recommended, the government “should also examine innovative ways to advance the process of nuclear disarmament.” Towards the end of its report, it conceded that the “unique nature of nuclear weapons means that the Ottawa Process, which succeeded in bypassing stalled diplomatic mechanisms,” cannot simply “be duplicated in the nuclear field,” yet:

…its lessons, such as the need to focus on the humanitarian aspects of issues, engage civil society and non-governmental organizations, and move beyond traditional political-military groupings in the search for like-minded states, can surely help overcome the current frustrations with respect to nuclear arms control and disarmament.


In the second decade of the 21st century, this is precisely what happened, when a ‘Humanitarian Initiative’ to address nuclear threats – championed and energized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), itself inspired by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) – laid the groundwork for UN-mandated negotiations, again ‘bypassing stalled mechanisms,’ culminating in the adoption by 122 states of the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ stigmatizing the Bomb while fostering environmental remediation in regions ravaged by nuclear weapons production and testing, and mandating humanitarian and financial relief for survivors of the two atomic bombings and 2,000+ tests.

Preston Manning

Reform Party leader Preston Manning speaking at the annual Mel Smith Lecture, Trinity Western University. (TWU archives, CA TWU Coll. 08-2016-01-0390)

Axworthy – together with other retired senior Liberals, including Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien and the late John Turner – has called on Canada to sign the TPNW. To judge by recent polling, a supermajority of Canadians strongly agree; yet today’s Liberal leaders are in sleepwalking, anti-Ban lockstep with the Official Opposition Conservatives, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau infamously trashing the Ban Treaty as “sort of useless.” The current Liberal position, in fact, is eerily similar to that of the Official Opposition in 1998, Preston Manning’s Reform Party, which issued a Minority Report lambasting the committee’s enthusiastic embrace of abolition. “The Majority Report,” the dissenters’ complain:

…is pervaded by deeply misguided assumptions in almost every section. Emphasis is placed on the need to ‘eliminate’ nuclear weapons and to abandon NATO’s reserved right of first use in self-defence. Perhaps most dubious of all is the unfounded claim that the world is much more stable and secure today than was the case in the Cold War, and therefore more conducive to elimination of nuclear weapons.

The actual claim, made by most of the expert witnesses, was that the end of the Cold War presented a precious, perhaps unrepeatable opportunity to finally make serious progress – itself generating greater security and stability – towards a goal repeatedly affirmed at the UN (and enshrined in the NPT): a nuclear-weapon-free world. But given that the hard-right Reform Party’s stance is now a Red-Blue consensus, why bother seeking a Canadian nuclear policy review?


This essay opens with a quote from retired US General Lee Butler, a zealous convert to the cause of Nuclear Zero after serving as America’s senior nuclear commander. Writing to the chair of the FAIT committee, Butler urged:

As you examine the vital question of how Canada, this extraordinary nation of diverse peoples and great friend of the United States, should align itself on the continuing role of nuclear weapons I encourage you to ponder deeply the opportunity and the stakes at hand. My country is badly in need of a new moral compass on this issue…We await your call.

General George Lee Butler

General George Lee Butler (USAF photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone depending on the current Canadian government or parliament to provide such a ‘compass’ is doomed to wait in vain. But what if the call was answered by Canada’s ‘diverse peoples’ themselves: was undertaken, I mean, as an exercise not in representative but participatory democracy?

For by the time I received Korda’s understandably cool response to my suggestion, my mind had been changed – by that of my wife, Cape Breton University political science professor Lee-Anne Broadhead – regarding the scope and process of any worthwhile Canadian NPR. What, she wondered, if instead of government or parliament a Citizens’ Assembly conducted the review? While such an assembly should not be empowered to change policy, it should be entrusted, after hearing from a wide range of experts, with making recommendations for elected officials to endorse or reject; and such recommendations might include putting key policy questions – e.g., should Canada sign the Ban Treaty? – to a popular vote.

I asked Korda if he would “be more enthusiastic, or less worried” about such a bold public experiment, and whether he thought such an assembly “might be an idea with ‘legs’ on the American left?” “That’s a great question,” he replied, and while “I’m not particularly familiar with the process of citizens’ assemblies, I would be very interested to see the conclusions of such an effort.” “My current assumption,” he added, “and one that has been recently validated by FAS’ recent polling effort on US nuclear policy”:

…is that there is a significant divergence between the views of policymakers and their constituents when it comes to nuclear weapons policy. To that end, a citizens’ assembly – and the public education campaign that would presumably come with it – could act as a powerful tool for teasing out and addressing those divergences.

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in Citizens’ Assemblies, in many countries and on many issues – though not yet, to my knowledge, on nuclear weapons policy. Shortly before the TPNW became international law, in January this year, a ‘Model Citizens’ Assembly’ was organized by Peace Child International to discuss whether the UK should join the Treaty; though an admirable exercise, this was a two-hour Zoom webinar in the form of a Yes or No debate. And while there have now been six Nagasaki Global Citizens’ Assemblies for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,  the citizens have all been anti-nuclear activists, meeting for three days to discuss means to a pre-agreed end.


The kind of assemblies Lee-Anne has in mind operate on a much different basis, and perhaps the most impressive and impactful examples to date have been in Ireland, where first a Constitutional Convention, established by the government in 2012, recommended legalizing same-sex marriage – a change endorsed by referendum in 2015  – and then a Citizens’ Assembly, established by both houses of parliament in 2015, recommended legalizing abortion – a change endorsed by referendum in 2018. Prior to these exercises in deliberative democracy, public opinion opposed legalizing either abortion or marriage equality, and it seems that the transparent conduct of the sessions (avidly followed and discussed by press and public), the socio-economic and demographic representativeness of the participants, and the breadth and balance of testimony for and against the propositions, combined to help ‘move the dial.’

While the Constitutional Convention was a mix of citizens (66) and members of parliament (33), it still broke new ground, a trail blazed by an acclaimed pilot project, ‘We the Citizens,’ organized by the Political Studies Association of Ireland in 2011, a time of deep public disgust at traditional politics, dominated for decades by two center-right parties, blamed for the economic implosion (followed by savage austerity) of 2008-10. The all-citizens assembly on abortion confirmed the appeal and utility of a radical ‘new normal’ in Irish life, and the assembly is now expected to be convened regularly to make recommendations to parliament on major issues of social import (most recently, Gender Equality).

Members of the Citizens' Assembly, Ireland

Members of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly.

In this pandemic era of traumatic upheaval and crossroads choices, citizens’ assemblies have a crucial role to play in strengthening social cohesion, renewing democracy by deepening often superficial (and frequently corrupt) processes of decision-making. Such a ‘re-peopling’ of politics is also beginning to occur at the municipal level, as evidenced by the establishment in Madrid in 2019 of a “permanent organ of citizen participation” known as the Observatorio de la Cuidad (Town or Municipal Observatory), a 49-member body empowered to “address and propose key issues for the well-being of citizens.” In Bristol, England, a Citizens’ Assembly pilot project was approved by the council in January 2020 to consider “the climate emergency, in recognition of the need to grow our city with principles of sustainability and inclusivity at its heart”. Within a few months, however:

Recognizing that the pandemic had shifted the goalposts in practically all areas of our work, the City Council began to rethink how we could use deliberative democracy to engage our citizens in the city’s recovery plan.

Where on Earth have those goalposts not now shifted? Why, to start closest to home, should such a leap of faith in the citizenry not be taken by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), to guide the production of a recovery and reconstruction plan not just designed for but by the people?


Canada, despite the chronic deficiencies of its misnamed ‘representative’ democracy, is no stranger to the real, deliberative thing. In the first decade of the century, two provinces – British Columbia and Ontario – established Citizens’ Assemblies to make recommendations on electoral reform. In both cases, a move from first-past-the post to proportional representation (PR) was proposed, put to a referendum, and ‘rejected’ (though 57.3% of B.C. voters said Yes, tantalizingly short of the 60% threshold).

Guide for PEI's 2019 referendum on electoral reform.

Guide for PEI’s 2019 referendum on electoral reform. (CBC photo/Jane Robertson)

On October 28 this year, Prince Edward Island’s Legislature voted narrowly (13-11) to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to review options for PR, with details expected to be announced (by a reluctant Premier Dennis King) in the new year. And since 2007, the Canadian research organization MASS LBP has “been conducting a practical experiment to demonstrate that citizens can and want to play a much more active role in helping to shape the policies that shape their lives.” Answering requests from “dozens of different ministries, city councils, and public agencies,” MASS LBP has organized nearly 40 exercises in ‘deliberative mini-publics’ (DMPs) on topics including town planning, public transport, supervised injection services, Pharmacare, and health authority reform, and is currently conducting a three-year Canadian Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression, “examining the impact of digital technologies on Canadian society,” due to report to the federal government next year.

In its latest guide to “designing fair selection mechanisms for deliberative public processes,” MASS LBP notes that in “political science, there’s a concept known as the ‘all-affected interests principle,’” namely that “in a democracy those affected by a decision ought to have a chance to take part in shaping that decision.” “This idea,” they argue, “reflects a moral commitment to treating people as active agents who can self-govern, rather than as passive objects who must be governed.”


Well, it’s hard to think of a set of decisions that could ‘shape’ lives more than those affecting the twin existential threats of global warming and nuclear war. Citizens’ assemblies on climate change have been established in a number of countries, including in the UK, where the government ignored many of its recommendations, prior to presiding over the abject failure of the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow. Ironically, the UK was also among those funding a 100-strong “Global Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change” which, after meeting for only a few weeks, presented to delegations in Glasgow an interim “People’s Declaration for the Sustainable Future of Planet Earth,” an eloquent defense of the “intrinsic values and rights” of “Mother Earth” bearing, alas, scant resemblance to the feeble agreement reached by states.

Global Assembly

The Global Citizens’ Assembly will issue a final ‘People’s Declaration’ next March. Equally eloquent, and presumably angrier, it will also be pointlessly late; and the sad tale of its – and the UK Climate Assembly’s – fate illustrates the deadly seriousness with which such experiments must be conducted. If the aim is not just to tick a box but think outside one – not just provide input but affect outcomes – then the Irish model is the one to follow, creating the time, space and, most importantly. power to exert real influence.

And talking of ‘deadly,’ what about the Bomb? A year ago, Michael Morden and José Ramón Marti argued in Policy Options that the Canadian parliament “can prove it’s a leader in deliberative democracy” by becoming “the first national legislature to commit to a permanent system of citizens’ assemblies,” tasked first with considering “priorities for social and economic rebuilding after the pandemic.”

But the real first order of business, in an age of nuclear threat and climate breakdown (which nuclear war would ensure), is survival. Banning the Bomb – if that’s what Canadians decided Canada should champion – would indeed help the world plan, and pay, for a brighter post-COVID future. But more importantly, even than that, it could help inspire humanity – as General Butler hoped Canada might inspire America – to choose life over death.

It’s our call. Or it should be.


Sean Howard


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