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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 53, December 2000 - January 2001

Stuck in the Middle? Canada's Record and Role in Promoting Disarmament

By Douglas Roche

Introduction: the Reality of US-Canada Relations

If you want to try and understand Canada's policies on nuclear weapons, you can examine voluminous documents in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which will leave you in considerable doubt, or you can look at the front page of my home town newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, two days running, December 3 and 4, 2000.

On the first day, we saw a photo of US President Bill Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien together on the golf links at Arlington, Virginia. The weather was cold but the atmosphere warm as the two leaders shared their last game together before Clinton's departure from the presidency. As the Canadian Press reported, "Their shared love of the game has given Chrétien an unusual amount of regular access to the President of the United States. Few other government leaders are given several hours of uninterrupted conversation with the US Chief Executive."

The next day, there was a huge headline, "Canada's Man with a Space Mission." The article detailed the work of Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau installing solar panels in the International Space Station 400 km over the planet. Canadians take great pride in one of "their" astronauts working as a colleague with the American astronauts of NASA.

It is a certainty that Garneau would not have been in space with the US team if Canada were not in favour with the US. Being "in favour" is much of what Canada-US relations are all about.

That is why it is the business of the Canadian Prime Minister to be - and to be seen to be - close to the US President. A few days later, when the smoke had cleared from the US presidential election, Chrétien phoned George W. Bush to congratulate him on his victory. Chrétien, who until then had not been known as a keen baseball fan, swung easily into a chat about baseball. He had been doing his homework and found out that Bush once owned the Texas Rangers. It was former Prime Minister Lester Pearson's impressive knowledge of baseball statistics that endeared him to President John F. Kennedy. Anything to demonstrate collegiality at the leadership level will do. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney linked arms with President Ronald Reagan for a very public rendition of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

Conviviality puts a happy face on the hard reality. More than 80% of Canada's trade is with the US. Canada's economic health depends on a good trading relationship with the US, starting with the President and working its way down to Congressional committees, many of whose members are notoriously protectionist. The cross-border disputes over fish, lumber, pork and host of commodities are legion. Put simply, Canada cannot afford to lose the good will of the US. So, in the wonderful malapropism once uttered in the House of Commons, "the Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not." As the second-largest country in the world, Canada may indeed boast more territory than the US, but, at 30 million people, we have only one-tenth the population and even less in political muscle.

Throughout the Cold War, successive US administrations made it very clear that it could not tolerate a neutral nation on its northern border and that it expected Canada's support on essential security policies. And since, when it comes to nuclear warfare, the border between Canada and the US is a fiction, Canada has felt obliged to support US nuclear weapons policies. This does not mean that Canada is a supine follower of the US. An outspoken nationalist movement in Canada makes sure of that. But it is necessary to recognise that when continental security is on the table, Canada does not have a free hand. Thus, Canada acts in a nuanced way to assert itself.

Promoting Peace and Disarmament: The Canadian Tradition

The record of Canada's contributions to peace and security in the world is a long one. Starting in the "Golden Age" of Canadian foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s, a period that saw Mr. Pearson win a Nobel Peace Prize for instigating UN peacekeeping, Canada has worked steadfastly to advance specific themes. Canada's commitment to peacekeeping missions is justly celebrated and was a strong component of the UN's overall peacekeeping effort, which was also awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Through scientific and diplomatic work, Canada has promoted verification techniques as an essential prerequisite to meaningful disarmament. Canada has done the spadework to enable the UN - if there is ever political agreement - to establish a rapid reaction force of 5,000 military and civilian personnel to be deployed by the Security Council to crisis areas. Canada was the chief promoter and organizer of the Anti-Personnel Land Mines Treaty, overcoming sceptics who said such a treaty could never be achieved. Canada played a leading role in the development of the International Criminal Court. Canada removed its armed forces personnel from Europe soon after the end of the Cold War, despite NATO's displeasure. And Canada was a leading strategist in securing the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995.

All these measures have given Canada a well-earned international reputation. In fact, says Joseph S. Nye Jr., Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Canada frequently "punches above its weight." During the Cold War, Canada's location, alliance with the US, participation in NATO and peacekeeping operations added to its influence in Washington and other capitals. When former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy started pushing a "soft power" agenda to put human security at the centre of global security issues, he got a lot of attention precisely because Canada is traditionally listened to and generally respected.

Maintaining Canada's Reputation: Challenges and Obstacles

There is likely no better example of the precarious balance between Canada's yearning for a viable peace and its alliance obligations than Prime Minister Trudeau's determination to "inject a jolt of political energy" into the downward spiral of East-West relations in 1983. His peace initiative, described as a first in Canadian diplomacy, sought to create a 'climate of confidence' in the search for peace. However, his public questioning of the credibility and correctness of NATO's deterrence strategy angered the US. Trudeau's efforts were described as breaking a fundamental rule of alliances - acting unilaterally.

In today's setting, left to itself, Canada's policies on nuclear weapons would doubtless fit right into the New Agenda countries' call for immediate comprehensive negotiations leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. But Canada is not left to itself. Not only is there the US dominance to consider, there is also the question of Canada's loyalty to NATO, as the Western military alliance under whose protection Canada lies and which enables Canada to spend much less on defence than would be the case if Canada were a lone operator.

Canada, thus, is caught in a dilemma. Its fundamental values lie with the United Nations as the guarantor of international peace and security. Its own protection during the Cold War lay with a Western military alliance that would come to Canada's defence if attacked.

As long as there was a reasonable compatibility between the two, Canada could absorb the clashing of the two systems. In recent years, this has not always proved possible. Here the analysis of Canada's security policies uncovers considerable fudge.

When the United Nations was trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons and NATO said they were essential, Canada tried to accommodate both viewpoints. When NATO expanded into Eastern Europe at the expense of the development of the pan-European security body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Canada went along. When the United States and the UK began, in 1998, protracted bombing of Iraq without any mandate from the UN Security Council, Canada acceded.

It was the war opened up by NATO's bombing of Serbia and Kosovo in direct violation of the UN Charter, as well as NATO's own Charter, however, which brought the fissures between Western military might and the global strategies of the United Nations into the open. In choosing to not only support but participate in NATO's bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, Canada - for the moment - put NATO above the UN Of course, the other NATO members did the same thing; they all subverted international law by war. The pragmatics of attempting to stop the ethnic cleansing and atrocities suffered by the Kosovars at the hands of the Serbs won out over the principle that only the UN Security Council has the right to take military action against an aggressor.

If the post-Cold War period had not been rocked by one crisis after another (the Gulf War, Somalia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia), the international system might have been able to evolve more harmoniously into agreed mechanisms for peace. But throughout the chaotic 1990s, NATO became stronger and the United Nations weaker. This was just the reverse of what was needed to build a foundation for peace supportable by all the regions of the world. Instead of strengthening a newly democratic Russia in an integrated Europe with actions, not just rhetoric, the West promoted the expansion of NATO, which Russia interpreted as a threat. Instead of reducing significantly unneeded armaments in Europe, and joining in mounting world opinion that nuclear weapons must be eliminated because they are too dangerous for all, NATO, dominated by the US, flaunted a vast military might in which the political, as well as strategic, role of nuclear weapons was unashamedly reaffirmed.

The US share of global military spending increased from 30% to 34%, while the US plus its NATO allies, Japan and South Korea, far outspent the rest of the world combined. The UN, meanwhile, was put in the shadows by under-financing and major-power refusal to provide it with a permanent peace-making force capable of rapid deployment. The total cost of all UN peacekeeping operations in 1997 was some $1.3 billion - the equivalent of less than 0.5% of the US military budget, and less than 0.2% of global military spending. How would such awesome military power ever be used in response to the challenges now facing the contemporary international system, such as wealth and resource distribution disparities, ethnic, religious, and cultural strife?

Militarisation has thus been holding sway over peacemaking for some time. Is the Kosovo solution to aggression, with its overwhelming military force at the expense of effective diplomacy, now to be the standard, on the false assumption that the UN is too weak to act? Canada clearly hopes not. And, especially through its membership on the Security Council 1999-2000, Canada has worked to strengthen human security by focussing on these issues: landmines, International Criminal Court, human rights, international humanitarian law, women and children in armed conflict, small arms proliferation, child soldiers, child labour, and Arctic and northern cooperation. But the question opened up by Kosovo is, can Canada work effectively with both the UN and NATO? This points to a fundamental, long-range issue: should Canada leave NATO if the alliance continues to demonstrate that it is primarily an instrument of US foreign policy?

The centerpiece of the ambiguities in Canadian foreign policy is the problem of nuclear weapons. Though it espouses total elimination, Canada supports the present retention of nuclear weapons. Here the discrepancies between NATO and the UN are at their sharpest. UN resolutions have called for comprehensive negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The three NATO nuclear-weapon states (NWS) adamantly refuse. Non-nuclear members of NATO, such as Canada and Germany, have tried, but have so far failed to get NATO even to address the principles of its Strategic Concept. In fact, Canada hit a "brick wall" in trying to get NATO to change. When Axworthy was Foreign Minister, Canada earned the reputation inside NATO circles as a "nuclear nag." Whether his successor, John Manley, who comes from a trade background, will be willing to be so designated remains to be seen. It will take immense pressure against the NATO system just to get NATO to adopt a No-First-Use policy, let alone shun nuclear weapons entirely.

The very manner in which Canada articulates its nuclear weapons policies reveals the strictures felt in trying to serve two masters. Canada states proudly that it does not possess nuclear weapons, works to prevent their proliferation, and wants to see their political significance devalued. Having said that, it continues to live under the nuclear umbrella of NATO, stays quiet when the US reaffirms nuclear weapons at the heart of its military doctrine, and refuses to state that nuclear weapons have no moral or legal justification and should be completely stripped of political legitimacy. Canada wants Russia and the US to take their nuclear weapons off alert status to increase the margin of safety against unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons, but refuses to denounce the First-Use policies of the NWS. Canada says it will work with the New Agenda in pursuing disarmament objectives, but refuses to support negotiations on a nuclear weapons disarmament convention. Canada supports the "unequivocal undertaking" NPT states have made for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, but stops short of protesting the violation of Article VI of the NPT by the NWS. Canada condemns India and Pakistan for joining the nuclear weapons club, but is mute on its NATO partners' possession of nuclear weapons.

The government readily admits it has to "balance" its nuclear disarmament goals and loyalty to NATO. At the heart of Canada's policy statement is this passage from the Government's Response to the Recommendations of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade's Report on Canada's Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy:

"The government agrees that Canada intensify its efforts to advance the global disarmament and non-proliferation regime... The United Nations continues to be the key vehicle for pursuing Canada's global security objectives... As an active member of NATO and a net contributor to overall Alliance Security, as a friend and neighbour of the United States and its partner in NORAD... Canada balances its Alliance obligations with its disarmament and non-proliferation goals."

Canada's statements on nuclear weapons definitely fall short of the unambiguous stance it ought to take, but measured against the opposition by the US, which even protested against the mere holding of a review by the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada has demonstrated at least a modicum of bravery. By setting an example for other non-nuclear NATO states to follow, Canada is demonstrating some diplomatic dexterity. But this action, while laudable, is weak and not commensurate with the gravity of the problem of world security. Of course, Canada does not have the power to force the US - or any other NWS - to give up its nuclear weapons. But by sublimating its quest for the development of international law that would be strong enough to enforce a ban on nuclear weapons, Canada's modest statements amount to a tacit acceptance of the status quo.

The political dilemma for Canada is that that status quo - the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five permanent members of the Security Council co-existent with the proscription, under the NPT, of their acquisition by any other nation - will not hold, and is already buckling. Witness India and Pakistan. The world must implement a total ban on nuclear weapons or witness their proliferation into several other countries. Canada, precisely because of its excellent credentials, is well placed to lead an international campaign to de-legitimise nuclear weapons. Canada cannot do this alone. It will only be effective through working with like-minded states so that a new coalition of respected middle-power states can together mount a kind of pressure on the NWS that they cannot - if they want to be regarded, as they do, as respectable nations themselves - disregard.

It seems highly improbable that Canada would ever make an outright break with the US over nuclear policies. But it is a fact that Canada is uncomfortable with US intransigence. That is why Canada is trying, softly, to influence the new US Nuclear Posture Review, and to head off the ultimate decision of the Bush administration to deploy a national missile defence.

On these subjects, Canada needs to maintain its excellent credentials even to be heard. It is currently using all its diplomatic skills to avoid being coerced into joining in NMD by showing the US that the liabilities of such a system, such as pressuring Russia and China into a renewed arms race, outweigh its advantages. Since North Korea's technological abilities are often cited by proponents of NMD as a chief reason for its need, Canada has contributed to bringing North Korea closer to the international community by opening up diplomatic relations with it. By using an indirect approach, rather than coming out four-square against NMD, Canada hopes that the US will finally recognise that, as Russian President Vladimir Putin put it during a recent visit to Ottawa, the defence shield would lead to the "total collapse of the international security system."


Without a doubt, most Canadians place a higher value on a good relationship with the US than on a more independent nuclear disarmament policy. Broader public debate in Canada is needed to develop more mature opinion. Canada will not openly reject US nuclear policies unless compelled to by Canadian public opinion. An Angus Reid poll in 1998 showed that 92% percent of Canadians, when asked a direct question, favour their government taking a leadership role in global negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. This sentiment is, however, rarely expressed or tapped into. The peace community writes a lot of letters into the Ottawa system, but in the day-to-day reports in the media, there is scarce mention of the dilemma of nuclear weapons.

As matters stand, the government is not prepared to withstand US displeasure should Canada repudiate the doctrine of nuclear deterrence by coming out squarely for immediate comprehensive negotiations leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The present concern of the government is to enhance, not diminish, our relationship with the United States.

Canada is by no means ready to leave NATO. Yet Canada wants UN solutions. So the country continues to try to balance both sets of obligations. It is becoming clearer that remaining in a nuclear-armed Western military alliance, driven by US, British and French tenacity in holding onto nuclear weapons, is undermining Canada's ability to express its yearning for peace through the United Nations system. If, by remaining in NATO, Canada can successfully work with allies to eliminate NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons and ensure that NATO works under, not above, the UN, the allegiance will be worthwhile. But it will take far more determination than yet seen by Canadian government action to achieve these goals.

Senator Douglas Roche, O.C., of Canada is Chairman of the Middle Powers Initiative. Upon leaving the Canadian House of Commons, where he was elected as a Member of Parliament four times between 1974 and 1984, Senator Roche was Canada's Ambassador for Disarmament from 1984 to 1989. He was elected Chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Committee at the 43rd General Assembly in 1988. He is the author of fifteen books, the latest being "Bread Not Bombs: A Political Agenda for Social Justice" (University of Alberta Press, October 1999).

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.