Member Publications

Lament for a Treaty (INF Treaty 1987-2019)

Originally published in the Cape Breton Observer

I did not weep, I turned to stone inside … Dante, Inferno

I rarely cry, but on the evening of 8 December 1987, glued to radio coverage of the signing of a nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Soviet Union, I wept with a relief I had never felt before, an ecstatic conviction that the Cold War, and with it the nuclear arms race, was ending.

It wasn’t so much the number of warheads the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, would scrap: over 2,500, tens of thousands of Hiroshimas but a small fraction of the Superpower’s gargantuan arsenals.

It wasn’t even that, for the first time in nuclear arms control history, an entire class of weapon would be banned – land-based missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers, capable of hitting their targets (cities) in minutes, and thus the cause of a major war scare in Europe since their deployment, first by Moscow, in the late 1970s.

It was more the doors the Treaty opened to further cuts, so deep and wide the goal set by the United Nations in its first-ever resolution in 1946 would finally seem within reach: Global Zero, a nuclear-weapon-free world.

In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev had stated bluntly that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” In 1986, Gorbachev unveiled a plan of phased multilateral reductions, counting down to ‘Zero’ by the year 2000. With the signing of the INF Treaty, his proposal – technically viable, demonstrably verifiable – became politically realistic: a “sapling,” as he said, had been planted “which may one day grow into a mighty tree of peace”:

//May December 8, 1987, become a date that will be inscribed in the history books, a date that will mark the watershed separating the era of a mounting risk of nuclear war from the era of a demilitarisation of human life.//

As I listened, I cried, in part because I had spent much of the previous year following the negotiations for my undergraduate dissertation at the only Peace Studies Department (University of Bradford) in the United Kingdom, a nuclear-weapon state which ‘boasted’ its own ‘independent deterrent’ (missiles leased from America) and which had – inviting its own self-destruction – hosted US INF weapons at Greenham Common, site of a truly heroic, routinely reviled Women’s Peace Camp, backed by millions of supporters in an antinuclear ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement spanning Western Europe and North America.
Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982 At noon on December 12th 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6 mile perimeter fence of the former USAF base, in protest against the UK government’s decision to site American cruise missiles here. The installation went ahead but so did the protest – for 19 years women maintained their presence at the Greenham Common peace camp.

Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982: At noon on 12 December 1982, 30,000 women held hands around the 6-mile perimeter fence of the former USAF base, in protest against the UK government’s decision to site American cruise missiles here. The installation went ahead but so did the protest – for 19 years women maintained their presence at the Greenham Common peace camp.

And I cried, too, listening to the chat and music of the students in the University residence – most of whom had not been part of that movement and would never know what ‘INF’ stood for – for the dramatically saner, less menaced and more humane future they could now enjoy and explore.

I have more than once subjected Spectator readers to dense analysis of the post-Cold War decline of nuclear arms control in general, and the INF Treaty in particular.

In sum, with the fall of the Soviet Union the ‘Countdown’ Plan was consigned to oblivion by a NATO Alliance – suddenly the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance – determined not to disarm but expand, deep into former Warsaw Pact and Soviet territory, triggering a predictably nationalistic, we-love-our-nukes response in Moscow.

In 2002, US President Bush, to the delight of influential State Department official John Bolton, withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, radically limiting missile defenses to remove any temptation to ‘win’ a nuclear war by striking first and shooting down most of whatever missiles the obliterated enemy could still unleash. Not only, Russia believed, could American missile defenses in eastern Europe be used to intercept second-strike weapons, they could themselves be converted to offensive, first-strike weapons – with a range of, well, between 500-5,500 kilometers.

Bush’s move, allied to his illegal regime-change invasion of Iraq, eroded Russia’s faith in the INF Treaty, while both Moscow and Washington expressed alarm at a build-up of Chinese nuclear forces in the INF range. President Obama, while still trying to save the Treaty, accused Russia of at least flirting with non-compliance by researching and developing, if not deploying, new medium-range systems. President Trump, determined – at the urging of National Security Adviser Bolton – to scrap the Treaty, claimed the ‘red line’ of deployment had been crossed, giving Russia a deadline of August 2 this year to return to compliance. Compliance, that is, as adjudged by a US administration now itching for a justification to research, develop and deploy some of the new medium-range weapons lustfully eyed by Defense Secretary Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis in his hair-raising 2018 ‘Nuclear Posture Review.’

Just how dangerous this ‘new nuclear age’ now is was revealed by the brief, inadvertent posting (!) by the Pentagon this summer of its updated ‘Nuclear Operations’ manual (still available on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, thanks to the quick thinking of researcher Steven Aftergood ) which states confidently that:

“Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.”

Wow, talk about an invitation to proliferate: who wouldn’t want such a magic wand? Indeed, given this impressive up-side to ‘going nuclear,’ it’s hardly surprising, to quote Obama’s Under Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, that “sadly, no US official today is able to repeat” the Reagan-Gorbachev ‘must never fight, can never win’ formula.

And so, on August 2, the INF Treaty was formally pronounced dead, leaving just one bilateral US-Russia arms control agreement still standing: the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty, limiting long-range warheads to 1,550 each side. Due to expire in 2021, New START could be extended to 2026 by mutual consent. Bolton, though, has told Trump New START – an Obama achievement, after all, like the Iran nuclear deal – is old hat, tired thinking, tying America’s hands, etc. And even though Trump recently said of Bolton that “if it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time,” the President agrees.

No Treaty, of course, can really ‘die’. But the demise of the INF Treaty is sure to impact the lives, even help seal the fate, of millions of people. Including, perhaps, the children of the students I listened to that unforgettable night, 32 years ago, as the ‘sapling’ was planted.

But this time, I couldn’t cry.

Sean Howard

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton.

How to build an architecture of peace, when destruction can rain down in mere minutes

Contributed to The Globe and Mail | Published July 7, 2019

The existence of 13,865 nuclear weapons held by nine countries has not been enough, seemingly, to demonstrate political power. Now science and technology are giving us faster, more precise methods of destroying “the enemy.” The name of this new danger: “hypersonic” missiles.

The United States, Russia and China are leading the way on the development of hypersonic missiles, purportedly capable of travelling at more than 15 times the speed of sound and striking any target in the world in a matter of minutes. They will be powerful enough to penetrate any building with the force of three to four tonnes of TNT.

Although hypersonics are intended to carry conventional explosives, as distinct from nuclear, that’s not the main threat right now. Hypersonic missiles, conventional or nuclear, will be capable of striking at an adversary’s nuclear arsenal. Given the very short warning times of such attacks, states with nuclear weapons will have to assess how to respond to such threats quickly, and may be tempted to bypass political consultation. Their systems will also be placed on even higher levels of alert, increasing paranoia and pressure.

And, of course, it is highly unlikely that hypersonic weapons will stay “conventional.” Indeed, Russia is already boasting that it can place nuclear warheads on its hypersonic missiles. We’re looking at a world where catastrophic destruction is possible – and with unimaginable speed.

If the world is getting to be a better place, as so many indicators of progress reveal, how can we tolerate the constant modernization of the killing process? Is our struggle ultimately against particular weapons systems, or is it against humanity’s more fundamental lust for perfecting the art of killing?

These are questions that are made relevant again with the emergence of what The New York Times Magazine recently called “unstoppable hypersonic missiles.” As Times writer R. Jeffrey Smith reminds us, there are no international agreements on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used, nor are there any plans to start such discussions. Instead, he says, the world now faces a new arms race with Russia and China – “one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions.”

The issue of hypersonic weapons should highlight the growing urgency of reconstructing a reliable nuclear-arms control regime. Such a system should place a legal obligation on all countries to pursue and complete comprehensive negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Stunningly, the reverse is happening: The U.S. and Russia continue to violate their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as they abandon other treaties.

Immediate steps are necessary. At a minimum, keep nuclear warheads off hypersonics; remove all nuclear systems from high-alert status to prevent false alarms from triggering nuclear catastrophe; commence negotiations to control hypersonic weapons before the emerging hypersonic arms race swings into a no-holds-barred contest among a small but widening circle of countries.

Of course, the dismal state of nuclear disarmament in this chaotic period of world history sometimes raises doubts about the effectiveness of the nuclear disarmament movement. But the arrival of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which buttresses the nearly 50-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty, highlights the deepening humanitarian concern about the massive evil of nuclear weapons. Focusing only on nuclear disarmament is not enough to ensure sustainable world peace, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, there can be no world peace.

The new age of hypersonics reminds us that the agenda for peace is very long. It already includes curbing global warming, controlling cyberwarfare, promoting sustainable development, and continuing to learn that human rights include the right to be free of warfare.

Hypersonic marks another milestone in the development of instruments of warfare. We must respond by building a new architecture for peace. And one cornerstone of that architecture remains the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Ernie Regehr is chairman of Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Douglas Roche is a former senator and the former Canadian ambassador for disarmament.

U.S. joint chiefs release alarming nuclear operations document

The Hill Times | July 1, 2019

On June 11, the U.S. joint chiefs released a document simply entitled ‘Nuclear Operations,’ the first such doctrine paper in 14 years, and one that marks a major shift in U.S. military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war.

On June 19, The Guardian and a host of other media reported that on June 11 the U.S. joint chiefs released a document simply entitled “Nuclear Operations,” the first such doctrine paper in 14 years, and one that marks a major shift in U.S. military thinking towards the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war. The document states that “nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability. Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The Nuclear Operations document was taken down from the Pentagon online site after a week, and is now available only through a restricted access electronic library. Before it was withdrawn, it was downloaded by Steven Aftergood, who directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood said the new document “is very much conceived as a war-fighting doctrine, not simply a deterrence doctrine.”

This falls in the wake of the United States Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018 that expands the role of nuclear weapons by identifying new circumstances in which they could be used, namely in response to “strategic non-nuclear attacks” including cyber-attacks. The Nuclear Posture Review also outlined U.S. plans to mount lower-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-based missiles, increasing the possibility that they might actually be used. Other nuclear-armed states, including India and Pakistan, are following suit.

Many have noted that this change in doctrine and practice runs directly counter to a commitment in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies in order to facilitate disarmament, and to the legal commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament, in good faith.

And of course, all of this is happening as the U.S. and Iran edge closer and closer to war, a war that could draw in Russia, China and other nuclear powers; as the U.S. and Russia are about to formally withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Weapons Forces (INF) Treaty; amidst a new nuclear arms race led by the U.S. with an allocation upwards of $1.5-trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years; and technological developments including the aforementioned lower yield nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles that travel at 15 times the speed of sound, missiles roundly considered to be virtually unstoppable.

I feel like the guy wearing an old-style sandwich-board that reads “The End is Near!” But in truth, without being unjustifiably alarmist, it could well be. When the top military commanders of the, militarily, most powerful country on Earth suggest that “nuclear weapons could create the conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” we should all be worried sick and ask ourselves, what can we do—individually and collectively—to prevent this insanity from continuing.

Earl Turcotte is chair of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Bleak prospects for the ‘cornerstone’ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty | May 16, 2019

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is set to mark the 50th anniversary of its coming into force at its 2020 review conference. Whether this will be an occasion for celebration or lamentation is an open question: Will the progress made in global nuclear governance over half a century be jeopardized by irresponsible state action now?

The 190 states that are party to this cornerstone of the global security order met in New York recently, between April 27 and May 10, for the final preparatory session before the May 2020 review conference. The mood was decidedly downbeat at the session and “external events,” as a senior UN official present said, weighed “heavily on these proceedings.” Strong disagreements among participating states prevented a consensus endorsement of the chair’s concluding recommendations, which had to be issued under his personal authority.

The failure of the last review conference in 2015 will put additional pressure on the 2020 gathering to produce some form of agreement that will demonstrate that the three “pillars” of the NPT — nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy — are being implemented in a balanced fashion. However, without a radical re-prioritization of the NPT on the part of key states, the current foreign policy context suggests that the prospects for success are bleak. In the absence of such remedial action, the threat to the continued viability and authority of the treaty is great.

This list of problems the NPT faces is lengthy, varied and growing. Among the most prominent: the failure of the five nuclear weapon states to fulfill their nuclear disarmament commitments set out in Article VI of the treaty and their unchecked engagement in what can only be described as a new nuclear arms race; the recent US and Russian withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and lack of apparent interest to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which would mean the end of any legally-binding constraints on their nuclear arsenals.

In addition, what had been heralded as a successful multilateral diplomatic effort to curtail the Iranian nuclear program, the so-called JCPOA agreement, is now imperiled by the US withdrawal. Its aggressive imposition of sanctions on other states trading with Iran has now prompted an Iranian reaction that threatens to kill the deal entirely.

There are several other serious problems including the defection of North Korea from the NPT and its overt development of nuclear weapons., and the rift between supporters and opponents of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which the former say complements the NPT and the latter says undermines it.

Combine these with the continued lack of progress to universalize the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea with their nuclear weapons remain outside), and it is a wonder that the NPT retains any credibility as a framework for global nuclear governance.

Abandoning the step-by-step approach for…the impossible?

At this critical juncture for the NPT, the United States has decided to turn its back on implementation of commitments agreed to at past review conferences in favour of a re-imagining of the enterprise as one of “let’s pretend we can fashion a better world.”

Using its leverage as a sort of hegemon for the NPT, the US has set out a future course of action for the treaty parties that constitutes a major departure from previous nuclear policy orthodoxy. The new US approach was unveiled initially in a working paper entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” submitted to the April 2018 NPT preparatory gathering. Its contents were elaborated on by its author, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation Christopher Ford, in remarks delivered on April 30 at a side-event during the recent NPT proceedings.

Ford essentially argued that the traditional “step-by-step” approach with a focus on nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia had failed in that bilateral context, and had also ignored the nuclear build-ups of China, India and Pakistan. A new discourse was necessary that would be more realistic than the old in addressing the “conditions” that would be conducive to further disarmament.

These conditions, as detailed in the 2018 working paper, range from relatively modest measures such as adoption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol to strengthen international safeguards agreements, to fundamental transformations of inter-state relations until they are no longer “driven by assumptions of zero-sum geopolitical competition but are instead cooperative and free of conflict.”

To put it in other terms, when the lion lays down with the lamb, and milk and honey flow, we might hope to see some disarmament.

The fact that the Article VI commitment on cessation of the arms race and the negotiation in good faith of nuclear disarmament is not conditioned in this or in any other way does not seem to have concerned Ford. Nor did the fact that the US approach is at odds with the successive, specific steps towards nuclear disarmament agreed to at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences. The NPT’s legal and political commitments on nuclear disarmament, agreed to by all states parties, is apparently only so much “old think” to Washington. Ford also presented another paper outlining how the US initiative — now renamed “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (an example of “green washing” perhaps) — was to be implemented.

Although lip service was paid to establishing a “diverse” international working group to pursue the initiative, the US clearly wishes to remain in the driver seat and will be the one to decide which states are invited to the inaugural meeting to be held in Washington this summer. The limited number to be included will be asked for their views on the US ideas, but with a secretariat from the State Department and clear control of the agenda, this will likely produce a “Made in America” process, with participation limited to suitably deferential allies and partners. It will serve US interests in providing a distraction from the deeply disturbing deterioration in implementation of NPT-originated commitments and will enable the US to point to a “process” and “fresh thinking” in the runup to the 2020 review conference.

Some shiny tinsel in the window, however, doesn’t hide the fact that the US initiative, with its dismissal of the “step-by-step” approach as unrealistic and ineffectual, pulls the rug out from underneath its nuclear-dependent allies, including Canada, who have dutifully argued that “step-by-step” is the only practical way to make progress on nuclear disarmament. What contortions are they now going to have to go through to align themselves with the new gospel from Washington? Having been supporters of an NPT-centric approach to global nuclear governance, rooted in treaty obligations and the political commitments made at successive review conferences, these non-nuclear weapon states will be hard pressed to acknowledge that this focus was misguided. Which among them will be brave enough to speak truth to power and point out that if the US wishes to improve the current security environment, it could start by returning to compliance with existing international commitments?

Ignoring this diplomatic legacy to embrace a discussion group on remedying the ills of the world, before realization of nuclear disarmament can be contemplated, will expose participating states to domestic criticism and deflect from more relevant preparatory work. Such side-shows, alas, will also further erode the credibility of the NPT as the central framework for global nuclear affairs.

True friends of the NPT will, in the leadup to 2020, need to decide whether to keep the focus on implementation of the goals and commitments endorsed by the treaty, or to turn their back on this and embrace the new faith of “environment” creation. The NPT’s future viability could largely depend on their choice.

Move the Nuclear Weapons Money

Report on the conference held in Basel, Switzerland 12-13 April 2019

The conference entitled “Move the Nuclear Weapons Money” that took place in Basel, 12-13 April, was a particularly encouraging experience. Many possible new avenues for discouraging the arms trade and even nuclear weapons were introduced, and a most impressive list of invited participants was present. It would be hard to determine whether listening to the speakers, or interacting with them between and after sessions was the more valuable. Two German ex-parliamentarians and one from Norway were present, as well as Margaret Kiener Nellen, MP in the Swiss National Council and Fabian Hamilton, British MP for Leeds North since 1997; and many others from a great variety of backgrounds. As well as significant others who came simply to listen to the proceedings. Today I received the official conference report (click or tap to open).

The report speaks very well for itself and for the speakers, though any emphasis was of course that of the writers. In this sense, the conference deserves some additional comment on the specifics of divestment.

One can divest for more than one reason. Divestment is important for reasons of conscience, and it can be important strategically. An example of the former reason was exemplified by the talk of the Quaker, Chayley Collis, of Huddersfield, England. A paper by Rudolf Rechsteiner, President of the Ethos Foundation, dealt with the strategic aspects of divestment. Rechsteiner’s thorough investigation of the effects of divestment—where it might or is unlikely to succeed—was for me the highlight of the conference. So far, only his ppt presentation is available—see website given near the end of this report.

Other outstanding presentations were by Robert Smith, Jürgen Grässlin, and Bärbel Höhn, to mention only three of the many. Höhn’s activism for the Green Party in Germany includes many successes both within and outside of parliament.

Pugwash members will also be interested in the participation of Marzhan Nurzhan from Kazakhstan, who is a member of Young Pugwash and not only gave one of the talks but chaired one of the sessions, and was part of the staff organizing the conference.

As a general comment on the conference, I felt that it was a meeting of fine heads, all or almost all of whom are stuck in the current style of economy, in which money or its absence determines what happens. And that is not unreasonable, because it is the status quo. But I remember the words of economist Mary Kaldor1 in 1981, when she said “You will never get disarmament as long as we have the current form of economy.” It took me years to learn that lesson, but, today, nobody could be more convinced than I am of the truth of what she said. The traditional economy demands arms manufacture, because it doesn’t include a healthy ecosphere as part of its domain, and without arms manufacture, one cannot maximize production and the throughput of raw materials from extraction to their final resting place—a constant economic objective. I intervened after Alyn Ware’s paper, the last on the second day. Alyn had said how good it would be to have the money now used for military production in order to carry out peaceful programs for addressing climate change and achieving sustainability—a sentiment that has often been expressed and is agreeable to peace-loving people. I pointed out that addressing climate change is so urgent that we must not wait until military budgets decline hugely. The necessary funds must be produced by new means, such as issuance of new money from publicly-owned banks at zero interest.


Some papers (speeches) and a few PowerPoint presentations from the conference can be read at website: Move the nuclear weapons money: Investing in a Sustainable Future 

I am currently urging the conference organizers to increase the number of such “speeches” on their website, but it looks as if most of those likely to arrive are already on the website.

What’s at stake when restraints on nuclear powers go out the window?

First published in

With disappearing restraints on the nuclear systems of Russia and the United States, the atmosphere at a recent nuclear policy conference in Washington was unsurprisingly a mix of gloom and dismay.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has hosted a major conference in Washington devoted to issues of nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament every two years since its inaugural gathering in 1989, drawing diplomats and security experts from around the world. This year’s version, which took place on March 11-12, had 800 attendees plus another 400 participating remotely (and, as the convenors proudly proclaimed, was the first to achieve full gender parity in terms of speakers and moderators.)

The conference provides an unrivalled platform for policy wonks to take the pulse of current strategic postures and programs. However, this year the pulse of arms control was hard to detect. The gloomy atmosphere reflected the mood of most participants. With a background of the withdrawal in February of the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia and the lack of any evident commitment to an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits strategic nuclear systems and which expires in February 2021, it seems likely that the last remaining treaty restraints on the nuclear systems of these opposing powers will disappear.

Combine this with the failure at the February Hanoi Summit to conclude any agreement on North Korean denuclearization, the recent resumption of military clashes across the Line of Control between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, a major rift within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) community and last year’s US rejection of the Iran JCPOA nuclear deal; it is no wonder that pessimism on the future of cooperative security and nuclear restraint was pouring out faster than the coffee during the conference breaks.

One seasoned European diplomat described the situation as “worse than the Cold War,” with strategic dialogue suspended and nuclear powers moving away from pure deterrence postures and engaging again in arms racing (aka “modernization”) and sabre-rattling.

Having last attended the Carnegie conference in 2013, the contrast between the relatively upbeat mood under the Obama administration and the sense the arms control community now has of being under siege with the duo of Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton in the White House was striking. I came away with particular concerns over four areas: the breakdown of the US-Russian strategic relationship, the current impasse in denuclearization talks with North Korea, the bleak prospects for the NPT, and Canada’s silence on the issues.

US-Russian relations

The breakdown of the bilateral strategic relationship between the two leading nuclear powers was a salient theme, with many participants urging a revival of the strategic stability talks that had been the vehicle for developing and sustaining the strategic arms control framework over decades.

The few Trump administration officials in attendance were of a different view — gamely suggesting that their policy line was the only correct one. A senior State Department speaker defended the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty as an exercise to “uphold standards” and was non-committal on an extension of New START, noting simply that an inter-agency dialogue was underway on this issue. A senior Department of Defense official from the Obama administration stressed that maintaining New START (and the verification and data exchange provisions that go with it) was very much in US interests. Former US Senator Sam Nunn, now the co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, decried that there seemed to be no political will in Washington to save the treaties.

Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov reiterated Russia’s stance, saying that although the US claim of violation of the INF Treaty was a “fairy tale,” President Vladimir Putin had stated that Russia would not deploy ground-based missiles anywhere in the prohibited range unless the US had done so first. Antonov said that Russia would not get drawn into an expensive arms race with the US and dismissed allegations that Russia had adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” early use of nuclear weapons doctrine as “fake news” promoted by American interests behind development of “low-yield” warheads and new missile systems.

If these developments were not disturbing enough, a session on “Nuclear Command and Control Vulnerability” raised the spectre of cyber attacks on early warning or command and control (C2) systems which might prompt a “use it or lose it” reaction and put further pressure on crisis decision-making. A Chinese expert warned that when combined with shortened flight times of new hypersonic missiles and the conflation of conventional and nuclear systems the strategic situation was “more risky than ever before.”

Antonov and other Russian experts argued for a revival of the strategic stability talks for managing the increasingly complicated relationship. This call for resumed dialogue was supported by many participants who criticized the downgrading of diplomatic approaches to addressing the geopolitical tensions and sustaining strategic stability in favour of military buildups.

One supportive voice on the US side was Democratic Representative Adam Smith, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who called for restarting the arms control process and re-opening strategic communication channels. He also suggested that the US can achieve nuclear deterrence with far fewer warheads. Echoing some of the concerns of the cyber experts, Smith said his priorities included securing nuclear command and control and developing US capacities for cyber and information warfare. He emphasized the need to work with allies rather than “badger them,” characterizing Trump’s “America First” posture as “a moronic foreign policy.”

The failed Hanoi Summit and the elusive goal of denuclearization

Steve Biegun, Trump’s Special Representative for North Korea, gave a keynote speech that downplayed the failure of last month’s Hanoi Summit between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to yield an agreement on denuclearization, suggesting that the US was playing a long game and that Trump had set no timeline for negotiations.

Biegun defended not agreeing to any partial easing of UN sanctions, saying that this would only allow for new funds to be directed into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. He said the US was seeking the comprehensive elimination of all WMD arsenals and facilities including all dimensions of the nuclear fuel cycle. This would require intrusive verification to ensure that a North Korean declaration was accurate, and that disarmament would be irreversible. He noted in this regard that the establishment of permanent liaison offices in the North would be essential in support of this effort.

Biegun expressed support for confidence-building measures (CBMs) underway in the demilitarized zone that had been developed between North and South Korea and indicated that certain CBMs were being discussed in the US-North Korean track as well. When challenged as to why North Korea would put any faith in an eventual agreement with the US, given the latter’s withdrawal from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance with its terms, Biegun side-stepped the question by asserting that the US was engaged in a much broader endeavour with North Korea, not merely a nuclear deal. Biegun defended the current approach of the Trump administration, saying that it was the only one that had succeeded in directly engaging the North’s “main decision maker.”

The Non-Proliferation Treaty under threat

How the current bleak prospects for nuclear arms control and disarmament would impact the NPT (the global treaty governing nuclear affairs with 190 states parties) and its 2020 Review Conference was an underlying concern at the conference.

Trump administration officials took a “not to worry” stance, pointing to resumed talks amongst the P5 nuclear weapon states in Beijing in January (although disagreement amongst them prevented the issuance of any statement).

The US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation trotted out the old figures of an 88 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal since the peak of the Cold War without any reference to the current build-up or the absence of any arms reduction negotiations. He championed the US proposal for a “creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament” working group, although this terminology has now been changed to “creating the environment for” (an even vaguer term).

The Russian ambassador was much blunter in his assessment, stating that if the strategic arms control framework is allowed to collapse, the NPT Review Conference will be “a disaster.” If the present trends continue, what results on nuclear disarmament will the nuclear powers be able to present to the NPT membership, he asked, noting that the NPT regime would be easy to destroy and difficult to rebuild.

The significance for the NPT of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which currently has 70 signatories and 22 ratifications en route to the 50 required for the treaty’s entry into force) was fiercely debated at one panel. The French Foreign Ministry’s director of strategic affairs decried the treaty for its “divisive effects” and supposed weaknesses, while supporters argued that it was the failure of the nuclear weapon states to deliver on their nuclear disarmament commitments that had prompted the prohibition treaty. The upcoming NPT PrepCom in New York (April 29-May 10) will provide further evidence as to whether the NPT membership will be able to transcend the failure of the 2015 Review Conference and find some common ground at the 2020 meeting.
Canada’s silence

It is perhaps reflective of the decline of Canadian engagement in the arena of nuclear affairs that, to my knowledge, no Canadians figured amongst the panellists at the Carnegie conference. What the Canadian view of these developments consisted of was not a matter of concern for the organizers. Indeed, official Canadian statements on the key nuclear challenges facing the international community are few and far between. Despite urging from several Canadian NGOs, the government has not spoken out in favour of maintaining the strategic restraint regime represented by the INF and New START treaties.

Concerns over the deteriorating strategic situation had prompted the House of Commons Committee on National Defence to recommend unanimously last summer that the government take a leadership role at NATO to initiate discussion of these risks and what can be done to counter them. Specifically, the Committee’s recommendation #21 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 be undertaken on an urgent basis in view of the increasing threat of nuclear conflict…”. The government essentially ignored this operational direction in its response to the Committee’s report, offering up only boiler plate text on existing positions. Leadership on these issues within NATO, it seems, would have to come from some other member state.

Ostrich-like evasive postures are not appropriate at this point in time, when the risks of nuclear weapon use, be it from calculation or miscalculation, are elevated and the cooperative restraint regimes of the past are rapidly fraying. If some of the destructive consequences of the current impasse, outlined at the conference, come to pass, Canada will not be immune from their effects, and people may well ask: what did Canada do to prevent them?