Meyer: A lost opportunity for ‘pragmatic diplomacy’

Canada has flunked an early test by failing to attend as an observer a major meeting of states party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons last week.

Unless you have been living on an ice sheet in Antarctica for the last couple of years, you will be aware of a major deterioration of the international security environment. The initiation of aggressive war against a sovereign state, coercive threats to use nuclear weapons, and the dismantlement of existing arms control agreements that imposed some basic level of restraint on nuclear weapon states have all contributed to a “strategic instability” unknown since the heights of the Cold War. A recent Ipsos poll had 86 per cent of the Canadians surveyed believing that the world has become more dangerous.

If Canada is going to do more than merely lament this turn of events it will need to pursue an active diplomacy. Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly sounded a welcome note in an Oct. 30 speech in which she promised a “pragmatic diplomacy” that would recognize the imperative to engage not only with the like-minded, but also crucially those with whom we disagree. In the global arena, progress is not going to be possible unless states reach out to those with differing views and values in the interest of finding common ground.

Paul Meyer is adjunct professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University and a director of the Canadian Pugwash Group. Photograph courtesy of Paul Meyer

Regrettably, Canada has flunked an early test for “pragmatic diplomacy” in failing to attend as an observer a major meeting of states party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) during the week of Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 at the United Nations in New York. This treaty, which was concluded in July 2017 and entered into force in January 2021, currently has 93 signatories and 69 ratified parties. The TPNW came about out of frustration with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament as stipulated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which, since 1970, has been the principal agreement governing global nuclear affairs with 190 states parties.

The TPNW sets a higher standard for nuclear disarmament than the NPT, prohibiting as it does the possession of nuclear weapons as well as the use or threat of use of these weapons of mass destruction. Importantly, all the states supporting the TPNW are also parties to the NPT, and view the two treaties as complementary. Others, namely the states possessing nuclear weapons and their allies, have opposed the TPNW in light of its explicit stigmatization of nuclear weapons and its challenge to policies of nuclear deterrence that essentially threaten the use of nuclear weapons in certain unspecified contingencies.

A disagreement amongst NPT parties over the best way to fulfil the treaty’s common obligation on nuclear disarmament should not in itself be an intractable problem, but it has been made worse by the hostility shown by Canada and many allies to the TPNW and its adherents. Already, when the TPNW was being negotiated at the UN, Canada and most other NATO allies boycotted the meetings under the direction of the United States. Upon the TPNW’s adoption, NATO indulged in specious criticism of the treaty to the effect that it was somehow incompatible with the NPT. Once the TPNW had become international law and its first meeting of states parties was held in Vienna in June 2022, states not party to the TPNW were invited to attend this meeting as observers. Despite their non-adherence to the TPNW, several U.S. allies participated in this meeting in an observer capacity (Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Australia). They recognized the desirability of engaging TPNW supporters in the common interest of strengthening the NPT at a time when the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime was under increasing stress.

There are diplomatic consequences for Canada once again being a “no-show” at the second meeting of TPNW parties. If we are ever going to have any prospect of strengthening the existing legal framework for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament when it is under assault from several quarters, we need to engage and not shun other NPT states simply because we differ over the perceived value of the TPNW. Pretending that the TPNW doesn’t exist and its adherents not worthy of engaging with is unbefitting of a country that has long seen itself as a bridge-builder in the international system. It is one thing to propose a “pragmatic diplomacy,” it is another to practice it consistently.

Paul Meyer is adjunct professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University, and a director of the Canadian Pugwash Group. A former career diplomat in Canada’s foreign service, he served as ambassador and permanent representative to the UN and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (2003-2007).

Published in The Hill Times