Canadian Defence Policy and NATO’s Nuclear Weapons

See The Simons Foundation's page on The Canadian Defence Policy Review for briefing papers by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Defence Policy and Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation.

Canadian Defence Policy and NATO’s Nuclear Weapons

August 23, 2016

The current Canadian Defence Policy Review is not focused on questions of disarmament and arms control; Global Affairs Canada is the lead agency on those issues, and it would do well, by the way, to undertake a thorough review of related policies and priorities. Defence policies and postures do nevertheless help to either strengthen or undermine disarmament prospects. A case in point is NATO’s nuclear posture. Canada is involved as a NATO member and as a participant in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group.  And as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well, Canada has a responsibility to pursue alliance defence policies and practices that are conducive to full implementation of the NPT and ending NATO’s reliance on nuclear deterrence. That would in turn also advance the individual and collective security interests of NATO member states, including Canada, and all the states of the Euro-Atlantic.

NATO’s Nuclear Weapons Posture

NATO states now collectively declare, and repeatedly so, that they want “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the NPT….” It’s a welcome intention, but it is immediately qualified when NATO insists that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” or that NATO members continue to regard the strategic nuclear forces of the US as the “supreme guarantee” of their security. These NATO declarations – in the Lisbon 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2016 Warsaw communique – are accompanied by the assurance that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.” And to prepare for that ostensibly remote possibility, the alliance leader, the United States, is poised to spend upwards of $10 billion just to “modernize” its B61 nuclear bombs, half of which are to continue to be deployed in Europe, and to spend something like a trillion dollars in a 30-year remake of the entire American nuclear arsenal. Those modernization plans represent a more powerful intention than any NATO declaration and they do not point to support for an early transition to a world without nuclear weapons.

That is not to deny that NATO’s last Strategic Concept, the 2010 Lisbon version, included some constructive improvements over the 1999 Washington version – with the 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit declaration largely reinforcing the status quo, but unfortunately also allowing for some erosion back to the more hawkish tones of 1999.

In 1999 NATO threat assessments pointed to “powerful nuclear forces” outside the Alliance – Russia and China in particular. In 2010 there is no reference to nuclear arsenals threatening NATO members. The focus is on the fear that nuclear weapons will proliferate to other states, to undermine global stability and prosperity, and to non-state groups, raising the specter of nuclear terrorism. Other documents, like the Chicago 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, point to other “emerging security challenges” – like cyber threats, the security implications of environmental degradation and resource and energy scarcity, and new technologies.

Nuclear weapons are obviously no help in facing down those threats, but in the 2016 Warsaw declaration, the Russians are back: “Russia's aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.” And if the Russians are back, so is nuclear deterrence.  Continue reading...


Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Defence Policy and Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.