I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
The roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost wrote those famous lines shortly after returning to New England from an “Old Country” suffering the early ravages of World War One, lamenting his failure to persuade his close friend, the British poet Edward Thomas, to sail to safety with him. Thomas, who would be killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917, decided instead—despite a deep aversion to nationalist militarism—that “Now all roads lead to France.”
Throughout modern history, but most fatefully after both World Wars and the Cold War, a path to sustainable peace was paved but never taken, irrationally rejected for the well-worn “road to hell” of conflict, competition, and hatred. At the University of Geneva in late May, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres launched a largely-overlooked initiative gamely attempting to bring disarmament “back to the centre” of global affairs, re-focusing the world organization on the goal set at its creation, nothing less than “eliminating war as an instrument of foreign policy.”
Guterres’s blueprint—_Agenda for Disarmament: Securing Our Common Future_—establishes a three-dimensional approach to “demilitarizing security in the 21st Century”: the abolition and elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, or “Disarmament to Save Humanity”; conventional arms control, broad and deep enough to achieve “Disarmament that Saves Lives” in today’s increasingly war-torn world; and “Disarmament for Future Generations,” constraining and/or prohibiting a range of rapidly emerging, dangerous and repugnant military technologies perfecting new modes of mass destruction, new domains of mass disruption.
This third dimension places the big picture of 21st Century peace and security in stark relief. As Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) told Elizabeth Eaves of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on July 5, “In a way, I think we have to solve the nuclear weapon problem because we have bigger things coming up. Things that will change very drastically how our world operates.”
By casting our minds back to 1945, Fihn argued, nuclear weapons generate “a completely false sense of security … We’ve been tricked to think these weapons somehow will provide us protection. What if it’s all a lie?”
Guterres certainly agrees with Fihn that, as he stated at the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony on August 9, nuclear weapons “undermine global, national and human security,” and that their “total elimination…remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”
ICAN’s disappointment is with his failure to openly urge UN states to support the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). “In the face of escalating nuclear rhetoric and crumbling treaties and summits,” ICAN argued on May 28, the Agenda’s failure to call for countries to join the Ban Treaty “is not just a missed opportunity, but undermines the entire disarmament agenda.”
The Agenda, commending ICAN on its 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, does predict that the TPNW will form an important component of the nuclear disarmament regime and non-proliferation regime when it enters into force, enabling “states that so choose to subscribe to some of the highest available multilateral norms against nuclear weapons.”
While correctly characterizing the Ban as complementary to the goals of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which mandates good faith negotiations to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world, ICAN’s point is that joining the ban is not so much a choice as a moral and political obligation.
In Nagasaki, Guterres claimed that many states (122, two-thirds of the General Assembly) demonstrated their frustration with the fact that “disarmament processes have slowed and even come to a halt” by adopting the ban last July. While this may seem supportive, it can also sound condescending, as if the Treaty is the result of pent-up venting, more tantrum than potential game-changer.
The Guterres/Fihn discord reflects the difficulty faced by successive Secretary-Generals in striking the right note on disarmament in the post-Cold War, and particularly post 9/11, world. The Agenda is, after all, technically an unofficial document, a non-paper in danger, like so many others, of becoming a non-event.
Such was the rather embittered prediction of Sri Lanka’s Jayantha Dhanapala, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, who wrote in In-Depth News on June 7 that the new Agenda “seems unlikely to secure our common future with the present actors,” particularly a uniformly pro-nuclear P-5 who demand and expect “a SG who is more ‘Secretary’ than ‘General’.”
“We will either,” Dhanapala bleakly concludes, “have to wait for a change of actors or search among the debris of failed negotiations for a fresh start.”
But that may depend on more than the P-5. When I interviewed the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, for The Cape Breton Spectator on June 14, she stressed the role that middle powers can play in nurturing the infant initiative to health and maturity. She mentioned in particular Canada and Germany: bedrock NATO states with a strong non-proliferation pedigree and honourable (if intermittent) tradition of questioning aspects of the Alliance’s self-perceived dependency on nuclear weapons.
Thus far, unsurprisingly, the P-5 and their anti-Ban allies seem happier to discuss “Disarmament for Saving Lives” and “Disarmament for Future Generations” than “Disarmament to Save Humanity,” regarding progress on conventional disarmament as a necessary pre-condition to eventual nuclear reductions.
Genuinely honest brokers between the P-5 and the Ban states, however—as the bridge builders Canada, Germany, Japan and others claim they wish to be—should not discriminate among Guterres’s three dimensions but rather treat them as complementary, interdependent parts of a greater whole.
A possible way forward for this country—an elegant solution to its NATO/NPT dilemma—was outlined in the recent (June 2018) Report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defense on Canada and NATO: an Alliance Forged in Strength and Reliability.
As the title suggests, that report was far from a fearless expose of the Alliance’s many post-Cold War failures, particularly the gratuitous strategic violence of NATO expansion. But its 21st recommendation came as a bolt from the UN blue:
“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 flowing from the renewed risk of nuclear proliferation, the deployment of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, and changes in nuclear doctrine regarding lowering the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons by Russia and the US.”
While NATO is rhetorically committed, in its July 2018 Brussels communiqué, to “seek the conditions for the ultimate goal” of Global Zero, without the leadership urged by the all-party panel the pledge has long been more honored in the breach than the observance. Overpowered by the constant drive to bolster deterrence and maintain an “appropriate mix” of nuclear and conventional forces, it holds the viciously circular argument that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” The second sentence goes further, acknowledging that policies and postures will have to change on both sides in order for conditions for deep denuclearization to emerge.
If the Trudeau Government were to act on the Committee’s potentially historic Recommendation 21, the galvanizing effect on other NATO and umbrella states would be considerable. Hopes of a mutually beneficial arms control dialogue with Moscow would be re-ignited, the deep scepticism of the pro-Ban community towards all things NATO would lessen, and the current high tension surrounding the build-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference would relax. Perhaps most importantly, such leadership could be framed as Canada’s considered and constructive response to Guterres’ New Agenda, thus helping raise the profile and sustain the momentum of his worthy but fragile gambit.
Whatever its shortcomings, Securing Our Common Future points the way again to the road less taken, identifying radical progress toward a post-War world order as the only route from the abyss. Whether Canada decides to take that path may not make all the difference. But it may make the kind of difference we all need.
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, Campaign Coordinator for Peace Quest Cape Breton, and a member of Canadian Pugwash.