Can Canada play a part in averting the collapse of arms control?

As the INF Treaty falls apart due to a lack of US and Russian participation, Canada should help do its bit to avert the unravelling of global arms control, argue Emily Enright and M. V. Ramana.

By: , /
August 20, 2019
An unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile is released over the Utah Test and Training Range during a Nuclear Weapons System Evaluation Program sortie on September 22, 2014. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/Handout via REUTERS

Earlier this month, on August 2, the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The official withdrawal had been expected since United States President Donald Trump announced his intention to do so in February, accusing Russia of violating the agreement. (Although such accusations date back to 2014, the earlier administration under President Barack Obama had chosen not to withdraw from the treaty.) As a result, Russia also pulled out of the treaty in July, although it has since promised not to deploy new missiles as long as the United States does not deploy new weapons in Europe and Asia.

We now have the world’s two nuclear superpowers acting without the constraints posed by a core arms control agreement. The treaty has played a significant role in preventing the use of nuclear weapons.

Signed in 1987 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan, the INF Treaty required both parties to destroy their stockpiles of ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. The use of such missiles by the Soviet Union and the United States was expected to be more plausible in the early stages of a hypothetical war between the superpowers, because their range would not allow them to reach the continental United States or the heartland of the Soviet Union from their deployment locations in Europe. The treaty additionally prohibited the producing, manufacturing and testing of these missiles. Along with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreements, which set limitations on the numbers of deployed warheads in longer range missiles that could reach Moscow and Washington, the INF Treaty placed some controls on the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States. The currently active New START agreement is in some jeopardy since it will expire in 2021 unless superseded by another agreement; the US and Russian governments have not begun negotiating such an agreement.

Russian missile
Components of SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system are on display during a news briefing, organized by Russian defence and foreign ministries, at Patriot Expocentre near Moscow, Russia, January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The violation by Russia of the INF Treaty that the US and NATO are referring to is Russia’s development of a weapon system since the mid-2000s called the 9M729 land-based cruise missile. The Russian government claims that this missile “fully complies with the treaty’s requirements.” The US and NATO disagree. Russia’s claim about compliance could have been verified, or disproved, but the US refused to engage with Russia’s offer to allow the missile to be inspected.

Indeed, the US has shared a part in the treaty’s demise since it has been undertaking steps that can be seen as violating the spirit if not the letter of the INF Treaty. As academic Theodore Postol has argued in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “publicly available information makes it clear that the US Aegis-based systems in Eastern Europe, if equipped with cruise missiles, would indeed violate the INF,” and “the Aegis systems in Eastern Europe have characteristics that make them especially threatening to Russia.” As early as May 2015, the US Department of State revealed that Russian officials have asserted that US Aegis launchers were “inconsistent with the treaty.”

The US is also in the process of developing new nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The announcement of the formal withdrawal, on August 2, was accompanied by the announcement that “the US military is set to test a new non-nuclear mobile-launched cruise missile.” The US, in other words, is playing its part in the “it takes two to tango” dynamic of arms races.

All of these developments demand the concern of all those interested in international security and peace, including here in Canada. There are at least two good reasons for Canada to be involved.

First, the unravelling of arms control treaties directly undermines the rules-based international order. The number one priority for Global Affairs Canada, according to the department’s 2018-2019 report, is strengthening this order; this follows from the Canadian government’s commitment “to play an active role in the preservation and strengthening of an international order based on rules.” The withdrawal of both the US and Russia from the INF Treaty directly contradicts this goal, and could further hasten the dismantlement of any rules-based order when it comes to nuclear weapons and their control. (The unilateral decision by the US to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was negotiated with multiple countries and Iran has already contributed to such dismantlement.)

Second, Canada is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the government describes as the only remaining “legally-binding global treaty promoting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.” Under Article 6 of the NPT, each party to the treaty “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” This obligation was highlighted by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 opinion and applies to all parties to the treaty, not just the nuclear weapon states. Canada, too, is obliged to pursue and push for peaceful negotiations regarding the INF Treaty and the future of nuclear disarmament mechanisms.

What can be done? A few options for Canada

What can Canada do? A first step might be to call on the international community, especially the European Union, to collaborate in creating a new arms control regime to replace the INF Treaty. European countries are especially concerned about the potential arms race that might emerge and new missiles of the range prohibited under the treaty that could be deployed, because they are geographically caught between the two major nuclear powers.

The INF Treaty was largely a result of the massive demonstrations organized by the peace movements following the US deployment of the Pershing missile in the 1980s in Western Europe. Today, the concern about similar deployment has even led some analysts to suggest that the EU enter into a deal with Russia to replace the INF Treaty. Regardless of precisely how the EU reacts, it is an obvious partner for Canada to join in an effort to pursue diplomacy and nuclear restraint as an alternative to arms races.

INF treaty
Late US President Ronald Reagan, right, and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House, December 8, 1987.

While preparing for a recently concluded summit with the EU, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “Canada and the EU are close partners, allies, and friends” and promised to “discuss how we can work together on the most pressing global challenges.” Surely finding a way to address the dangers of renewed nuclear competition between the US and Russia should be considered a pressing global challenge.

A second step might be to follow the suggestion put out in January by over a thousand Canadians honoured by the Order of Canada, who urged Trudeau and his government to “revitalize the entire international nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament regime” and encouraged the Canadian government “to become prominent champions of such revitalization.” They also pointed out that the government “has a special responsibility to plead Canada’s interests, which include the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, with the parties to the Treaty and with the international community broadly.”

To truly pursue a world without nuclear weapons would require Canada to stop relying on nuclear weapons — those of the US, for example — for its supposed security, and more generally foreswear the idea of nuclear deterrence. It could also raise the issue of nuclear disarmament with NATO and urge other NATO allies to end the alliance’s support for nuclear weapons. Even the House of Commons Committee on National Defence called upon “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.” Such actions would bring Canada closer to the 70 countries that have signed the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (or Ban Treaty), which, as former ambassador Paul Meyer has argued on this site, is challenging Canada’s nuclear allegiances “in a way it has not experienced since the advent of the atomic age.” Perhaps the government can even sign the Ban Treaty.

An obvious argument against advocating for nuclear disarmament and signing the Ban Treaty is that it would anger the US. But Canada has, on many occasions, gone against the wishes of its southern neighbour. Moreover, the relationship between the two countries has been patently different after January 2017. Ever since he took power, Trump has been involved in a nearly continuous assault on multilateralism. The choice to distance Canada from the US has never been so justifiable.

The consequences of the US and Russian assault on the INF Treaty and the emerging nuclear arms race between these countries are grave, and pose a great and growing danger to global security. It is time to step up to help maintain the rules-based international order that the government of Canada ostensibly espouses. Doing so in combination with other concerned European countries might be a way to be less isolated.