Read The Fine Print: Comparing disarmament texts, before and after Trump

What a difference a year makes, writes Paul Meyer, as he asks whether changes to the G7's official statements signal a retreat from disarmament goals. 

By: /
April 20, 2017
G7 Italy
(L-R) E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida pose for a family photo during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Given the volatility of the Trump administration, it is not surprising that many observers of American foreign policy are confused as to the impact the new president will have on the content of that policy.

With the saliency of nuclear weapon issues at present reflecting both confusion over the intentions of President Donald Trump with regard to this aspect of U.S. military force, as well as escalating tensions over North Korean strategic programs, it is important to consider authoritative policy statements that address this subject.

One useful device in this regard is to contrast foreign policy statements endorsed by the administration of Barack Obama with those on the same subject approved by the Trump administration.

A case in point is the detailed statements on nonproliferation and disarmament released by the Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers after their annual meetings.

As the communiqués issued after these sessions have been carefully vetted by the governments concerned, a close reading of them provides some insight into what influence the change of administration has had on policy content.

Last April, the G7 foreign ministers met in Hiroshima, Japan, with former Secretary of State John Kerry representing the U.S. Exactly one year later, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has assumed that role, and was present at this year’s meeting on April 10-11 in Lucca, Italy.

Of course, Tillerson replacing Kerry was not the only shuffle occurring among the participating foreign ministers — including Canada’s Chrystia Freeland replacing Stéphane Dion — but it was by far the most politically significant one, and we are on reasonably solid ground in attributing changes in the policies outlined by the G7 in Lucca as compared with Hiroshima to the advent of the Trump administration.

In the 2016 Hiroshima Declaration on Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation (a separate document that highlighted priority themes from the usual statement), ministers reaffirmed their “commitment to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in a way that promotes international stability.” The key phrase “a world without nuclear weapons” was used famously by Obama in a celebrated speech delivered in Prague in 2009, and his administration was successful in having both the G7 and NATO adopt it as an explicit goal.

This year, ministers only issued the single Statement on Non-proliferation and Disarmament, and it is a much paler version of the documents adopted at Hiroshima. In the 2017 statement, the key phrase a “world without nuclear weapons” does not appear in the prominent position it held in 2016.  

In its place there is a convoluted six-line sentence that heavily conditions the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. This goal, we are told, depends on (unspecified) “improvements in the security environment for all nations.” When the key phrase does appear much later in the statement, it is in a diluted form — instead of an unequivocal commitment “to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons” (2016), it is now rendered as “to create conditions that could allow a world without nuclear weapons” (2017). The reader has the clear impression of a backing away from this core commitment.   

The retreat from this “world without nuclear weapons” objective was already pre-figured in public comments by the newly appointed Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation at the National Security Council, Christopher Ford, who indicated in March that the Trump administration would be reviewing whether this remained a “realistic” goal.

"The reader has the clear impression of a backing away from this core commitment."

Another major departure in G7 policy is evident on the issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a landmark treaty concluded 20 years ago that prohibits all forms of nuclear weapon testing. Although widely supported, the treaty has not formally entered into force because eight states (including the U.S. and China) still have not undertaken the ratification required for this to occur. Last year the G7 stated: “We reaffirm that the early entry into force of the CTBT constitutes a key priority and…urge all states to sign and ratify the CTBT without delay and without conditions”.

This year in Italy the CTBT got short shrift. Presumably as a result of U.S. opposition, the G7 statement only urges completion by interested states of the International Monitoring System that ensures verification of the CTBT, while taking note of “the CTBT’s potential contribution to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.” A very tepid endorsement indeed of what many see as the most important multilateral arms control agreement of recent decades.

These issues of commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world and the reinforcement of the norm against nuclear testing represented by the CTBT are admittedly only two of the many issues addressed in the G7 statements (both of which include some 60 paragraphs).

These two issues however are salient ones for the international community, and ones that have been reaffirmed in successive statements by the G7 states. To have them diluted or caveated to the point of disappearance provides tangible evidence of the damaging impact of the Trump administration on the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament policies of leading Western states in the context of the G7. It remains to be seen to what extent this new lowered bar of ambition will also diminish the aims and activity of the other six states in their individual pursuit of a safer global nuclear order.

Given that all of the G7 states, including Canada, have followed the lead of their three nuclear weapon state members in boycotting the recently launched UN negotiations of a nuclear weapons ban treaty, the prospects for renewed engagement by its non-nuclear weapon state members on behalf of nuclear disarmament do not look bright.

Canada, one hopes, will not adopt the G7’s lowest common denominator position for itself and will continue to promote through its diplomacy the objective of a world without nuclear weapons and the entry into force of the CTBT. It could be helpful as well for Canada to concert with its fellow non-nuclear weapon states within the G7 (Germany, Italy and Japan) to ensure tangible progress on the nuclear disarmament aims that are in danger of being derailed by the policies of the Trump administration.