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Nuclear non-proliferation should be a Canadian policy priority

Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson heads the Global Security and Politics Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

The future of nuclear non-proliferation rests heavily on two unfolding events and a third that is off the political radar. None gives reason for much optimism: One is the intentions of North Korea – the world's most dangerous outlier – to expand its nuclear arsenal. The second is the viability of the fledgling nuclear accord with Iran. The third is already-nuclear Pakistan. All may be more closely linked than many think. This is also an issue where Canada should step up to the plate.

Even though North Korea's recent test of a hydrogen bomb appears to have been a fizzle – it probably has not mastered the intricacies of nuclear fusion – this should not be grounds for complacency. It is still marching forward to develop its operational capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons accurately and reliably. The only real check against North Korea's reckless, unpredictable and irrational behaviour is Beijing. But, thus far, China's words of disagreement speak more loudly that its actions because Beijing still continues to believe that the status quo in North Korea is more palatable than the alternatives – regime collapse, a massive refugee crisis on its borders and/or unification of the two Koreas.

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Washington's posture of "strategic patience" vis-à-vis Pyongyang is also proving as futile as earlier negotiations to bribe the regime into good behaviour. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is reasserting his own flirting rights with Kim Jong-un just to keep everyone more on edge.

The risks of what North Korea might do are palpable not only for regional stability, but ultimately because they may prompt both South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear capability in the interest of self-defence. Neither country can be expected to rely exclusively on the U.S. for defence against an erratic nuclear attack.

Japan is now discreetly courting Russia. The Japanese have made no secret of the fact that they see Mr. Putin as a buffer of sorts in relation to China and as a constructive partner in resolving problems on the Korean peninsula and Syria. Japanese diplomats are seeking a relaxation of Western sanctions against Russia. More important, a more positive relationship with Russia might facilitate Japan's long-standing objective of regaining the disputed Northern Territories (the Kuril Islands) seized at the end of the Second World War.

The situation in Iran is more complex. There is euphoria in Western capitals that Iran has honoured its commitments to dismantle its nuclear program by filling its reactor with cement after drilling holes into its core and dismantling the bulk of its gas centrifuges. But vigilance and a careful monitoring of the accords will be necessary in the months and years ahead. If the agreement unravels, as many of Iran's neighbours and critics of the accord fear it may, that is likely to prompt a similar proliferation of nuclear states with Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the vanguard.

The lifting of sanctions, the $100-billion in funds being released and the reported dismantling of its nuclear capability to date may well usher in a new climate of good behaviour by Iran. But the scope and capacity for mischief has also increased. In the midst of the current disarray, the jockeying for dominance in the Middle East will continue unabated. Pollyanna is not in the neighbourhood and American credibility is at a low ebb.

Adding to the complexity is the role of Pakistan, which is seen by some as an aberrant conduit, along with North Korea, of nuclear technology. While Iran may be shelving its nuclear ambitions, Pakistan continues with the build-up its own nuclear arsenal and there is a real risk that this Islamic nation's nuclear weapons could one day fall into Taliban or other Islamic extremist hands.

While no one could overstate Canada's influence, nuclear non-proliferation was once a priority for Canadian foreign policy. Canada's unrivalled nuclear expertise was much in demand in earlier efforts by the international community to halt nuclear proliferation efforts around the globe.

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We were leaders, for example, in negotiations that led to the London Suppliers Agreement in the late 1970s to halt the export and transfer of nuclear materials and know-how. Our Global Partnership Program played a critical role in the denuclearization of the independent states of the former Soviet Union. The International Atomic Energy Agency looked to Canada to field its inspection teams because we had the right stuff.

It is time for us to refurbish and reassert these credentials. Given the unpredictable nature of events in Northeast Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, nuclear non-proliferation should be a major foreign policy priority for Canada again.

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