Canada and the Nuclear Abolition Moment

On Sunday, July 26, Steven Staples of the Rideau Institute gave a presentation to the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa on the nuclear disarmament movement.  Below is the text of his presentation, entitled “The Renaissance of the Nuclear Abolition Movement.”

Normally I come to deliver bad news – another potential war to avert, a new weapon to oppose, a new crisis to solve.  But today I am happy to be able to bring you some good news, and a challenge for us.

In May, my colleague at the Rideau Institute, Anthony Salloum, returned from meetings in New York with an important message.  He had spent a week at meetings at the United Nations (UN), preparing for a major nuclear weapons conference next year.  He has attended these meetings for the last few years – but he said this year was different.  This year there was a feeling that things were happening, that finally there was some hope to move toward real reductions in the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and dare we even say it – getting to zero!

The reason can be summed up in two words: Barack Obama.

President Obama has been talking about nuclear weapons since he was a Senator running for President.  In a speech in Berlin last July, Senator Obama said that, “this is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.  The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love.  With that wall gone, we need not stand idly by and watch the further spread of the deadly atom.  It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era.  This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.” 

Now some might have thought that there is a difference between running for the nomination, and actually being President.  But in April this year, again choosing a European city – this time Prague, to deliver a major foreign policy speech, President Obama said, “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act…. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

This is a remarkable moment. The President of the United States, advocating for a nuclear abolition.  Reminding the world, that his nation is the only nation to use a nuclear weapon.
Senator Douglas Roche, who has spent most of his more than 80 years working for the cause of nuclear disarmament, including serving many years at the UN as Canada’s Ambassador for Disarmament, describes Obama as a transformational President.  It’s not just that he is the first African-American President, remarkable in itself, but what he stands for – moving the world from a culture of war to a culture of peace.

Let me just give you an example.  Do you know which television network President Obama chose to give his first interview on after being inaugurated?  Was it CBS?  CNN?  No.  Barack Obama gave his first formal television interview as President to an Arabic cable TV network.  And in the interview, he said that when it comes to Middle East matters, “all too often the United States starts by dictating.”  He urged Muslims to judge him by his actions, pointing to the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where detainees in the U.S. war on terror are held.  He said he also would begin to implement his pledge to draw down troops in Iraq.  Obama reiterated that America was prepared to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it “unclenched its fist.”

Now some of you might be thinking that these are nice sounding words – but where’s the beef?  Well, look at who he’s appointing. Foreign policy experts applauded when Obama appointed Susan Rice, an outstanding scholar, as American Ambassador to the UN. A far cry from President Bush’s representative, John Bolton, who’s derision of all things UN crippled the organization.

But key to achieving nuclear abolition is not the Middle East, nor the UN, but dealing with Russia directly.  This is considering that 96% of the world’s 26,000 nuclear weapons are held by Russia and the United States, each with about 2000-3000 deployed and ready for use.

Obama’s strategy is to win the support of President Medvedev (and Prime Minister Putin), to reduce the stockpiles by roughly half, and then bring the other nuclear states onside.  Obama is counting on Russia to exert influence over North Korea and Iran.

Just last month, President Obama, on his first visit to Russia since taking office, and President Medvedev agreed on the basic terms of a treaty to reduce the number of warheads and missiles to the lowest levels since the early years of the cold war. The new treaty, to be finished by December, would be subject to ratification by the Senate, and could then lead to talks next year on more substantial reductions.  Obama hailed the arms agreement as an example for the world as he pursued a broader agenda aimed at countering – and eventually eliminating – the spread of nuclear weapons, a goal he hopes to make a defining legacy of his presidency.

He said, “this is an urgent issue, and one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership.  It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way.”

It’s important to recognize though, that these moments of possibility in history do not appear out of nowhere.  The political space that is allowing Obama’s opportunity to make nuclear disarmament a key part of his presidency was created by years, decades in fact, of work by nuclear abolitionists. There have been many organizations that have long worked for nuclear disarmament, even in the darkest days of the Cold War.

One such group is called Pugwash, an international organization of scientists and experts who first met in that little town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Canadian physicians, churches, women’s groups, and many, many others have all worked to make this transformational moment possible.  The movement is international.  Our organization, the Rideau Institute, serves as the secretariat for a network of more than 2000 groups around the world called Abolition 2000.

Over the past two years, a surprising array of voices from the U.S. political elite has emerged, endorsing nuclear disarmament and providing a chorus of influential support for Obama.  These voices have included such luminaries as the “gang of four”—former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, James Baker, and former secretary of defence William Perry.

Canadians Lloyd Axworthy, Roméo Dallaire and Douglas Roche have also joined over 100 other distinguished individuals in a new declaration called Global Zero, which calls for “a world without nuclear weapons.”  Signatories to the Global Zero declaration include Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan and Desmond Tutu.

Of course, Obama will be faced with challengers. The nuclear – military industrial complex will not be giving up easily the more than $110 million the U.S. spends on nuclear weapons every day.  John Bolton, the neo-conservative Republican I mentioned earlier, wrote that “Obama’s policy is risky for America and its global allies who shelter under our nuclear umbrella” and accused the President of endangering the country. 

Obama will need support, not just in the United States, but internationally as well.  Here is where our challenge lies.  Canada can regain its role as a traditional middle power by supporting the efforts of the U.S. and Russia.  For instance, Canada could become a strong advocate for a world summit on disarmament, and hold meetings in Ottawa.  We can strongly object to NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons.  We can work with other NATO middle powers and emerging countries such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa to create an international climate for nuclear disarmament.

History is unfolding all around us, and we should not let our government just watch it pass by.  I hope that you will join us in grabbing onto to this important moment, and take it as far as we can to finally rid the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons.

Tags: Nuclear abolition, Steven Staples