1 September 2010

Lessons of restraint: How Canada helps explain and strengthen the nonproliferation norm

Douglas B. Shaw

Shaw serves as associate dean for planning, research, and external relations and as an assistant professor of...

The world takes Canada’s non-acquisition of nuclear weapons for granted. Though Canada does not pose a breakout threat from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the course of its nuclear weapons policy is far from simple, including at least two reversals and the electoral defeat of a sitting government. A careful observation of the history of Canada’s nuclear weapons policy illuminates a better understanding of the nonproliferation norm. This author looks at Canada’s restraint from acquisition of an independent nuclear weapons capability, which is often viewed as unremarkable. But the historical record is dense and interesting, shedding light on three important questions. First, why do states seek or reject nuclear weapons? Understanding the Canadian experience may help to explain other states’ nuclear weapons acquisition behavior and support the development of more nuanced policy and international legal instruments for nonproliferation. Second, what specific behaviors constitute compliance with the nonproliferation norm, and can we shape them to promote international peace and security? The Canadian experience suggests that our understanding of nuclear weapons did not spring into existence fully formed. Third, what should NATO’s role be with regard to preventing nuclear proliferation? As security threats evolve and nuclear proliferation increases in salience among threats to NATO members, response to this threat—whether it comes from one rogue state or the instability of the NPT regime—may move higher among alliance policy priorities. The author uses Canada as an example to improve our understanding of when the nonproliferation norm matters—and how competing priorities can be integrated with nonproliferation concerns within NATO.