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

By Douglas B. Shaw, September 1, 2010

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.

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