Canadian National Security: The Nuclear Option

Jack Stebbing is a second year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario. He has served as a columnist for The General Assembly since its start in October 2017. His interests include military history, irredentism, and their impacts on modern international relations and conflicts. He can be reached at jstebbin@uwo.ca.

Donald Trump’s comments have threatened Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Collective Security, and should serve as a wake-up call to Canadians.

Since his election in 2016, Donald Trump has overturned tradition and embarked on a radically independent and frighteningly original course as President of the United States of America. On his tour of several Asian countries, the American President engaged in a Twitter feud with Kim Jong-Un after being called “old”, retaliating by calling the North Korean dictator “short and fat”. The situation with North Korea has escalated since Trump took office. Tensions reached new heights in the wake of North Korea’s successful tests of long-range delivery systems that could threaten North America, and with Trump’s subsequent response promising “fire and fury”. Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un have generally been regarded by the international community as unnecessarily inflammatory in their exchanges, but Trump’s unilateral aggression comes as an extremely concerning deviation from the careful approach of past U.S. Presidents in their interaction with North Korea because of its impact on America’s allies. As the two Western-aligned nations in North Korea’s immediate vicinity, the countries most threatened by North Korea have traditionally been South Korea and Japan. Trump further departed from tradition when he suggested that Japan and South Korea may be better off if they defended themselves “including with nukes”. By opening the discussion on increased nuclear proliferation, Trump has opened Pandora’s Box for nuclear proliferation, whether it is sanctioned by the United States or not. The push for more countries to develop nuclear weapons is a callous one that runs contrary to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and threatens the interests of all the signatories of the treaty, Canada included.

If more countries begin to develop nuclear weapons following the mixed messages and volatility from the White House, the entire framework of the non-proliferation treaty begins to fall apart and states are incentivized to develop their own nuclear weapons. The only definitive defense against a state with nuclear weapons has proven to be an equal and opposite balance of nuclear weapons against it. This promotes deterrence since any nuclear strike would invoke a nuclear response, resulting in the destruction of both the attacker and the defender. This is the basis of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). As more states acquire nuclear weapons, others may feel that the only option to increase their security is the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons. This can be seen in the Middle East in lieu of the development of nuclear weapons by Israel. With their archrival having acquired nuclear weapons, several Arab states such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria began their own nuclear programs to level the playing field. Alternatively, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan amid their rivalry also demonstrates this. History shows that nuclear proliferation begets more nuclear proliferation. If Trump gets his way and more states start developing nuclear weapons, he may end up with more than he has bargained for.

Donald Trump has explicitly stated that American military assistance to fellow NATO members is not guaranteed. Even though he has since flip-flopped his position on the matter, the very fact that such a matter was brought up is bad news for Canada. Without the United States, Canada would be virtually defenseless. With a population of over 35 million and the 10th largest economy in the world, Canada should be able to wield a well-funded and trained military to defend itself. Despite this, the Canadian Armed Forces in its entirety fields under 70 000 active personnel, in many cases relies on outdated hardware and has had its capabilities degraded by successive governments neglect. With no domestic capabilities of defending against a potential nuclear strike, Canada is entirely reliant on being within the United States’ nuclear umbrella for its protection. If Donald Trump and the United States decided tomorrow that they were not obligated to defend Canada – unlikely as it may be – any sense of Canada’s national security would collapse without America propping it up. If such a situation were to occur concurrently with a rise in nuclear proliferation, Canada would have neither the abilities to defend against a nuclear strike nor the means to develop them. In short, Canada is presently helpless without the United States, and Trump’s polemic against collective security may pose a very large threat to Canada’s national security.

Overdependence on the United States for defense has made the position of Canada precarious. Canada has long relied on the United States to keep it safe, allowing Canada to slack in its commitments to its own armed forces, with the consequences being felt today. As a member of NATO, Canada is obliged to spend 2% of its GDP on its military, but currently spends 1.2%. Additionally, $8.4 billion in defence spending has been postponed by the government of Canada until after 2030, further reducing the effective state of Canada’s military for decades to come. The current state of the Canadian military is weak, with low military spending and delayed acquisitions rendering it “fragile”. The dual threats of the spread of nuclear weapons and America withdrawing in its defense of Canada have brought the inadequacies of the Canadian military to light. Relying on American protection has caused Canada to let its military power wane to the point of near-nonexistence. At present, Canada’s self-defence is simply not self-sufficient.

Therefore, the issue posed by increased nuclear proliferation today concerns Canada greatly. The prospect of more states possessing nuclear weapon clearly threatens Canada’s already precarious defense situation, however, nuclear proliferation might also provide a solution. As discussed earlier, MAD doctrine has proven an effective defense against nuclear strikes thus far. Canada is among several countries considered to be nuclear threshold states, also referred to as possessing nuclear latency. This threshold refers to a states’ capability to rapidly produce nuclear weapons even though it has refrained from doing so thus far. If Donald Trump’s initial wishes for more nuclear powers come true, Canada would do well to shore up its own position by capitalizing on its extensive nuclear infrastructure and natural resources that mark it as possessing nuclear latency. Even if outright possession of nuclear weapons isn’t easy to stomach, the threat of being able to produce and use them could serve as a palatable substitute to counterbalance the threat of other states’ nuclear weapons.

The issue of nuclear proliferation is a worrisome one. The sheer destruction wrought by nuclear weapons should be enough to convince the entire world to dispose of them and work to ensure such weapons of mass destruction are never recreated. Evidently, this is not the case in today’s world. It should be in Canadian and indeed global interest that nuclear weapons be minimized and marginalized. However, if it becomes clear that this cannot or will not be achieved, then the possibility of developing nuclear weapons should not be ruled out. The deterrent effect of possessing nuclear weapons simply cannot be denied.