Washington

Tussling over nukes

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 21 1998
Washington

Tussling over nukes

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 21 1998

Tussling over nukes

Washington

ANDREW PHILLIPS

Joseph Martin Fischer, known to one and all as Joschka, is Europe’s most striking new politician. A onetime political firebrand from Germany’s radical ’68 generation, Fischer is a leader of the eco-fanatic Greens party. When he first took his seat in the German parliament in 1983, he denounced the body as “an unbelievable gathering of alcoholics.” He is an obsessive jogger who subsists largely on a diet of fruit. And as the foreign minister in Germany’s new left-of-centre government, he has been sticking his finger in Washington’s eye. At the United Nations last month, he pushed for quick elimination of nuclear weapons, and at a high-level NATO meeting last week he openly urged the alliance to consider renouncing its long-standing policy of being prepared to use nukes first. The Americans, who insist that NATO nuclear policy is fine just as is, were not amused.

None of that would be of much interest to Canadians if Fischer’s most visible partner in pressing for change were not their own Lloyd Axworthy.

It was Germany and Canada that embarrassed the United States at the United Nations in mid-November by leading a majority of NATO members in refusing to vote against a resolution calling for speedy talks to abolish nuclear arms.

Instead of following the U.S. lead, 12 NATO countries abstained, sending a pointed message to Washington that they don’t like current nuclear policy. The day before that vote, Axworthy and Fischer met in Bonn over breakfast to talk over their strategies—a fact noted unhappily by U.S. officials.

Fischer was the skunk at NATO’s garden party again last week when the alliance’s foreign ministers met in Brussels. It was the last major meeting before NATO celebrates its 50th anniversary next April at a summit where it plans to unveil a new “strategic concept” for the 21st century and welcome three new members—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The rule at such confabs is don’t go outside the tent by calling into question the fundamental ideas that underpin the organization. Fischer, however, did just that. He publicly called on NATO to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, arguing that the end of the Soviet threat makes it outdated. Sounds good on the face of it: these days the Russian army can barely pay its troops, let alone mount a drive to the West.

Sounds too good, in fact. U.S. officials were quick to point out that Fischer’s “no-first-use” idea would break one of the basic principles that has kept the nuclear peace for half a century. It would, they argue, undermine NATO’s military commitments and embolden rogue states that might be tempted to acquire nukes or threaten others with chemical or biological weapons. At the same time, it ignores the fact that even now Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons on alert status. Washington wants the Germans and others to shut up

about nukes and endorse its new plan to give NATO a wider global role—something the European members view with suspicion.

Where does Canada stand? Altogether too close to the Germans, as far as U.S. officials are concerned. Some Americans, in fact, worry about an emerging Ottawa-Bonn axis on the nuclear issue, with Fischer and Axworthy forming an unholy duo of doubters. And they fear that Axworthy may seize on the anti-nukes issue and turn it into yet another campaign that might end up isolating and embarrassing Washington. The first was his successful drive for an international treaty banning the manufacture and use of land mines; the second was his push this year for a strong new international criminal court. On both issues, Washington felt undercut by its supposedly closest ally.

Axworthy hasn’t taken a public stand on no-first-use, but he has

been nudging Canadian policy in that direction. When he asked the House of Commons foreign affairs committee to review nuclear policy, he pointed it towards a raft of reports by organizations that favour quick elimination of nuclear arms. In early November, U.S. officials got wind that the committee was leaning towards no-first-use, and bent as many ears as they could to express Washington’s displeasure. As it turned out, when the com'£ mittee reported to Parliament 3 last week, it walked up to the I no-first-use line without crossly ing it. Canada, it said, should 1 insist that NATO include nuclear policy in its general rethinking, and press for measures such as “de-alerting”—taking weapons off high-alert status.

That’s all popular stuff in ban-the-bomb Canada, but it ignores some key points. It implicitly paints the Americans as the bad guys, clinging to their nukes for no good reason, and downplays what they and the other nuclear powers have accomplished. How many Canadians, for example, know that the number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has already been cut by 90 per cent since the height of the Cold War? And how many know that the United States is spending literally billions of dollars of its own taxpayers’ money to dismantle and safely store nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union—$680 million this year alone? That counts for a lot more than any amount of pacifist rhetoric.

Pushing NATO hard to get rid of nuclear arms might also backfire on Canada by prompting the United States to go it alone. Canada joins any international club that will take it precisely because it gets a voice at the table with the big-time players. Every Liberal and Conservative government for 50 years has understood that. Removing nuclear weapons from NATO would give many Canadians a warm feeling, but it would end any influence Ottawa and others have over U.S. policy. That’s something Axworthy might point out to his new friend Joschka over their next breakfast. □