Rethinking arms control: A Canadian perspective

November 30, 2020

With a global pandemic and a still undecided U.S. election forming a dramatic backdrop, on November 6, the German Foreign Office hosted a virtual conference, “Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control.” This event, combined with an experts’ preparatory workshop on November 5, attracted approximately a thousand experts, state representatives, academics, and members of civil society. The two days were used to shine a light on the transformational capabilities of new technologies on both “old” issues of arms control, such as nuclear weapons, and new ones, including autonomous weapons and drone swarms.

The workshop participants achieved consensus on the continued importance of the pillars of arms control: transparency, trust-building, and verification. But some were not sure that the political will necessary to ensure restraint by all actors existed.

The conference itself revealed a chasm, with European countries on one side and the United States (to an extent), Russia, and China on the other. The effect of a new U.S. president on this dynamic was not clear.

What was clear was the need for some countries, including Canada, to dedicate substantial resources to achieve expertise and capacity in arms control and disarmament.


Speaking to the conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted, “If war is an ever-changing chameleon–then we need to look at arms control as a chameleon, too. We need to preserve it, strengthen it–and adapt it to our new age.” This attitude is important and welcome. However, we must recognize that adapting arms-control mechanisms to respond to emerging technologies requires a lot of proactive engagement by states, particularly middle powers. But the support of major powers is also needed and that seems lacking, at least in the short term.

Still, Maas is right to view the transformation of warfare as an incentive for all states to adapt arms-control mechanisms. Even the most powerful are not immune to the destabilizing impacts of new technologies.

“If war is an ever-changing chameleon–then we need to look at arms control as a chameleon, too. We need to preserve it, strengthen it–and adapt it to our new age.”

Alexey Arbatov, Director of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Science, noted that politicians may find that they can’t control the new technologies being developed for contemporary warfare. As many experts have noted, the technologies are being developed by private companies and not in military labs. The tech is more diffuse and more autonomous, with more actors working to modify and create more powerful versions. More actors are adopting new technologies more cheaply, while possessing less expertise.

In some countries, including China, a military-civil fusion is at the core of military strategy, with state militaries building closer relationships with domestic tech sectors and those of their allies. Elsa B. Kania, a fellow at the Centre for New American Security, has noted that China looked to the U.S. defence industry and its innovation ecosystem when developing its own strategy.

Civilian innovation is amplifying the existing challenge to control exports of commercial technologies that are dual-use, with both civilian and military functions, while not limiting commercial interests. Many components of new systems, such as drones, are freely exported as commercial technologies, garnering little attention because they seem—and for many uses are—innocuous.

However, we should not forget that the international arms-control community does have experience with dual-use technologies, particularly in relation to biological and chemical weapons. Some useful, if imperfect, tools already exist. And, crucially, new verification tools are available to states, bringing together high-quality satellite imagery, open-source data collection, and a host of other technologies that ensure that treaty obligations are being respected.

So far, governments remain slow to act on this information and generally do not do so proactively. But this response must change. As technologies proliferate and more non-state armed groups gain access to them, the threat to national and global security grows.


Let this be a wake-up call. Countries, including Canada, must strengthen their arms-control and disarmament capacities. So far, Canada has remained quiet in relevant international discussions—on autonomous weapons, for example. Canada does not appear ready or willing to come together with likeminded countries to discuss these issues and has not provided any substantial contributions to the discussions in the last several years.

But these forums are critical to ensure that regulation of new technologies stays ahead of technological advances that threaten global security and stability. For example, autonomous systems could be hacked. If they malfunction, it might be impossible to regain control of them, leading to great damage and conflict escalation.

It is true that Canada has been much more active on cyber concerns. Working with allies, it has sought to promote norms of good behaviour in cyber space. Still, some analysts have described Canada’s cyber strategy as “scattered and uncoordinated.” As far back as 2010, Paul Meyer, former Canadian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, highlighted the need for Canada to get a cyber foreign policy.

The promised 2019 “International Cyber Strategy” has not yet materialized. Josh Gold, a researcher with Citizen Lab, rightly argues that Canada needs to be more transparent about how it plans to use cyber capabilities for defence purposes. Gold points out that “increased transparency around Canadian foreign and defence policy positions could lead to improved signaling, thereby boosting trust, confidence, deterrence, and stability.” As Gold notes, Canada needs to show the same level of commitment to these processes that it often calls for at UN forums.

To address concerns on arms control and disarmament related to new technologies, Canada will need to commit more resources to relevant government departments. Canada already has highly qualified civil servants, but they need more tools and resources. Then they must be prepared to become more proactive in monitoring exports of Canadian technology and military goods. New technologies, for example, allow agencies in charge of export controls to examine how and where certain restricted goods are used.

What is lacking and is most needed is coordination among government departments, particularly Global Affairs and the Department of National Defence. The issue of autonomous weapons, for example, is likely stuck between the mandate given to the former and the preferences of the latter.

Professor Jonathan Paquin of Laval University sees Canada as a “system-affecting state” in the global order. In other words, Canada is among the “countries that cannot shape or influence the nature of the system but can have an impact on its dynamics by working in small groups within international organisations.” Canada has done precisely this in the past; consider efforts to ban landmines. Now Canada should perform a similar role by recommitting to arms control and disarmament.

Ultimately, the case for arms control and disarmament is based on humanitarian ideals and concerns. But security is also a factor. By investing in capabilities that serve international arms control and disarmament, Canada is not only meeting its global obligations, but is ensuring the security and defence of Canada itself.

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