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Even hawks are becoming doves, writes Elizabeth Renzetti, as Ottawa is sitting out a UN conference on banning the bomb

A nuclear bomb detonates at the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia in September, 1971.

Douglas Roche does not want to be Cassandra. No one wants to be Cassandra in the field of nuclear prophecy, because the thing about Cassandra is that her terrible visions came true. The other thing about Cassandra is that no one listened to her.

Mr. Roche – who was once a member of Parliament and senator, Canada's ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations, and chair of the UN Disarmament Committee – is now 87. Over the course of several decades, and more than 20 books, the long-time disarmament advocate has been surveying the shadow that nuclear-armed states cast over the geopolitical landscape. He is not alone in thinking there's a deeper darkness settling.

"I've been in this a long time, 40 years," said Mr. Roche, during a telephone interview from his home in Edmonton. "I'm choosing these next words carefully. In my career, over many ups and downs, I've never felt as deeply concerned as I am today about the continuation and acceleration of nuclear weapons in the doctrines of the major powers."

Former Canadian parliamentarian and diplomat Douglas Roche has spent 40 years working on nuclear disarmament policy. TWITTER

Mr. Roche is one of a group of elder statesmen, all of an age where they might be expected to put their feet up, apart from the odd round of golf, who are instead fighting harder than ever for nuclear disarmament. They include such American hawks turned doves as former secretary of state George Shultz (age 96) and former secretary of defense William Perry (age 89), and 86-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the end of the Soviet Union. They watched the buildup of nuclear arsenals during the worst years of the Cold War, witnessed the failed promise of disarmament, and are trying to shake a younger generation into wakefulness.

This is a moment of profound unease, but also promise.

"Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War," Mr. Perry recently told Politico magazine, "and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger."

The dangers are on all sides and take various forms: increasing tension between the U.S. and Russia, and Russia's provocative breaching of a landmark missile treaty, with the deployment of a new cruise missile; the growing nuclear ambitions of North Korea; the worldwide modernization of nuclear arsenals; the development of smaller, tactical weapons; the stagnant disarmament process; the risk that a terrorist group will obtain a nuclear weapon; and, not least, a wild card named Donald Trump.

But here is the promise: The majority of countries in the world are fed up with foot-dragging on disarmament, and they're orchestrating an end run around the nine nuclear states. On March 27, the UN is holding a conference to negotiate a ban prohibiting the creation and possession of nuclear weapons. It's a long-sought breakthrough for the disarmament community and the countries who feel held hostage by weapons they don't possess.

For Mr. Roche, like many in the Canadian disarmament community, there's only one thing wrong with the UN talks: Canada isn't taking part. "I see this exercise in very positive terms, and it's shocking that Canada is not going to participate." Another former Canadian ambassador for disarmament, Paul Meyer, calls Canada's decision not to join the talks "pathetic."

In 2010, Parliament unanimously passed a motion to seek a way to negotiate an end to nuclear weapons. As Mr. Perry points out in his memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, this period was an "annus mirabilis" for nuclear disarmament: In 2009, Barack Obama had given a historic speech in Prague about the promise of a nuclear-free world, and not long after, he and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev negotiated the New START Treaty to reduce their arsenals; several months later, a UN Security Council resolution supporting nuclear disarmament was unanimously passed.

Since then things have gone pretty much downhill. The sound of sabres rattling can be heard around the globe, with the crucial difference that a sabre can kill only one person at a time, not millions. The question now is whether a new generation will become engaged in the struggle that their elders have been fighting for decades –whether they'll become alarmed about the devastating potential of what Henry Kissinger called "the fire of the gods." Yes, he's a nuclear dove now, too – aged 93.

The nine nuclear nations, clockwise from top left: Pakistan, Russia, India, North Korea, Britain, China, Israel, France and the United States, the world’s first nuclear power.

The nuclear states

The framework accord that governs and attempts to halt the spread of nuclear arms is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, which came into effect in 1970, and whose signatories include the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain. (Israel, India and Pakistan never signed on to the treaty, and North Korea withdrew from it in 2003.)

Among them, those countries possess some 14,900 nuclear weapons. (Precise figures are notoriously hard to come by.)

That's down from a historic Cold War high of more than 70,000 in 1986. Russia is sitting on approximately 7,000 weapons; the United States, about 6,800. And while many of those are retired, and others not actively deployed, Russia and the U.S. each have nearly 2,000 weapons ready for use – a figure that will be reduced to 1,550 each by the end of 2018, assuming the terms of the 2010 New START treaty continue to be honoured.

Yet, even as they get rid of older weapons, the U.S. and Russia, along with the other seven nuclear states, are in some stage of modernizing or expanding their arsenals.

Ideally, Article VI of the NPT is supposed to lead to an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, but in the real world that progress has been painfully slow. The last NPT review, in 2015, failed to even produce a resolution the participating countries could agree on – hence the impatience of non-nuclear countries, and their eagerness to negotiate a ban treaty at the UN. To get on with things, before it's too late.

A bomb’s explosive force is measured in kilotons, the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT; a thousand kilotons equals one megaton. Here’s a simulation from the Nukemap tool, created by science historian Alex Wellerstein, of two detonations centred on Toronto’s City Hall. On the left is the radius of destruction from a 15-kiloton device, the same yield as ‘Little Boy,’ the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. On the right is a 15-megaton yield, or the size of ‘Castle Bravo,’ the largest U.S. nuclear device ever tested. The smaller device produces a fireball (the tiny yellow circle at the centre) roughly as big as the Eaton Centre, whereas the bigger one’s fireball would stretch from St. Clair Avenue to the Toronto Islands and from Little Portugal to Leslieville. The largest circle is the thermal radiation radius, where any humans who aren’t killed immediately would suffer third-degree burns.

Arguing in defence of humanity

The countries that do not possess nuclear weapons, and are not in a security alliance such as NATO, that rewards fealty to a nuclear state, have over time grown tired of the lack of progress. Like the senior statesmen warning of impending doom, they began to feel as if they were shouting into the wind.

Then, in 2010, they were gripped by a new idea: What if they began framing nuclear conflict not as a security issue but a humanitarian one? What if they counted the costs to the people of the Earth who would be killed, and their countries devastated, by weapons they hadn't agreed to? A nuclear conflagration would not respect borders; and, as with climate change, it would disproportionately harm the poorest and most vulnerable.

In 2013 and 2014, three conferences were held on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons; dozens of advocates, including the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, testified about the potentially catastrophic outcome of such a conflict. In 2014, 127 countries signed the Humanitarian Pledge seeking an end to nuclear weapons.

Canada was not one of them.

Canada also voted against the UN resolution in October of last year that set up the ban-treaty talks that will begin in New York later this month. It was no surprise: The U.S., which opposes the talks, pressured its NATO allies into voting No, sending a letter that said "we feel efforts to negotiate an immediate ban on nuclear weapons or to delegitimize nuclear deterrence are fundamentally at odds with NATO's basic policies on deterrence and our shared security interests." Only the Netherlands, facing strong support at home for a weapons ban, went against the bloc, and abstained.

Now, Canada is refusing to participate in the upcoming ban-treaty talks. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland sidestepped the issue when asked about it by the NDP's Hélène Laverdière in the House of Commons.

"It's pathetic, and a disservice to a long tradition of Canadian activism on the file of nuclear disarmament," says Mr. Meyer, who now teaches security studies at Simon Fraser University. "Canada's tradition is engagement and dialogue rather than rejection and boycotts, which are very crude instruments in diplomacy."

In an e-mail, Global Affairs Canada spokesman Austin Jean told The Globe, "The negotiation of a nuclear-weapon ban without the participation of states that possess nuclear weapons is certain to be ineffective and will not eliminate any nuclear weapons. If anything, it may make disarmament more difficult."

Mr. Jean added that the government is forging ahead with work on a proposed pact that would restrict the possession and trade of two components necessary to make nuclear weapons: plutonium and highly enriched uranium. "Recently, Canada rallied 177 states to support a UN First Committee resolution calling for the urgent negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)," said Mr. Jean. "To this end, we are also honoured to be chairing the UN's high-level FMCT expert preparatory group."

But that treaty proposal has been under way since 1993, with little progress toward action. Using it as an excuse to not participate in the weapons-ban talks "is like a tired rerun on a sitcom," says Mr. Meyer.

Peggy Mason is even blunter. Canada's ambassador for disarmament from 1989 to 1994 now runs the Rideau Institute security think tank in Ottawa, and calls the decision "utterly outrageous."

"I headed the Canadian delegation to the [United Nations] First Committee, voting on arms control and disarmament for five years," she notes. "Never did NATO rear its head as a basis for our votes in the General Assembly. … NATO membership doesn't require us to vote with the nuclear states."

Like many veteran arms-control advocates, Ms. Mason remembers a time when nuclear security was at the forefront of the public consciousness, when every government decision on the topic was hotly debated in the press. "It just shows how things have changed in the wrong way, and how the new government is not prioritizing this to any extent."

The Doomsday Clock has been used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947 to represent the perceived danger of a catastrophic nuclear event. Shown here in 2002, it’s seven-and-a-half minutes to midnight; as of Jan. 26, 2017, it’s at two-and-a-half minutes.

A ticking clock, a silver lining

On Jan. 26 in Washington, the hands of the Doomsday Clock lurched ahead 30 seconds. They now sit at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is the closest the clock has been to a symbolic apocalypse since 1953, shortly after the U.S. and the Soviet Union first tested their hydrogen bombs.

"Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity's most pressing existential threats: nuclear weapons and climate change," said the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which oversees the clock. But the main thing that nudged the hands was the erratic behaviour of one 70-year-old man who just happened to be the new U.S. president. "The board has decided to act, in part, based on the words of a single person: Donald Trump."

Here is the counterpoint to all those golden-age doves: a golden-age hawk in the White House. Mr. Trump's statements during the presidential campaign sent shivers through arms-control wonks. He is reported to have asked a foreign-policy adviser why, if the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons, it couldn't use them. He said that Japan and South Korea "would maybe be better off … with nukes." He did not know what the nuclear triad of U.S. defence was. (For readers who are not running one of the world's two nuclear superpowers: It's the delivery system of weapons carried by submarines and bombers, and launched from the ground.)

Perhaps most disturbingly, in December, he tweeted that the U.S. "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." Then, when asked if he was concerned about starting a new arms race with Russia, he responded with a vintage Trump-ism: "Let it be an arms race."

It's unclear if anyone, including Mr. Trump, knows what Mr. Trump's nuclear policy is. Last month, speaking to Reuters, he said, "It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack." He did not elaborate on what "top of the pack" actually meant. But he's made absolutely no moves toward the kind of disarmament favoured by his presidential predecessors.

Among peace advocates, Mr. Trump is something of a cloud with a silver lining. For more than 30 years, since the huge no-nuke marches of the 1980s, the dangers posed by the world's deadliest weapons had been fading. They were out of sight, and so out of mind. But the picture of Mr. Trump in possession of the nuclear codes has suddenly brought them back into view. It has also cranked the panic dial. (That panic did not lessen when the military aide carrying the "nuclear football," who accompanies the president at all times, was pictured in selfies taken by a guest at Trump's Mar-a-Lago last resort month.) An unintended benefit of this presidency "is that it will revive fear about nuclear use, which has been dormant for years," Mr. Meyer says. "A degree of fear and public anxiety is often a strong driver for getting political action."

Mr. Trump's presidency – not to mention those football selfies has also brought to the forefront the Cold War policy of "hair-trigger alert," by which thousands of warheads can be launched in a few minutes on the president's authority, with no oversight from Congress. Earlier this year, two Democratic lawmakers, Ted Lieu and Edward Markey, cited the President's unpredictability as they introduced a bill that would require a declaration of war from Congress before a first nuclear strike could be launched.

An undated picture released from North Korea’s official news agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attending a mobile drill for ballistic rocket launches at an undisclosed location in 2016.

Fears of escalation in Asia

This global anxiety does not have its sole source in the White House, of course. The U.S. has been trying to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions for two decades, with little success. Earlier this month, North Korea launched four missiles toward China, and it is reportedly trying to develop an intercontinental missile that could reach the United States. In retaliation, the U.S. is building a highly controversial anti-missile defence system in South Korea.

The Chinese response? A stern warning that America's actions "will bring an arms race to the region." On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson turned up the heat, warning that military action against North Korea was possible if its weapons program continued to expand.

Meanwhile, Russia is upgrading its nuclear arsenal, developing new weapons, and has deployed a land-based cruise missile that could target Europe, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. When the Americans reported this violation last week, Russia's foreign ministry called it "fake news." Pakistan and India constitute another region of instability.

Even before Mr. Trump came along, the idealistic rhetoric spouted by Mr. Obama in Prague had evaporated. Under his watch, the United States committed to a modernization of its nuclear arsenal that could cost $1-trillion over 30 years – which would also provide an untold windfall to American defence contractors. Some of that modernization may involve smaller tactical weapons, highly controversial because they give the illusion of usability, and thus strike at the heart of the notion of deterrence.

And those are just the state actors: Imagine what happens if terrorists get their hands on a nuclear weapon.

William Perry already has imagined it: He outlines the scenario in his 2015 memoir, and in a video called Nuclear Nightmare DC, carried on the website of the William Perry Project, which is devoted to teaching young people about the perils of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Perry, perhaps more than anyone alive, is capable of teaching these lessons. As a young soldier in the Allied occupation army of Japan, he saw the devastation of Hiroshima. In 1962, when he was a weapons-system analyst, he was called to Washington to analyze classified photos of Soviet weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis – at which time, he says, "the world avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management." As the U.S. secretary of defense, he witnessed the building up and dismantling of nuclear arsenals.

Now he's having something of a celebrity moment, as much as a doomsday prophet can. The much-talked-about Politico profile of him was headlined, "Bill Perry is Terrified. Why Aren't You?" Mr. Perry writes in his memoir that he has, at the end of his eighth decade, rededicated his life to one "compelling, overriding objective – to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again."

Mr. Roche, the former Canadian disarmament ambassador, has also just finished a new book, his 23rd. It's called Hope Not Fear: Building Peace in a Fractured World. "Hope is better than fear," he said in our interview. "I'd be remiss to tell you I'm dancing around my apartment and everything is wonderful. But the hope I'm talking about is built on the apparatuses we already have – peacekeeping, peace-building machinery, the United Nations."

It's built on the promise that the next generation will begin to listen.

A massive column of water rises from the sea at an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946.

Banking on the sway of stigma

Ray Acheson is young, she's been listening, and the United Nations is her target. Ms. Acheson, 34, is the director of the disarmament advocacy group Reaching Critical Will, a division of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

A Toronto native, she is now based in New York, and all her energies are devoted to the nuclear-ban talks that begin on March 27. Six countries led an initiative that is finally, improbably, going to have a global hearing – Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. (South Africa is the only country to remove itself from the nuclear brink, having dismantled its weapons in 1989.) The NATO states, with the exception of the Netherlands, are not attending the negotiations, but Ms. Acheson says that a strong resolution is still possible: "The best outcome would be a strong prohibition treaty that prohibits all nuclear-weapons-related activity and makes it very clear that nuclear weapons are illegitimate and illegal."

That's the best-case scenario. But with almost all the nuclear states boycotting the talks – with the exception of China and India – a binding treaty that has everyone putting down arms is unlikely. For Ms. Acheson and other activists, though, the treaty talks will be successful if they stigmatize nuclear weapons, in the way that land mines and chemical and biological weapons were stigmatized before being outlawed. She points to Canada's leading role in banning land mines as a contrast to its non-participation now: "We elected this government based on the idea that we would go back to some of our values and beliefs in peace and justice. That they're not even willing to engage in this issue is quite shocking."

Beyond pushing politicians to take a stand, activists have learned from previous campaigns how to use divestment as a tool, and put financial pressure on funds that invest in arms manufacturers. But these days, that route is also being shortcircutied by political inaction. The problem, Ms. Acheson says, is that fund managers keep saying, "But these weapons aren't illegal."

"It's absurd," she says, "that this last remaining weapon of mass destruction is not illegal."

Perhaps, one day in the future, they will be. The talks at the UN are only the start of a lengthy process, one that will continue for years. For those who've been dreaming of that day for most of their lives, it can't come soon enough. Cassandra would tell you: The clock's ticking.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a feature writer and columnist for The Globe and Mail.