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John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war.

The UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons is law for 61 states, and it awaits ratification in 28 more, totalling almost half the countries in the world. The first meeting of these states is scheduled to take place in Vienna later this week.

Missing, however, will be every country with a nuclear weapon. Canada, a member of NATO, will also be among those not present.

This is inconsistent with our history. Was it merely by chance that Canada opposed stationing any nuclear weapons on its soil? Was it also by chance that, after a countrywide debate in 2005, we rejected the protection of U.S. national missile defence?

It seems far likelier that Canadians take a longer view of our security, believing that the better path lies in international restraint, given the devastating power of nuclear weapons. Our first priority should be to support the United Nations when it calls for the prohibition of the most destructive weapons the world has ever known.

So why, then, have we failed to support the TPNW? Is it because of conventional thinking in a transformed world?

In a single century, the nuclear age has already passed through three phases: It began with a U.S. nuclear monopoly, which was then transformed into bilateral U.S.-Soviet deterrence, and now stands at the brink of an era of multiple superpowers. But it all began with science. A century ago, Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus at Montreal’s McGill University, before going to Manchester, Britain, where he proposed nuclear fission. There, in 1935, my father, Michael Polanyi, collaborated with another émigré scientist, Leo Szilard, and they – arrayed in deck chairs in the garden of the house “Kenmore” in Didsbury Park – speculated about the temperature of a nuclear explosion. In one telegram, Dr. Szilard had to correct their estimates: “Miscalculated temperature yesterday by taking 4 instead of 10000 [10 to power four] as exponent of 2 stop temperature obviously about thousand to ten thousand million centigrade. Kind regards, Szilard.” They had the foresight to keep the message.

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Five years later, in 1940, Dr. Szilard extracted a grant of US$5,000 from president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government for research on atomic bombs. The first two bombs were completed at a cost of US$2-billion in 1945, then dropped, without warning, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. This act of genocide killed 200,000 people.

The new weapon was then followed by a greater horror: the hydrogen-bomb, a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb. This time, in 1949, the scientists’ opinions were asked. They spoke unanimously against a crash program for the hydrogen bomb. Restraint, we learned, was possible.

But president Harry Truman rejected the scientists’ advice. Ever since, we have lived on the brink of Armageddon.

In the first phase of our nuclear age, with only a single nuclear power, stability was already in doubt. Some urged the U.S. to attack Russia before it got the bomb. In the 1948 diary of British diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, we have a record of this thinking: “Vita [Sackville-West] and I discuss after dinner whether Bertie Russell was right in stating that we should make war on Russia while we have the atomic bomb and they have not,” referring to Bertrand Russell, then Britain’s leading pacifist. “... I think it is probably true that Russia is preparing for the final battle for world mastery. But there remains a doubt. There is a chance that the danger may pass and peace can be secured by peace. To make war in defiance of that one chance is to commit a crime. Better to be wiped out by the crime of others than to preserve ourselves by committing a deliberate crime of our own.”

What followed that dinner was, as Winston Churchill put it, a peace that is “the sturdy child of terror.” But the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 threw all that in doubt.

Today, the bipolar standoff is an even more fraught multipolar one. Satellite observation shows China approaching nuclear parity with the U.S. and Russia, and so we must prepare for a world in which one superpower tries to deter two. Can three gunmen – two of them dictators, all with a strong incentive to shoot first – survive this Wild West shootout? The stakes have never been so high, since soot from nuclear war can bring nuclear winter.

The nuclear powers have responded by speaking of “modernization,” introducing a lexicon of AI, hypersonics and cyber. But the fact is, our future depends instead on the visionaries of the new treaty, blocking the path to war with clearly criminal weapons. The Vienna meeting gives us the opportunity to change course.

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