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Fellow Profile: Paul Meyer on International Security

January 30, 2013
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This profile of Dialogue Fellow Paul Meyer is the first in a series of in-depth articles exploring the work of Fellows at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue. More information about Ambassador Meyer can be found in his full biography and International Security Initiative web page.

By Robin Prest

Vancouver residents voted to declare the City of Vancouver a nuclear weapons-free zone on November 20, 1982.

Thirty years later, former Canadian diplomat Paul Meyer warns that the world’s attention to the nuclear threat has waned despite continued danger. To make matters worse, weaponization activity is now emerging in cyber space and outer space that could have crippling impacts for both our security and quality of life.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After approaching the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s major powers signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The implicit bargain was for “nuclear disarmament on the one side among those states that possess nuclear weapons and foreswearing the acquisition of those weapons by the others,” says Meyer.

Meyer spent 35 years with Canada’s Foreign Service before becoming a Fellow in International Security at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue and a Senior Fellow at The Simons Foundation. His diplomatic postings include successfully supporting confidence-building measures for conventional forces as part of arms control negotiations in Europe in the late 1980’s and serving as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Despite early successes, Meyer has seen increasing setbacks in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. “With the passage of time, the tendency is for nuclear weapons states to feel the NPT granted them the right to bear nuclear arms in perpetuity rather than the obligation to eliminate those arms,” Meyer says, pointing to fifteen years of stalled negotiations at the UN.

The dangers of nuclear warfare are no stranger for Meyer. As a student during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he recalls participating in “duck and cover” drills to prepare for a Soviet nuclear attack. Later, Meyer would witness in close proximity the most dangerous nuclear flair-up since the Cuban Missile crisis.

A year after Vancouver’s largely symbolic gesture to declare itself nuclear-free, East-West tensions peaked when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner that strayed into its airspace, killing all passengers. Shortly after, the world would again stare down the threat of nuclear annihilation when the Soviet Union mobilized its forces after mistaking a NATO military exercise as cover for a nuclear first strike.

Meyer was serving as a diplomat in Moscow during this time and providing a lifeline for refuseniks, citizens who were punished by the Soviet regime for attempting to emigrate abroad. The Soviet system was stagnating and the population was restive.

He remembers being close to a refusenik family and fearing for their safety after being transferred back to Canada in 1984. As fate would have it, the family successfully relocated to Washington, D.C. as the Cold War came to an end and would later meet Meyer at the airport when he arrived there for a new diplomatic post in 1992.

“We’re still very deficient as an international community at conflict prevention,” says Meyer, who recently made this same point in an appearance before Parliament’s Standing Committee on National Defense. Meyer cites Canada’s recent agreement to sell nuclear material to India as an example of how the principles of non-proliferation are increasingly ignored to the peril of our own security.

The fate of cyberspace and outer space are especially of concern due to the fragility of these environments and the inability of countries to agree upon rules for maintaining their peaceful character. In 2007, China demonstrated a potentially destabilizing new missile technology by shooting down one of its own satellites. The United States followed suit a year after. These acts broke a tacit moratorium on conducting such tests that had existed since the mid-1980s.

Such steps go further than Cold War sabre rattling between the Soviet Union and United States, says Meyer. “Even those two states, enmeshed as they were in a sharp ideological confrontation at that time, realized it was in their interest not to continue to pursue the development of such weapons. Any destructive anti-satellite weapon would create space debris which, depending on the altitude, could last for centuries.”

“While there is quite a constructive role for armed forces in supporting national and global interests, I think the emphasis needs to be placed on the peaceful settlement of disputes, and that in turn calls upon creative diplomacy, a willingness to engage in dialogue, and a cooperative imperative…[to work] with other partners in reaching a common goal,” says Meyer, pointing to the importance of multilateral engagement.

“I would like to see much greater investments of time, effort and resources in finding ways for preventing conflict.”