I’ve been fielding a lot of questions in the last few weeks (especially right after my defence) about my thesis and about arms control in general. The following is the “Sparknotes” version of my thesis as presented at my defence. It attempts to explain why I spent a year reading and writing about conventional arms control, and what I learned about the Canadian disarmament NGO Project Ploughshares in the process.

Many people have heard pieces of this over the years, but I find that (as with most people) I don’t always articulate well in spoken conversation, and I tend to go down rabbit trails.

The basic topic of my thesis is conventional arms control measures in Canada in the early 1990s through the work of an NGO called Project Ploughshares. I’ve come to think of my work as articulating a foundational conflict in Canadian foreign and military policy between national structures of justice and national structures of security. Generally, communities try to follow both their justice and security paradigms, since the former informs their ethics and the latter their ability to feel “safe.” Yet in the inevitable moments when the two paradigms are seen to be mutually contradictory, security almost always trumps ethics. My thesis can be read as the story of one such contradiction between justice and security in regards to Canadian arms control and military export policy, and the struggle of one NGO to propose a new security paradigm to resolve this contradiction.

But first, some important questions about why I chose my topic:

  1. Why arms control?

Because technological innovation and globalization have made the possession and proliferation of weapons international concerns. For example, a war in Syria can have an impact around the world, and a breakthrough in cyber warfare can have immediate implications for almost every community on earth. Arms control measures are going to be critically important to the global community in the 21st century and beyond.

Why conventional arms?

Because unlike weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons are necessary for domestic policing, national defence, and UN contributions. A market for conventional weapons must exist, and therefore convention arms control isn’t about eliminating the arms trade entirely, but constraining the flow and proliferation of arms and enhancing its transparency.

Why Canada in the early 1990s?

I’m Canadian, and Canada actually makes some interesting contributions to arms control initiatives and hosts some unusual debates. The early 1990s were a time of great opportunity and optimism. Global power structures were in a state of flux following the Cold War, and the UN had its first real chance to fulfill its intended purpose since the end WWII.

Why Project Ploughshares

Project Ploughshares was founded in 1976 in Waterloo, Ontario, and has been criticizing government policy on arms control, the arms industry, and global conflict resolution for 40 years. If you want to discuss arms control in Canada, Ploughshares is an essential part of that conversation. More academic and policy-oriented than the grassroots activist groups, yet not muzzled by proximity to government, Ploughshares’ advocacy is at the centre of a number of key issues.

Anatomy of a Thesis

My first chapter describes Canada’s justice paradigm, arguing that it is an evolution of the just war tradition, through the human rights and human security “turns”. My second chapter describes Canada’s security paradigm, arguing that a mix of military policy decisions and pragmatic limitations had forced Canada into a “defence trap” by the early 1990s.  This trap prevented the Canadian Defence Industrial Base (DIB or system of military procurers and commercial producers) from amending its policies or seeking a new paradigm. My third chapter describes the advocacy of Project Ploughshares in the immediate post-Cold War period, and its attempts to create a reconciliation of Canada’s justice and security paradigms. I talk about this advocacy in the context of five key events: the Gulf War, the UN Conventional Arms Register, the ARMX conventions for military goods, the 1991 bill allowing automatic weapons to be shipped from Canada (legitimizing the first direct LAV deal with Saudi Arabia), and the 1994 foreign policy and military policy reviews under the Chretien government.


Shortly after the Second World War, Canada tied its security paradigm to maintaining a robust DIB. This led, through a number of steps, to Canada’s military industry becoming export dependent, especially to the exponentially larger American military industrial complex. Before long, the “tail” of Canada’s commitments and industrial requirements was wagging the “dog” of foreign and defence policy,

Our expert dependence required a relatively flexible military export policy, which continued becoming less “restrictive” from the 1970s on, even as Canadian rhetoric regarding military exports emphasized how restrictive our policies were. Obviously, a military export policy which was meant to restrict exports to states engaged in conflict, or committing ongoing egregious human rights violations, should not have been exporting military systems to Saudi Arabia. The fact that Canada has continued to export to Saudi Arabia despite our export guidelines suggests once again that our justice paradigm (as expressed through our export guidelines) is subservient to our security paradigm (as expressed through our commitment to a viable DIB). Additionally, military production has serious economic benefits for a number of Canadian industries, and it can be argued that, when it comes to military exports, national security is simply a thin justification for the financial gain.

Project Ploughshares has argued that if Canadians truly believe in creating a global community in which international security is dependent upon the cooperation and goodwill of all communities, then the Canadian government will have to stop supporting and subsidizing Canadian military export dependence. Uncontrolled arms proliferation creates regional instability, fuels civil wars and ethnic/religious conflicts, and often leads to state repression/atrocity. In the 1990s, Canadian policy-makers wavered between calling for an end to the unrestrained arms trade (especially after the Gulf War), and doing their best to facilitate the export of Canadian military goods to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Ploughshares worked to expose the core hypocrisy of the Canadian position, and propose an alternative security policy modelled upon the ideas of common security and human security.

Why is this Thesis Important?

I’ve written before about the 2014 deal to sell $14.8 billion in Canadian-produced Light Armoured Vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The existence of this deal is proof that Canadian military export policies continue to be subservient to economic and military concerns. Basically, Canadian policy-makers still believe in the old lie that security is based upon military might, which requires military industrial capacity, which requires that industry to be able to sell around the world.

This is a fine lie if one believes that national security is primarily the result of a nation’s military might, but not if one believes that security is primarily achieved by international cooperation, conflict resolution, and collaboration.  Additionally, an export dependent military industrial policy offloads part of the cost of military production onto the nations that import the product, producing an “opportunity cost” internationally as funds that could be used for development or social purposes are instead used to subsidize military industrial capacity. Since military producers in the post-Cold War era are generally states in the industrialized north, while their buyers are generally developing states in the global south, this process also serves to siphon resources from south to north in return for weapons systems. For example, the United States has largely compensated for its oil-related trade deficit with Saudi Arabia by selling back expensive military hardware.

Our justice and security paradigms are still in conflict in 2017 Canada, and our handsome Prime Minister has done very little so far to try and reconcile the two. Recent United Nations initiatives like the Arms Trade Treaty have forced Canada to make public promises that have (so far) not been backed up by policy changes or practical action. I hope that by the end of my PhD (I’m studying the same topic), I will be able to say that I’m proud of how Canadian military export policy has adapted to the globalized world, and not still waiting for our government to take concrete action.

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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