Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Medium-Power Concern?

By Colijn, Ko | International Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Medium-Power Concern?


Colijn, Ko, International Journal


GRAND STRATEGIES TO COUNTER THE PROLIFERATION and threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are usually the domain of the world's large powers.(1) This is true despite the fact that WMD have proliferated and are possessed by many more regimes than the traditional "big countries," the US, Russia, the UK, France and China. Yet the old elite derives much of its status and influence due to its quasi-oligopolistic role in the field of research and development, production, and use of WMD in dominant military strategies and in arms control schemes. These countries are still considered the only rightful possessors of nuclear weapons, for example, according to the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The sheer dominance of the Cold War superpowers in the field of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons explains the origins of their incorporation in a global normative and operational "format" derived from the Cold War strategic context: They are seen as weapons of last resort, primarily a means of deterrence. This is especially true of nuclear weapons. They could therefore be subjected to a paradigm of arms control at minimum levels and not be used in principle against have-not countries, and their non-proliferation outside the realm of responsible applications and peaceful nations became the normative policy guideline for most of the post-World War II era. Concerns over the actual proliferation of WMD technology and, presumably, stocks of these weapons, to a host of other countries, as well as the fear of their falling into the hands of private networks, have put their role and the dangers of their proliferation and eventual use anew on the agenda.

US President George W. Bush, in his 11 February 2004 speech, left no doubt as to his view of his nation's leadership role in this respect.(2) The undisputed sole military superpower of the world assumes responsibility and legitimacy in designing and practicing new guidelines for the possession of mass destruction weapons and the control of their proliferation.

Unilateral activism and big power prerogatives in the field of WMD policies are not examined in this article, nor are they assessed as positive or negative for world stability. Rather, this article explores the residual role of nations not generally ranked as big and having "shaping power" in the field of WMD policies. In particular, it examines the cases of two medium powers, Canada and the Netherlands, in a focused comparison of their respective interests, preferences and actual scope for action in the field of global WMD policy. As vested partners in the north Atlantic alliance, they are both faced with a new degree of unilateralism on the part of the US as the alliance leader, and they both share the need to reflect on their national positions and scope for eventual independent views. Moreover, as partners, they might consider their scope for joint interests and influence in this respect.

This article focuses on the WMD issues that are debated currently in the international press and in specialized arms control publications. It also focuses on issues on which Canada and the Netherlands can be supposed to share affiliation. Their similarities are seen in the following factors:

- Both countries are members of the north Atlantic security alliance and can be called upon to respond jointly to common military threats;

- Both are liberal-democratic, open, affluent and trade-dependent industrial societies;

- Both share, more specifically, a profile as suppliers and shippers of technology to world markets which is of potential interest to groups and states suspected of seeking to acquire WMD;

- Both countries are considerably integrated into the global system and such regional subsystems as the European Union and the North-American FTA, which have brought about gains in political and economic strength but at the same time loss of autonomy and independence; and,

- Both are, despite (or indeed due to) their high level of development, open and easily penetrable countries (physically, economically, and in terms of information and communications technology) and, therefore, from a security point of view, must tolerate a high degree of interdependence and vulnerability. …

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