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Trump, Putin and the future of the Second Nuclear Age

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and former Australian Foreign Minister to Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, Jeju, Republic of Korea, 1 June 2017

The world is closer now to a catastrophic nuclear weapons exchange than it has been at any time since the height of the Cold War, the first nuclear age. That is not an alarmist view, but almost now a mainstream one. It is that adopted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in this year moving the hands of its Doomsday clock to 2 ½ minutes to midnight, the closest they have been since the mid-1950s. And it is the view of those hard-headed Cold War realists, and previous staunch defenders of nuclear weapons, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry. And it is certainly my view.

The concern has four main components:

First, even if no nuclear-armed state ever takes a deliberate decision to initiate a nuclear attack, so long as there are large numbers of nuclear weapons in existence (presently some 15,400 worldwide), and particularly so long as large numbers of these are actively operationally deployed (presently some 4,000) with a very large number of these in turn on high-alert launch status (presently some 2,000), there is a huge risk of a nuclear exchange being initiated by human or system error, accident or miscalculation.

Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command and control systems of the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; and given also what we both know, and can guess, about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, that we have survived for over seven decades without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability or great statesmanship – just sheer dumb luck. And there is no reason why that luck should continue indefinitely.

Second, the reality is that we have more nuclear-armed states than ever before. As bad as the risks were during most of the Cold War years, when there were just two opposing major nuclear powers, they have become dramatically compounded since the proliferation developments that produced India, Pakistan and Israel as new nuclear armed states, and more recently North Korea – in areas of great regional volatility, a history of violent conflict, and less sophisticated command and control systems. And of course these risks would be compounded even more dramatically were there to be further breakouts, particularly in the Middle East in response to Iran’s perceived program, or in North East Asia in response either to North Korea or a dramatic increase in Chinese overall military capability (even though Beijing is continuing to show comparative moderation in the development of its nuclear weapons arsenal).

Third, at the very time that the world should be redoubling its efforts to move towards complete nuclear disarmament, and much stronger non-proliferation regimes, we are in fact moving in the opposite direction. Despite all the efforts of global civil society and the humanitarian impact movement, with close to 150 states recently supporting the commencement of serious UN negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban treaty, all the present nuclear armed states – and nearly all their partners and allies (including, shamefully, my own country, Australia) are vigorously opposing event tentative first steps toward disarmament. The US and Russia are dramatically modernizing their arsenals, and everywhere in Asia nuclear weapons numbers are increasing, not diminishing.

Fourth, and this is the main reason the pro-disarmament atmosphere has changed so dramatically since the heady days of President Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, the world has not had the leadership on this issue that is critically necessary – the problem beginning with Russia’s President Putin, and now being dramatically compounded by the election in the United States of Donald Trump.

In the case of Putin, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 he announced his readiness to put Russian nuclear forces on alert, and since then has regularly talked up the useability of nuclear weapons in language not heard since the Cold War years. He walked away from longstanding cooperative nuclear threat reduction arrangements, boycotted the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, has ruled out any arms control concessions on tactical nuclear weapons, and Russia has for several years been seen to be not complying with the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.

More generally Putin, while his competence is not in doubt, has shown himself to be driven by instincts which are authoritarian, grievance-driven and confrontational; his domestic political support base seems to grow stronger rather than weaker the more he runs with those instincts; and his international behaviour – built on those foundations – has been ringing an increasing number of alarm bells, from Ukraine to Syria to the interference in the US Presidential election.

About the only nuclear arms limitation agreement to which Putin seems to remain committed is New START, negotiated with Obama, which has resulted in significant reductions in deployed strategic weapons. But when he proposed to incoming President Trump that the treaty be extended to 2021, he met his match: when Trump, after asking his aides what the treaty was, reportedly rebuffed him, saying it was a ‘bad deal’. This was consistent with his tweet in December saying ‘The US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability’, following this with a response to MSNBC seeking clarification: ‘Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them, and outlast them all’.

This and multiple other similarly extraordinary statements from Trump have led me to describe him in a speech to the National Press Club in Australia as ‘manifestly the most ill-informed, under-prepared, ethically-challenged and psychologically ill-equipped President in US history’. If we had occasion to be worried before about miscalculation, misjudgement, human error and human idiocy in handling of nuclear weapons, those fears are now even more real.

An article in the journal Foreign Policy three weeks ago was headed ‘South Korea is More Worried about Donald Trump than Kim Jong Un’ - and one can easily see why. I have not ranked the situation in North Korea among my main nuclear concerns, notwithstanding its obviously rapidly increasing capability. I continue to believe that Pyongyang’s overwhelming interest is in regime survival, and knows perfectly well that to be homicidal with whatever nuclear capability it now has is guaranteed to be suicidal. The only available policy response that makes any sense is containment, deterrence and keeping the door open for negotiations. Achieving a reversal of North Korea’s program will he hugely difficult, but a freezing of the present situation seems to be conceivable if cooler and more constructive heads – hopefully including now the new South Korean Government – prevail.

Similarly, I believe the fear that is regularly expressed in the media about terrorist groups obtaining and exploding a full scale fission bomb – as distinct from a dirty bomb using more readily available radioactive material – tends to be very exaggerated. Lone-wolf or small group terrorist attacks of the kind we have seen in London, Manchester and elsewhere may be almost impossible to counter, but to assemble and maintain the large team of criminal operatives, scientists and engineers necessary to acquire the components of, build and deliver such a weapon – for a long period, out of sight of the huge intelligence and law enforcement resources that are now being devoted to this threat worldwide –would be a formidably difficult undertaking.

The real nuclear problem of this age is what it has always been, the obduracy of the nuclear-armed states, and in particular the two largest of them, possessing between them well over 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons stockpiles. I am optimistic about many things, but it is hard to be anything but pessimistic about the possibility of real progress toward nuclear disarmament being made anytime soon.