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Nuclear Non-proliferation and disarmament: Getting Serious

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Quinquepartite Counter Proliferation Community Forum, Department of Defence, Canberra, 24 July 2017

The essence of what I want to say today is captured perfectly in three very simply stated conclusions of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which Paul Keating as Prime Minister and I as Foreign Minister initiated in 1996, which have been repeated in every major international report on the subject since – albeit still not fully internalised by policymakers in the nuclear weapon states and their allies:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any state retains nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used, by accident if not design; and any such use would be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

I am at one, I am sure, with everyone in this room in my belief that it is absolutely critical to maintain an effective counter-proliferation effort. But I also strongly believe that if we do not give equally serious attention to the nuclear disarmament objective we are in danger of losing the larger plot: a position which will probably put me at odds with most of you in this room – but that didn’t stop me in my ministerial past and it won’t stop me today!

So my presentation will be built around three themes. The first is that any seriously objective assessment of the security risks and rewards of nuclear weapons possession in today’s world, whatever view one takes about the Cold War years, must lead to the conclusion that the risks of such possession by any state far outweigh any rewards. The second theme is that it is critical –if for no other reason than that any new nuclear armed state cannot help but add to these risks – to maintain the effectiveness of the non-proliferation effort.

And my third theme is that it is also critical to move seriously – not just with the familiar lip-service – toward nuclear disarmament. For two big reasons – because the risks posed by existing players’ possession is no less than the risks posed by new players, and because the disarmament objective simply cannot be separated from non-proliferation. The question here is how to do this in way that is most productive – and in that context I will address the pros and cons of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty approved on 7 July by 122 states participating in the UN General Assembly-sponsored negotiating conference.

Risks and Rewards

The risks associated with nuclear weapons ought to be self-evident. Not only are they the most comprehensively destructive and indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, but any kind of significant nuclear exchange would have a horrific impact not just on the antagonists, but worldwide through the nuclear winter effect on global agriculture: a war between India and Pakistan, unhappily not unthinkable, would have just that effect if they employed just a quarter of their present combined nuclear arsenals. There are only two threats to life on this planet as we know it which international policy failure can make real. One is global warming, and the other is nuclear annihilation – and nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2.

My own starting point is that 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. That is an alarming view, but almost now a mainstream one. It is the position taken 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 also 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. There are three main grounds for concern:

First, even if no nuclear-armed state ever takes a deliberate decision to initiate a first-strike nuclear attack – and I am inclined to believe that no such state ever will - there is a huge risk of a nuclear exchange being initiated by human or system error, accident or miscalculation so long as there are very 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),

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 by others in the Middle East should Iran be perceived to be not fully back in its box, or in North East Asia in response either to North Korea or to 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. The US and Russia are each dramatically modernizing their arsenals, and under current leaders showing no inclination whatever to engage in any serious new arms control. Everywhere in Asia nuclear weapons numbers are increasing, not diminishing. And despite all the recent efforts of global civil society and the humanitarian impact movement, with two thirds of UN members supporting the newly negotiated nuclear weapons ban treaty, all the present nuclear armed states – and nearly all their partners and allies are vigorously opposing event tentative first steps toward disarmament.

The standard answer to these concerns is that while nuclear weapons possession does have its risks, they are outweighed by the rewards: that possession of nuclear weapons has deterred, and continues to deter, war between the major powers; that they will deter large-scale conventional attacks; that killing off the extended nuclear deterrence on which as many as forty US allies and partners rely is not a good idea in the present geopolitical environment; that while any actual use of nuclear weapons may well be an indefensible assault on our common humanity, the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent.

Part of the problem with such arguments, of course – of which non-proliferation specialists like yourselves should be acutely conscious – is that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If nuclear weapons are such a great stabilizer, why shouldn’t more countries have them? How do those who beat the nuclear deterrence drum with such passion and conviction counter, without transparent double standards, those smaller and more vulnerable countries who believe that they need nuclear weapons to deter potential predators?

My own strong belief – and it’s a position that does not have to depend on double standards to maintain – is that while nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution, their deterrent utility has been hugely exaggerated: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utility in maintaining stable peace. I haven’t now the time I have given elsewhere to justifying in detail my scepticism about the value of nuclear deterrence, but let me summarise, in bald outline, what I think are the four main responses that need to be made to the familiar arguments in support of nuclear deterrence.

First, as to deterring war between the major powers, there is simply no evidence that, at any stage during the Cold War years, either the Soviet Union or the United States ever wanted to cold-bloodedly initiate war, and were only constrained from doing so by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons. We know, moreover, that knowledge of the existence on the other side of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past between major powers. Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians caused leaders in the past to back down. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the historical evidence is in fact now very strong that it was not the nuclear attacks which were the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace, but the Soviet declaration of war later that same week. If one wants a plausible non-nuclear explanation for the ‘Long Peace’ since 1945, it is simply this. What has stopped, and will continue to stop, the major powers from deliberately starting wars against each other has been more than anything else a realisation – after the experience of World War II and in the light of all the rapid technological advances that followed it – that the damage that would be inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweigh, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

Second, as to the utility of nuclear weapons in deterring large-scale conventional attacks, there is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: think of the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars. The calculation evidently made in each case was that a nuclear response from the other side would be inhibited by military commanders’ understanding of the formidable practical obstacles involved in the use of these weapons, at both the tactical and strategic level, not least the damage they can cause to one’s own side and to any territory being fought over. And also inhibited by the prevailing normative taboo on the use of such weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state was not at stake.

Third, as to the apparent belief of some smaller states, like North Korea, that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention, however much a psychological comfort blanket this may be, any such belief is simply not objectively well-founded. I have been told by some Chinese analysts in a position to know that the Pyongyang leadership does not really believe this itself, whatever show it continues to put on for both international and domestic consumption. It knows that to be homicidal would be suicidal. And weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are simply not a credible deterrent. Nor are weapons of much if any deterrent use when, as is the case with North Korea and other non-major powers, they are not backed by the additional defence infrastructure (for example, missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack.

Fourth, there is the argument that America’s willingness to offer extended nuclear deterrence to its allies and partners has restrained, and will continue to restrain, proliferation. It may be true, historically, that this has been an important inhibitor in the case of Japan, Germany and others – and that this continues to be an important consideration today in keeping South Korea (where pro-nuclear weapons talk is more common) on the straight and narrow. But I remain unpersuaded that there is any continuing compelling necessity for American protection to retain a nuclear dimension. What continues to matter for all of America’s allies is extended deterrence, not extended nuclear deterrence: a credible US conventional capability to meet any threat contingency with which we might be confronted that we cannot confidently handle by ourselves, and the objective reality is that the United States has and will retain that capability for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

It all comes down to the judgment one makes in balancing the rewards of nuclear deterrence, which I would argue are largely illusory, against the reality, as I have already described it, that keeping nuclear stockpiles – even if you don’t ever intend to use them except by way of retaliation – is not remotely a risk-free enterprise. I for one wholly agree with the position that Kissinger, Shultz , Nunn and Perry have consistently taken in their seminal series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007 – that whatever role nuclear weapons may have played in the Cold War, in the present international environment the risks of any state retaining them far outweigh any possible security reward.


The whole world benefits from ensuring that further nuclear proliferation does not occur, and I for one have long argued for multiple changes to strengthen the present non-proliferation regime, with most of which I don’t think anyone here would disagree, including tougher safeguards (in particular universal embrace of the Additional Protocol), introducing meaningful penalties for Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) non-compliance, negotiating a ban on fissile material production, securing nuclear weapon-free zone protocol ratifications, bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) finally into force, and strengthening non-treaty mechanisms like the Proliferation Security Initiative.

But we all know how remarkably difficult it has been, not least through the NPT Review process, to get delivery on any of these measures.Although the nuclear-weapon states continue to be in denial about this, the basic problem, experienced by anyone who has spent any time at all in the NPT implementation and review process, is that the perceived lack of serious commitment by these states to their Article VI disarmament commitments generates endless bloody-mindedness among non-nuclear weapon states.

It might not be very rational for an army of such states to resist, at successive review conferences, doing anything to make non-proliferation compliance and enforcement provisions tougher: most of them are passionate about nuclear disarmament, and ought logically to be in favour of anything that makes a nuclear weapons free world even harder to achieve. But resist they do, because of the perception that they are the ones having to accept all the intrusive restrictions, while the weapons states accept none. The truth of the matter is that all the world hates a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear weapon states – and those which, like Australia, shelter under their umbrella – continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option but other countries’ concerns do not, that is exactly how the weapons states will continue to be regarded.

The two biggest non-proliferation problems the world currently faces are, first, holding the line on the Iran deal – against the continuing desire of President Trump and others around him to tear it up, so far curbed by such adults as there are still in the room, but still a concern; and second, responding effectively to North Korea, although this is now really a disarmament problem rather proliferation-prevention one.

The case of Iran is a no-brainer: what is there not to like about a deal which completely ended any plutonium path to a bomb; set very significant limitations, and inbuilt delays, into any enriched-uranium path to a bomb; extended any possible breakout timeline from the previously assessed two-three months to at least a year; and applied highly intrusive international monitoring and verification measures to ensure that these strictures are observed? Particularly when the only alternatives the critics have ever offered are continuing sanctions, with no likely result other than Iran’s nuclear program, such as it might be (and I’ve actually always been sceptical that actual weaponisation was ever part of Iran’s game plan) proceeding completely unhindered; or military action, which would not delay any nuclear program by more than three years or so, and would be certain to unleash a storm of retaliatory action by Iran in the region and beyond. The only thing to lament about the agreement is that it was not signed and sealed a decade earlier, as I know well – from being closely engaged with the issue and all the key players when I was President of the International Crisis Group – that it could and should have been.

North Korea remains a much tougher case. We all know the policy options are extremely limited: sanctions seem likely to continue to be unproductive; China is not willing to push the regime to its breaking point, even if it could; and preemptive military action is attractive only to the certifiably deluded. I have long believed that the only viable approach is one that combines containment, deterrence and keeping the door wide open for negotiations, without preconditions and through any mechanism, bilateral or multilateral, which seems likely to be productive. This is not likely to lead any time soon to the ultimate solution for which we all hope – the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But with so many opportunities having been wasted in the past, not just by Pyongyang but by the Western allies (as I well know, having been involved as Australian foreign minister in the mid-1990s negotiations, and having closely followed developments through the ‘noughties as head of the International Crisis Group) I think it is the best that any of us can do, has reasonable prospects of stabilizing the situation, and should be the posture adopted by all the governments represented here.


On the question of disarmament, I won’t have left you in much doubt about my conviction that that moving seriously toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth is an absolute priority on which we foot-drag at our peril. The only question for me is how to do that in a way that is most productive, and in that context we now have to evaluate the recently negotiated Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, which may or may not prove to be a game-changer.

The treaty, which will be legally binding on the parties to it, opens for signature on 20 September, and will enter into force once 50 states ratify it, is not modest in its aspirations: it seeks to ban outright the development, possession, use, threat of use, stationing or transfer of all nuclear weapons; and weapons states joining the treaty commit to their to immediate removal from operational use and time-bound destruction.

The treaty is written in a way – with more preambular paragraphs describing the principles which have energised it than there are substantive operational paragraphs – that makes clear that its aspirations are normative rather than immediately practical. It is designed to make clear that the great majority of UN member states regard nuclear weapons as morally unconscionable and want to see them completely prohibited, rather than being drafted in a way that makes it a practicable blueprint for change.

It contains a number of weaknesses in its safeguards provisions: weapons states are not likely to be encouraged to relinquish their weapons when by doing so they will be held to a higher standard than non-weapons states (including potential proliferators like Egypt and Saudi Arabia who have not committed to the strongest form of safeguards, the IAEA Additional Protocol); it is very light on the crucial question of verification – that’s for a competent international authority to be designated by the States Parties; and it is silent on the even more crucial question of enforcement, understandably enough because the issue of how to respond to a rogue state breakout in a nuclear weapons free world is one to which no-one has at the moment even a conceptually credible solution. And the provision that nuclear-armed states joining the treaty submit to a time-bound program for the complete and irreversible elimination of their stockpiles is not likely to be very attractive to those states nervous about going to zero while others still have nuclear weapons.

The reality is none of the existing nuclear armed states, or their allies or treaty partners, endorsed the draft treaty or are likely to join it any time soon, or indeed for the indefinitely foreseeable future. With the sole exceptions of the Netherlands, which voted against it, and Singapore, which abstained, none even participated in the negotiations with the object of getting the best possible text, or even just getting their concerns into the debate. I don’t think Australia or anyone else covered itself in any glory by opting out out of the process in this way.

My own preference would have been for a treaty, or treaty-making process, that – while being as clear as this one is about the ultimate destination – acknowledges the reality that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on a step-by-step basis, and builds into its present all-or-nothing fabric a series of way-stations. The nuclear-armed states and those who travel with them are right to say that only a step-by-step approach can ever produce results. But they lose all credibility when they extol that approach, but then do absolutely nothing to indicate that they are even contemplating taking any steps at all – which is the current reality.

There is a way forward on all this, and it was mapped with some precision by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which I co-chaired eight years ago with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. We argued that progress could only be made by recognising two distinct stages, first ‘minimisation’ then ‘elimination’, with some inevitable discontinuity between them, because of the reality, when it comes to moving from low numbers to zero, that there are not only psychological barriers and geopolitical barriers in the world as we can envisage it for the foreseeable future, but there are serious technical barriers of verification and enforcement as well.

So we urged that initial efforts be focused not on elimination but on what we described as the ‘minimization’ agenda – reducing overall numbers to around 2,000 (compared with the 15,000+ now in existence), getting universal buy-in to ‘No First Use’, and giving that credibility by taking weapons off high-alert and drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed. All of this we, argued was achievable over a fifteen year or so time frame with the right political will. While that seemed possible in the international environment of 2009, it unhappily looks much more elusive now. But I still believe that going back to the hard grind of arms control negotiations, both bilateral and multilateral, is the only path to a safer and saner nuclear world.

The new NWPT is not going to produce any practical, operational arms control results any time soon, but that is not to say its negotiation has been in any way counter-productive. It – and the humanitarian consequences movement from which it was born – has already generated real normative momentum, and will continue to do so. Global stigmatization, delegitimization and the will to prohibit nuclear weapons are not sufficient conditions for their elimination, but they are necessary conditions. And whether the nuclear-armed states, and those of us who like to think we are sheltering under their nuclear umbrella, like it or not, that is the mood that is out there in the rest of the world.

If we were smart we would not resist it as we have been doing, but embrace it; acknowledge that the rewards of nuclear weapons are illusory when weighed against the risks; get totally serious about the minimization agenda I have described; and participate seriously in negotiating a treaty regime which would not only facilitate that minimization process, but enable the world ultimately to move from low numbers to zero. And in doing so, quite apart from anything else, we would certainly dramatically improve our credentials in counter-proliferation – the enterprise which has brought this group together today, and in which I wish you, for all our sakes, the utmost success.