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Reflections of a frustrated nuclear disarmer

Dinner Address to ANU/Hankuk University/Griffith University/Australia-Korea Foundation Policy Roundtable, Korean Peninsula in Crisis: What can Australia do?, Canberra, 26 March 2018

Working for nuclear disarmament, not just in North Korea but worldwide, may be just about the most important thing anyone concerned for the future of our common humanity could be doing. Not all of you here will share that view, but it has always been mine, certainly since my epiphany moment at the Hiroshima bomb site – seeing, I’ll always remember, a particular human shadow indelibly etched into a block of granite by the fiery heat of its blast – when I first visited there as a student over half a century ago, in 1964.

I have never been persuaded that the risks associated with the possession by anyone of these weapons - the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented – even begin to be outweighed by the claimed security rewards. And I have always found compelling that mantra first articulated by the Canberra Commission in 1996, emphasising that we simply had to get serious about disarmament, not just non-proliferation: So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as anyone has nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used, by accident, miscalculation, human or system error if not by deliberate design; and any such use would have potentially catastrophic consequences for life on this planet as we know it. While climate change may well be now a comparable existential threat to life on this planet, nuclear weapons can kill us a hell of a lot faster than CO2.

But as important as the enterprise is, it is also just about the most frustrating. Working for nuclear disarmament has involving very slow grinding through very hard boards. One can’t help but remember that old story about the man tasked to wait on the walls of Jerusalem to report the coming of the millennium: asked what he thought of the job, he replied ‘Well at least the work is steady.’ Moreover, the unhappy reality is that events of recent years have made the millennium seem even more distant. 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 United States and Russia are each dramatically modernising their arsenals; under their current leaders are indicating a greater willingness to use them, including for non-nuclear threat contingencies; are waning in their commitment to existing arms control measure like the INF, and are showing no inclination whatsoever to negotiate any new ones. 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 United Nations (UN) members supporting the recently negotiated Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT, or Nuclear Ban Treaty for short) – all the present nuclear armed states, and nearly all their partners and allies, are vigorously opposing even tentative first steps toward disarmament.

We all hope – as we have been debating all day – that for North Korea, at least, the summit to which the US President so impetuously and unexpectedly agreed will prove to be the so far elusive breakthrough moment. I have always believed, incorrigible optimist that I am, that a sustainable deal has been doable with Pyongyang, as ugly and indifferent to normal ethical constraints as the regime undoubtedly is, and I am reinforced in that view after two days of discussions, including with senior officials close to the Blue House, in Seoul last week.

While there is intense uncertainty and nervousness about how things will unfold in the weeks ahead, I found a clear view that Kim’s basic intentions are above all defensive rather than aggressive; that he is focused on regime survival, and knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal; and that he genuinely wants a deal. In that context, the prevailing ROK government view (and for what it’s worth, mine) is that while Kim is unlikely in the short to medium term to commit to anything more than a freeze on fissile material production and the development and testing of both weapons and delivery systems – knowing that this freeze would have to be deep, comprehensive and fully verifiable to have a chance of being accepted.

But there is also a view in the present ROK government that Kim’s ultimate agreement to full denuclearization of the North (without an accompanying impossible demand that the ROK remove itself from extended US deterrence) is not impossible in the context of the long sought conclusion of the Korean War peace treaty, normalisation of diplomatic relations, and the development over time of some genuine trust between the DPRK and its neighbours – and above all the US.

The question that has all of us on the edge of our seats is whether, if this is in fact the way North Korea’s position emerges, the US will be capable of taking yes for an answer. What, if anything, is in President Trump’s head – and will be on the day – remains a complete mystery. One can’t help but be reminded of what the speechwriter Peggy Noonan is reported to have said of President Reagan “The battle for the mind of Ronald Reagan was like the trench warfare of World War I: never have so many fought so hard for such barren terrain”.

But the trouble is that whereas Reagan had around him grounded and competent people like George Shultz and James Baker to save him from himself, Trump now has Pompeo – and most alarmingly of all for anyone who has had any dealings at all with him, as I have – John Bolton, with Defence Secretary Mattis the only remaining adult anywhere near the room. It is all too clear what is in the head John Bolton in particular about the forthcoming summit. He spelt it out the day after the announcement in his RFA interview: it should be a “brief session where Trump says: Tell me you have begun total denuclearization because we are not going to have protracted negotiations. You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else”. And that ‘something else for him is clearly a preemptive strike, which he wrote last month would be ‘perfectly legitimate’. I know John Bolton; I have worked with John Bolton; and John Bolton is no diplomat. He is a relentlessly stubborn and destructive ideologue: give-and-take negotiation is for wimps.

Looking back at all my own efforts over the last four decades to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and advance the cause of disarmament – as both Energy Minister and Foreign Minister; arguing the case against nuclear weapons at the International Court of Justice; as the implementer of Paul Keating’s Canberra Commission and Chair of Kevin Rudd’s Australia-Japan Commission, and participant in several other high-level international panels; as head of the International Crisis Group working on both the Iran and Korean Peninsula briefs; and as inaugural convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament – I can’t pretend that any of my efforts have borne much visible fruit. But I have learned a few things along the way, which I thought I might share with you.[1] Given my success strike rate, you will no doubt apply the appropriate discounts.

Emotion.The first is about the scope and limits of the power of emotion. The charge that I experienced at Hiroshima all those decades ago (and which was superbly articulated by Obama in his own path-breaking visit there in 2016), was obviously felt by many other ordinary citizens around the world during the Cold War years. It would certainly be enormously helpful, if any serious new momentum toward a nuclear weapon free world is going to be generated, to have at least some of that emotional charge replicated among publics and policymakers today.

The power of bottom-up pressure from seriously motivated publics is something with which all politicians are totally familiar. Its absence is not totally decisive – major decisions can be, and often are, made in response to peer group pressures from other elites or governments, or as a result of top-down initiatives. But its presence is hugely comforting and. at least in functioning democracies, is close to being a necessary condition if really ground-breaking change is to occur. The question, for those of us who do believe that a nuclear weapon free world would be a safer and saner one, is how to generate that bottom-up momentum in the present post-Cold War environment, where – notwithstanding periodic flurries of concern about new proliferation risks – complacency about, and indifference to, the risks posed by existing nuclear arsenals is almost universal.

As someone who has been a civil society activist as well as a government official, it pains me to admit it, but I am not sure that public minds can be newly concentrated, short of a new Cuban-style crisis developing in North Korea or elsewhere, or an actual nuclear exchange on the India sub-continent or elsewhere. While I would not for a moment suggest that the grass-roots mobilisation effort should be abandoned, and this kind of effort has certainly been encouraged by the awarding of last year’s Nobel Prize to ICAN, my own instinct is that most of the initiative and momentum for change is going to have to come top down, from key national and international leaders committed both intellectually and emotionally to change (as President Obama obviously was, but lamentably few now are), and from peer group pressure applied internationally by governments (including traditionally active middle powers like Australia) who see the status quo as unsustainable.

In this context it is important to recognise that emotion will have to play a big part. It is important not to underestimate the extent to which raw outrage at the sheer indiscriminate inhumanity of any nuclear weapons use does already play a part in real world nuclear decision making. Even the most hard-headed policymakers have to take seriously the profound normative taboo which unquestionably exists internationally against any deliberate, aggressive use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at imminent risk. Since the early 1950s – when it began to sink in that their destructive capacity really was infinitely greater than anything previously seen – such deliberate use has been seen as inconceivable by the leaders of any country thinking of itself, as civilised, and wanting to be thought so by others. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban missile crisis. Even John Foster Dulles said that if the US had used nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam or against China over Taiwan, ‘we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned’.

By itself, a continuing normative taboo won’t achieve a nuclear weapons free world. But the more it can be reinforced – the more universal a mindset can be established that these are weapons that must never be used – the harder it will be to resist movement in that direction. The practical question is what can be done now to reinforce the normative taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, not least in a global environment where both the US and Russian leadership have been doing much to undermine it. The ICJ advisory judgment in 1994 did something to advance the cause, but he most useful recent development has been the negotiation through United Nations General Assembly – albeit against the active hostility of the present nuclear armed and umbrella states – of the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Even though this has many weaknesses as an operational blueprint, it should be seen as consistent with, and not hostile to or in any way undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and with the support it has from a big majority of UN members, as adding significant formal weight to the normative taboo that is already very widely informally acknowledged.

On the subject of the impact of emotion on nuclear weapons policymaking, I cannot forebear from adding that while the whole world, including both existing nuclear armed and non-weapon states, would, rationally speaking, manifestly benefit from a strengthening of the current non-proliferation, regime – including through tougher safeguards, tougher penalties for non-compliance, a ban on fissile material production for weapons purposes, and strengthening non-treaty mechanisms like the Proliferation Security Initiative – it has been remarkably difficult, not least through the NPT review process, to get delivery on any of these measures. A visceral emotional response is at the heart of the problem. Although the nuclear-weapon states continue to be in denial about this, the basic problem is the perceived lack of serious commitment by these states to the Article VI disarmament commitments of the NPT. 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 all the nuclear armed states will continue to be regarded.

Reason.The second big thing I have learned is about the scope – and limits – of the power of reason. I don't think we can ever assume that we will get to a nuclear weapon free world through the power of emotion and moral persuasion alone. Hard-headed policymakers know perfectly well that any use of nuclear weapons would be an indefensible assault on our common humanity. Many of them quite unashamedly argue that the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent. What they need to be persuaded about are the strategicarguments against nuclear weapons: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utility in maintaining stable peace. And that keeping nuclear stockpiles – even if you don’t ever intend to use them except by way of retaliation if attacked – is not in fact a risk-free enterprise. They have to be persuaded that the benefits of nuclear weapons are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved.

It is not hard to make persuasive arguments of this kind, and I for one have tried to articulate them many times, and at much greater length than I have time for now. For example, in terms of deterring war between the major powers, while of course MAD did encourage a degree of caution in how the Soviet Union and US approached each other, no evidence has ever emerged that either side wanted at any stage to cold-bloodedly initiate war was deterred only by the existence of the other side’s nuclear arsenal. Again, as to the argument that nuclear weapons deter 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 for a start.

But what of 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? While it is true that having some nuclear weapons is an evident source of psychological and domestic comfort in these situation, the belief in their protective power is simply not objectively well-founded – and 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. Weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (for example, missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack.

Similarly, the often-heard suggestion that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is now if it had not given up its nuclear weapons in 1994 on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is misconceived. Nuclear weapons do not act as a deterrent to the kind of adventurism we have seen from Russia in Ukraine, because both sides understand that the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high. Putin knows that there would have been no more prospect of a nuclear-armed Kiev nuking Moscow than of Washington doing do. The one thing that Ukrainian nuclear weapons would have added to the mix is another huge layer of potential hazard: from all the risks of system error and human error – miscalculation, misjudgement, mistake – that are associated with the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone.

What is clear, for North Korea and everyone else, is that if the cause of disarmament is to gain momentum, the present nuclear armed states – and those who shelter beneath them – will have to be persuaded, both rationally and emotionally, that their own national security will not be prejudiced by relying not on inherently unuseable weapons of mass destruction but rather on conventional weaponry – and above all intelligent, cooperative-security focused, diplomacy. The same is true for all the stations on the way to elimination that I will mention in a moment – the ‘4 Ds’ of Doctrine, De-alerting, Deployment reductions, and Decreased numbers. In each case, those of us who want to see disarmament progress will have to make credible arguments that none of these steps will mean diminished security for anyone. It is not hard to do that rationally: the biggest hurdles will always be psychological/emotional/political.

Compromise.The third big thing I have learned in pursuing both disarmament and non-proliferation, and indeed in many other policy contexts, is never to make the best the enemy of the good. Those of us who are passionate about achieving a nuclear weapon free world have to bring some clear-eyed realism to the project. We have to make the argument for nuclear disarmament, and for a timeline in getting there, in a way that is seen as credible, not hopelessly incredible, by policymakers. And that means being very careful about how we articulate the ‘global zero’ objective, and putting all our campaign eggs in the basket of the newly minted Nuclear Ban Treaty, which is manifestly not going to get buy-in from the nuclear armed and umbrella states, now or perhaps ever.

We do have to acknowledge the reality that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on an incremental basis, building into the process a series of way-stations. The nuclear-armed states and those, like Australia, who travel with them are right to say that only a step-by-step approach can ever produce results. But we lose all credibility when we extol that approach, but then do absolutely nothing to indicate we are even contemplating taking any steps at all – which is the current reality.

There is a way forward on all of 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 as well, to some extent of verification (but these are diminishing) but above all of enforcement.

So, we urged that initial efforts be focused not on elimination but on what was described as the minimisation agenda, or I might summarise now as the ‘4 Ds’ – getting universal buy-in to No First Use (Doctrine), and giving that credibility by taking weapons off high-alert (Dealerting) and drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed (Deployment), and reducing overall numbers to around 2,000, as compared with the 15,000+ now in existence (Decreased numbers). While achieving our minimisation objective by around 2025 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 step-by-step arms control negotiations, both bilateral and multilateral, is the only path to a safer and saner nuclear world. A world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status and with every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons. It would still be very far from being perfect, and no one should even think of settling for that as the endpoint. But a world that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer one than we live in now.

The prescription not to demand absolutely optimal outcomes when reasonable ones are on the table, and to know when to take yes for an answer, applies very much to the case we have been debating all day. While denuclearisation remains the Holy Grail, it would be crazy to rule out a deep freeze half-way house if that proved doable. The West did get North Korea signed up to denuclearisation in the ‘Agreed Framework’ exercise of the mid-1990s, before it had any demonstrated nuclear-weapon making capacity, and again in 2005-6 when that capacity was not much further advanced. But we let those opportunities slip. There was fault on the North Korean side, but I think the West has to accept at least as much of the blame for not delivering our side of the bargain – including dragging our feet on normalising diplomatic relations and helping meet the country’s energy needs – in a sufficiently timely and good faith way.

Half-way houses are very often the only way forward. That was certainly the case in relation to the Iran JCPOA. I am certain – because I was engaged, when working at Crisis Group, in a back-channel process in the early 2000s – that a deal was there for the taking a decade earlier if only the West had not been so absolutist in refusing for so long to make any concessions at all on the enrichment issue.

Optimism.The remaining big thing I have learned, as relevant to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation as elsewhere in international policymaking, is the need to recognise that in geopolitics there are no eternal verities, and we must remain optimistic accordingly. Sometimes the ice gets broken in the most unexpected ways by the most unlikely of people. The classic case was Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986, when Gorbachev came armed with a breathtaking proposal to break the back of the nuclear arms - tearing down mutually assured destruction and pursuing abolition – and Reagan, who had only the most elementary grasp of nuclear strategy, didn't do detail, and relied on his gut instincts, was, equally breathtakingly, all for it. Had it not been for Reagan’s stubborn insistence on keeping his Strategic Defense Initiative (‘Star Wars’) in place as an insurance policy, there would have been agreement then and there. That didn't happen, but Reykjavik was still a major turning point, facilitating the negotiation of the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treary and deep cuts for strategic offensive forces. The ice could not be re-frozen.[2]

Whether the Kim-Trump summit will be equally productive remains to be seen. But we should live in hope. While the environment for good policymaking, both internationally and domestically, on nuclear disarmament as on much else, is about as desolate as I can ever remember, it is important to keep things in perspective. Pendulums do swing, and wheels do turn. As I have recently devoted a whole 400 page memoir to arguing, I have always believed that optimism is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible to do so without believing that what seems to be out of reach really is achievable.

So it is up to those of us who believe in both the possibility and necessity of a nuclear weapon free world, however disappointed and frustrated we may be right now, to get out there and work for it.

[1] Much of the following draws upon my recently published Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir (Melbourne University Press, 2017), pp 280-88.

[2] See Michael Krepon, ‘Trump and Kim: Shades of Reykjavik’, Arms Control Wonk, 12 March 2018.