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A Nuclear Weapons Free World: An Impossible Dream?

Hiroshima Day Address prepared for (but not delivered: event Covid-cancelled) Hunter Peace Group, Newcastle, 6 August 2021

On this day 76 years ago the most indiscriminately inhumane weapon of war ever devised was dropped on the people of Hiroshima, killing up to 140,000 men women and children either outright, or from injury and illness in the weeks, months and years that followed.

I first went to Hiroshima in 1964, fifty-seven years ago, as a twenty-year old student, part of a university group, on my first ever overseas trip, and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Throughout my early years I had been vaguely conscious, like everyone else, of the shadow of nuclear war hanging over us all. But nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of standing at the epicentre of that first nuclear bomb strike, and being overwhelmed by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred here just two decades earlier.

There is one particular exhibit in the Hiroshima peace park museum I saw then, that I have never. to this day. been able to get out of my memory: a simple granite block, part of the front steps of a bank building, against which someone had been sitting when the bomb exploded early that bright sunny August meeting. Starkly visible on that stone was – and still is– the shadow of that man or woman, or maybe teenager, indelibly etched there by the crystallisation of the granite around his or her body as it was, in an instant, incinerated by that terrible blast.

I thought then of the millions of real human beings who would be vaporised, crushed, baked, boiled or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever broke out. And it seemed to me then that I had to do whatever I could, using whatever opportunity my professional career allowed me, to try to rid the world of these horrifying weapons, the most destructive and indiscriminately inhumane ever devised. That was my dream then, and it remains my dream now, as I know it is yours. But is it an impossible dream?

The Current State of Play. It certainly does not look very possible right now. At the very time that the world should be redoubling its efforts to move not just towards much stronger non-proliferation regimes, but towards complete nuclear disarmament, we seem to be no closer to that goal than we have ever been, and in fact moving in the opposite direction:

  • a massive modernization program is underway in both US and Russia, with new warheads and new methods of delivering them;
  • net weapons numbers are increasing across Asia with Pakistan, India. China and North Korea all increasing their arsenals;
  • the big nuclear arms control agreements of recent decades are either now dead in the water (like the ABM, Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies Treaties) or on life support (like New START), with no new ones in sight, although Presidents Biden and Putin did at least agree at their recent summit to start talking again;
  • the most important non-proliferation achievement of recent years, the Iran JCPOA, is on a knife edge – torn up by Trump, sought to be resurrected by Biden, but now hostage again to Iranian political developments with the election of a new hard-line president;
  • there has been a depressingly casual re-embracing by policymakers almost everywhere of all the old Cold War language about the utility of nuclear deterrence – and the absolute necessity of nuclear weapons to keep the peace, at least between the major powers;
  • there are alarming signs that the nuclear taboo which has been an important inhibitor of aggressive first use of nuclear weapons in the past, is weakening – with the Russian President talking up, in recent years, the useability of nuclear weapons, including tactical weapons, in language not heard since the Cold War years; and with the use of nuclear weapons not just for deterrence but actual warfighting back under active consideration in a number of the nuclear armed states;
  • despite all the recent efforts of global civil society and the humanitarian impact movement – the only good news we have had in recent times being the support of two thirds of United Nations members for the recently negotiated Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT, or ‘Nuclear Ban Treaty’) – all the present nuclear armed states, and nearly all their partners and allies (including Japan and Australia), are vigorously opposing even tentative first steps toward disarmament.

The Risks of Inaction. It is for all these reasons that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has now moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to midnight in the Clock’s history. It is hard to contest the argument that the present combination of nuclear risks is as serious as it has ever been. But not everyone agrees what the most serious risks are.

The nuclear-armed states and their allies and partners do acknowledge that there are risks associated with nuclear weapons. They talk constantly about the necessity of nuclear non-proliferation – the necessity to avoid the risks associated with the emergence of new nuclear armed states. And they talk constantly about the nuclear security risks associated with the acquisition of nuclear weapons or fissile material by rogue states or non-state terrorist actors.

But they constantly downplay the most immediate and real of them all: the risk of use by the present nuclear armed states of their own existing arsenals – either coldly and deliberately or, much more likely, as a result of accident or miscalculation, through system or human failure. And these are risks that can only be countered by the world’s policymakers getting serious not just about nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security, but nuclear disarmament.

The size of the world’s nuclear arsenal is still massive. Despite the big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War, and the continuing retirement or scheduling for dismantlement since by Russia and the United States of many more, there are still over 13,000 warheads still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of close to 100,000 Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs. And, as I have already said, in our own Asian region the number of weapons is not diminishing but increasing.

Around 6,300 nuclear weapons remain in the hands of Russia, 5,600 with the US, and around 1,300 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Israel and – at the margin – North Korea). A large proportion of them – nearly 4,000 – remain operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, some 2,000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each president of four to eight minutes.

These weapons may never be used coldly and deliberately to wage aggressive war, for reasons I’ll come back to. But there is a very high probability that they will, sooner or later, still be used – with catastrophic consequences not just for those immediately attacked, but for life on this planet as we know it. Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command and control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command and control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states; and given 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, it is not the quality of systems or statesmanship that has led us to avoid a nuclear weapons catastrophe for so long, but sheer dumb luck – and it is utterly wishful thinking to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity.

So what do those of us who want a safer, saner, nuclear-weapon free world actually now do? In this very difficult environment, what do we work for and what do we argue for? Can anything any of us do make any difference? Again, is nuclear disarmament really just an impossible dream?

I am acutely conscious that the way ahead is very tough. But I do believe we can make progress if we can do four things: utilize the power of emotion; utilize the power of reason; unite around a common, realistic disarmament agenda that does not make the best the enemy of the good; and, above all, stay optimistic.

Utilizing the Power of Emotion. The strong emotion that I experienced at Hiroshima all those decades ago was obviously felt by many other ordinary citizens around the world during the Cold War years. If any serious new momentum toward a nuclear weapon free world is going to be generated, we have to see at least some of that emotional charge replicated today, both bottom-up from publics -- with civil society organizations like the Hunter Peace Group playing a crucial role in this region – and top-down from government policymakers.

It is important to recognise that not just in civil society advocacy but in government advocacy, emotion will have to play a big part. It is important not to underestimate the extent to which, in real world government nuclear decision making, raw outrage at the sheer indiscriminate inhumanity of any nuclear weapons use does already play a part. 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. Even that famously hard-headed US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, during the height of the Cold War, 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’.

We can be confident that public minds will be quickly concentrated if new Cuban-style crisis developing in North Korea or elsewhere, or an actual nuclear exchange on the India sub-continent or elsewhere. But God help us all if it comes to that.

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, or should see, the status quo as unsustainable.

But I would not for one second suggest that the grass-roots mobilisation effort -- from passionate citizens’ groups around the world like the Hunter Peace Group -- should be abandoned, and this kind of effort has certainly been encouraged by the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Prize to the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was founded here in Australia – even if our totally graceless Coalition government found it impossible to acknowledge that. What you are doing is keeping the flame alive.

Utilizing the Power of Reason. As important as this effort continues to be 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 strategic arguments 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. For example, in terms of deterring war between the major powers, while of course Mutually Assured Destruction (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? The answer here is that while it is true that having some nuclear weapons is an evident source of psychological and domestic political comfort in these situations, belief in their protective power 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 that it needs nuclear weapons for its survival, whatever show it continues to put on. It already has formidable deterrent capacity with its ‘ring of fire’ artillery and rocket placements within range of Seoul. Nuclear weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use on the ROK, Japan or the US, 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. The DPRK knows that nuclear homicide means national suicide.

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 unusable weapons of mass destruction but rather on conventional weaponry – and above all intelligent, cooperative-security focused, diplomacy. 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 and political.

Uniting around a Common, Realistic Agenda. In pursuing both disarmament and non-proliferation, and indeed in many other policy contexts, it is critically important to learn the art of compromise – 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.

I know that what I will say next will make some of you a bit uncomfortable, but I have to say it. The global political reality – not just in Australia, but everywhere – is that we have to be very careful about putting all our eggs in the ‘global zero’ objective, and devoting all our campaign energy to supporting the Nuclear Ban Treaty, which none of the existing nuclear armed states, or their allies or treaty partners, are likely to join any time soon or indeed for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

While the Ban Treaty is hugely emotionally appealing, and while I totally agree we must all continue to support an outright prohibition treaty as the ultimate objective, the trouble is that the present Ban Treaty is not only not going to get buy-in from the nuclear armed and umbrella states, now or perhaps ever, but effort solely focused on it runs the risk of diverting attention from the most pressing immediate task, which is nuclear risk reduction.

The problems with the Treaty are not just political but technical: it was drafted in a hurry and is aspirational rather than practically operational in its provisions. In particular, it is very light on the crucial question of verification that’s for a competent international authority to be designated in due course by the states that are party to it. And it is completely 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 even a conceptually credible solution.

The reality is that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on an incremental step by step basis, building into the process a series of way-stations.

The way forward on all of this was mapped with some precision by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) in 2009, initiated by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. Our report argued that progress could only be made by recognising two distinct stages, first minimisation then elimination, recognising the reality that, 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 we described as the minimisation agenda, or I might summarise now as the ‘4 Ds’ – getting universal buy-in to No First Use (Doctrine) which is already supported at least by China and India, 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 in the international environment a decade ago, achieving our minimisation objective by around 2025 seemed possible, 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.

Staying Optimistic. We need to recognise that in geopolitics there are no eternal verities, that things can change, 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 Treaty and deep cuts for strategic offensive forces.

The recent Biden-Putin Summit, echoing the famous Reagan-Gorbachev statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, repeated by the leaders of Russia and China shortly thereafter, is a positive sign that some sanity may be returning after the craziness of the Trump years, but the jury is still out on just how seriously new arms control negotiations are going to be pursued by President Biden, let alone everyone else.

China has become the new bogeyman for Western policymakers, but we should not give up on it as a potentially leading force for global nuclear disarmament, given its traditional commitment to No First Use, and generally to a posture of minimal nuclear deterrence – still possessing only some 350 weapons compared to the nearly 12,000 of the US and Russia combined. In the present environment, China is not going to relinquish possession of any of its nuclear weapons any time soon. But it appears to continue to genuinely believe that nuclear weapons are militarily useable: rather, they are political weapons to deter nuclear attack and prevent nuclear blackmail. Believing that nobody needs them in large numbers, large deployments, or on hair-trigger alert, China could become a critically important voice in the global nuclear risk reduction enterprise which should be the immediate priority for nuclear campaigners. It’s going to be hard to persuade the present Australian government to walk through a potentially open door, but we must never give up exploring these opportunities.

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, wheels do turn, Presidents and Prime Ministers do change. 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 – and those of you in the next generation of policymakers – however disappointed and frustrated we may be right now, to get out there and work for it.