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Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons: Why It Matters

Presentation to Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) Side-Event, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference Preparatory Committee, Geneva, 23 April 2013

I thank NPDI for sponsoring this side event, and congratulate it for what the group has done so far – and what I hope it will do in the future – to give prominence to this central issue of nuclear doctrine. 

Reducing the role and salience of nuclear weapons in the national security strategies of the nuclear-armed states is a crucial step on any road to nuclear disarmament. This was recognized in President Obama’s seminal Prague speech in 2009 when he said that “To put an end to Cold War thinking we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same”.  It was recognized in the 2010 NPT Review Conference agreed Action 5, and Actions 7 and 8 on negative security assurances.  It has been recognized in the prominence given to the issue in every major blue ribbon commission panel and report, including being at the heart of the recommendations of my own 2009 International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (ICNND).

But for all of this recognition, it has been matched so far by very few, if any, significant moves in this direction by the nuclear armed states, or – by extension – those  who shelter under their nuclear umbrellas.   With only a few exceptions, and a few qualifications and limitations, current statements of doctrine are premised on the notion that nuclear weapons are useable in a whole variety of threat situations – and are not just sitting there as an awful warning to other nuclear armed states that there will be dreadful consequences if one of them should break the taboo and use nuclear weapons to wage aggressive war.

Only one nuclear-armed state has what might be described as gold standard doctrine, and that’s China. Sceptics will say, as they always do about doctrine, that this is just words on paper, but for what they are worth, China’s words are very strong indeed, embracing both a clear-cut No First Use (NFU) undertaking and a completely unconditional negative security assurance: as articulated in its 1995 statement (which despite subsequent internal debate, and a recent flurry of contrary speculation, appears to remain unchanged), it will “not be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances” and it will not “use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear weapon free zones at any time or under any circumstances” .[1]

None of the other NPT NWS have anything comparable, although among nuclear-armed states outside the NPT, India has embraced NFU, and Pakistan adopts a very strong NSA  (although when it comes to nuclear-armed potential adversaries, Pakistan’s enthusiasm for keeping open a military use option places it at the other end of the spectrum from NFU!)

In the case of France, as stated by President Sarkozy in 2008, while nuclear weapons would only be used “in extreme circumstances of legitimate defence”, their role was not simply to preserve France against nuclear attack but from “any aggression against [its] vital interests emanating from a State – wherever it may come from, and whatever form it might take.”

The UK states in its 2010 strategic defence and security review that it will only consider using nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of NATO allies” but remains “deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale [it] would contemplate their use”

As to the big two nuclear weapon states, Russia moved away in the early 1990s from the Soviet Union’s formal (and not widely believed at the time) NFU position, to one where it currently reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a WMD attack on it or its allies, or if the country was under conventional attack and its very existence was under threat.

The U.S. under President Obama has shown in multiple ways that it is acutely conscious of the significance of nuclear doctrine in setting the scene for serious movement towards disarmament, but so far this has been more aspirational than substantive.  The strongest statement to emerge from the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is that the U.S. would now only consider the use of nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the U.S. or its allies and partners”. The role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks (i.e. chemical, biological and conventional) had diminished and would continue to do so, but that was as far as the US was prepared to push the doctrinal envelope for  now: the U.S. was “not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons” but it “will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted”. 

ICNND pushed hard for embrace by the US and others, at the very least, of a sole purpose declaratory statement, as a way station en route to the gold standard doctrine  - so long as any nuclear weapons at all retained – of unqualified NFU... and we actually succeeded in persuading the then DPJ Japanese Government through Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada  to write to the U.S. government in 2009 saying in effect that Japan, as a beneficiary of US extended deterrence, could live with such a “sole purpose” declaration (although that position does not seem to have survived  a subsequent change of Foreign Minister, let alone election now of an LDP government).

It remains strongly my view that changes of this kind in nuclear doctrine are extremely important if we are ever to break out of the Cold War mindset to which President Obama referred, that is still so comprehensively inhibiting serious movement toward nuclear disarmament  -- which is keeping 2000 Russian and US weapons staring at each other on dangerously high alert, inhibiting another

Of course it can be argued that doctrinal positions are just that, statements of intent; that they can change overnight; and that taking potential adversaries’ doctrinal declarations at face value is a fragile basis for planning one’s national security. We hear over and again the mantra that while threat may be a function of capability plus intent, what matters for military planning purposes is capability, not whatever intent may or may not be reflected in stated doctrine.

But of course policymakers do take into account intent – as they assess it, based in part on credible assurances – on the other side: if they did not we would still be locked into the   cycle of action and reaction which led to the building of a global stockpile of 70,000 nuclear weapons at the height of the cold war.  And just as confrontational statements have a negative self-reinforcing impact so too do statements of good intent – and formal doctrinal positions that reflect that – have a positive self reinforcing impact. 

The question is what can be done in the present environment to reinforce the positives, and get all the nuclear-armed states moving down the path toward less and less reliance –  and ultimately zero reliance –   on nuclear weapons in their security strategies.

This should not be the impossibly hard sell so many people seem to think it is.  Does anyone really believe that, in the world of the 21st century, Moscow or Washington are likely at any time to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other? Does anyone really think it is conceivable that China or the U.S. would ever deliberately start a nuclear war against each other? Even for India and Pakistan, isn’t the real risk much more one of misjudgement or miscalculation in a crisis than deliberate nuclear warmongering? And even for North Korea – or Iran should it ever build nuclear weapons – does anyone really think there is more than a negligible risk of either regime initiating a nuclear attack which would result in its own certain non-nuclear incineration?

The question is really who is going to take the initiative in breaking the mould – and I think the answer is staring us in the face with the sponsors of this forum, NPDI.  Its not just a matter of continuing with NPDI’s present initiative, valuable as this unquestionably is, to encourage the NWS to put on the table comprehensive accounts of what they are actually doing to reduce the role and salience of nuclear weapons in their military postures.

I am thinking of a rather more adventurous initiative, which really could prove a major circuit-breaker,generating major self-reinforcing momentum. It is premised on three considerations.

First, that the US under the Obama administration really wanted in its NPR to move to a “sole purpose” declaration, but was inhibited from doing so by the deep reluctance of certain of its NATO allies and certain of its Asian allies, notably South Korea and Japan.

Second, that reluctance is overwhelmingly psychologically and politically, rather than objectively militarily, motivated. Even if, with a sole purpose declaration, “extended nuclear deterrence” would be confined to nuclear threat contingencies,  there would still be the mighty protection of  US “extended deterrence” – with US conventional capability amply able to deal with any conceivable chemical, biological, conventional or other threat contingency for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

Third, that NPDI is a group seven of whose ten members currently shelter under the US nuclear umbrella  (Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey)

Think of the impact it would have if NPDI members were to put out a statement saying that as their contribution to a safer and saner, less nuclear weapon reliant world, they firmly embraced the principle that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter against nuclear attack; urged the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states to formally adopt that posture; and made clear that, to the extent that they were beneficiaries of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, they would be willing to limit their protection accordingly. 

I cannot pretend I have the numbers for this one yet – and certainly don't pretend, lest anyone be in any doubt, to be speaking for the Australian government in this respect. But this is a serious proposal, which could make a very serious circuit-breaking difference, and I hope it will be taken seriously.


[1] For this and other references cited, see Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (CNND, Canberra, 2013), pp 40-49, accessible at cnnd.anu.edu.au