Australia's Role in Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament
Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) and Chair of the ANU Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND), to Kokoda Foundation’s Future Strategic Leaders Congress, ANU Coastal Campus, Kioloa NSW, 8 November 2014
Thank you to the Kokoda Foundation, and to Chris Robertson and the other organizers of this weekend gathering of young future strategic leaders, for the invitation to join you, and to talk about a subject which has been receiving much less attention from the current generation of political, military and public service policymakers than it should have been. The concept of these congresses is a brilliant one – running as they have been now for a number of years and ranging over many difficult security-related issues – and I hope that I can energize you rather more successfully than I seem able to have done with my own generation.
Moving towards a nuclear weapons free world involves very slow boring through very hard boards. There has been no public policy issue with which I have ever been associated on which it has been harder to make serious and sustained progress. The issues are complex, the technical detail is often impenetrable to the uninitiated, and by and large both policymakers and publics are – despite an occasional frisson about Iran or North Korea – complacent and indifferent.
The Risks. Yet there is no global issue on which it is more important to make progress quickly. Policy failure on climate change will also destroy life on this planet as we know it. But nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, can kill us a hell of a lot faster than CO2. The scale of the casualties that would follow any kind of significant nuclear exchange is almost incalculably horrific – not only from immediate blast and longer term irradiation effects, but also the nuclear-winter effect on global agriculture.
The risks are real, and lie in the existing stockpiles of the nuclear-armed states, the possible emergence of new nuclear-armed states, and non-state terrorist actors acquiring nuclear weapons. Of those three risks, to me those from the existing stockpiles are the most immediate and real, although constantly downplayed by the existing nuclear armed states. Despite 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 US of many more, there are some 16,300 nuclear warheads still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of over 100,000 Hiroshima or Nagasaki sized bombs –and in our own Asian region the number of weapons is not diminishing but increasing, with China, India and Pakistan all with active programs.
Around 8,000 of them are in the hands of the Russia, 7,300 with the US, and around 1,000 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and – at the margin – North Korea). A large proportion of all these weapons – some 4,000 - remain operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, over 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.
The key point is that we have been much closer to catastrophe in the past, and are now, than most people know. Over the years, communications satellite launches have been mistaken for nuclear missile launches; demonstration tapes of incoming missiles have been confused for the real thing; military exercises have been mistaken for real mobilizations; technical glitches have triggered real-time alerts; live nuclear weapons have been flown by mistake around the US without anyone noticing until the plane returned to base; and one hydrogen bomb-carrying plane actually crashed in the US, with every defensive mechanism preventing an explosion failing, except one cockpit switch.
My favourite single example is the Cuban missile crisis, when we now know, as we did not for many years, that we escaped World War III on the 2-1 vote of the three senior officers of a Russian submarine. Losing communications with Moscow after coming too close to a depth charge from a US ship blockading Cuban waters, and not knowing whether war had broken out or not, the commander had to decide whether to launch his nuclear torpedo or not – and, overwhelmed by the responsibility, put it to a vote!
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 utterly wishful thinking to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity. That we have survived for 69 years without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability but sheer dumb luck.
The State of Play. We have always known that the road to the abolition of nuclear weapons will be long, winding and extremely difficult to travel: just how long and hard is well documented in the report prepared by ANU’s CNND, Nuclear Weapons: the State of Play 2013, an updated edition of which is now in preparation.
All the present nuclear-armed states – including the five who, as members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, are committed to ultimate nuclear disarmament – pay at best only lip-service to that objective. None of the nuclear-armed states has committed to any specific timetable for the major reduction of stockpiles – let alone their abolition. And on the evidence of the size of their weapons arsenals, their fissile material stocks, their force modernization plans, their stated doctrine and their known deployment practices, we have to conclude that all of them foresee indefinite retention of nuclear weapons, and a continuing role for them in their security policies.
What makes things worse is that, notwithstanding all the high hopes we held following the election of President Obama -- who made it so clear in his April 2009 speech that he was both intellectually and emotionally committed to nuclear abolition, and who leads with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, the most pro-nuclear disarmament United States team it is possible to imagine – we seem in recent years to have been going backwards rather than forwards.
Since the negotiation of the New START treaty – which was and remains a real achievement, at least in reducing the number of strategic weapons deployed by the US and Russia – the Obama administration has been reduced to almost complete impotence by a combination of Congressional hostility; corrosive inter-agency processes; pressure from East Asian and East and Central European allies not wanting any diminution of the role of nuclear weapons in the protection of their own perceived security interests; a willingness to give undue weight to preserving P5 solidarity at the expense of principle, for example in their boycott of the Oslo and Nayarit Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons; and now by Russian hostility – given a whole new lease of life by the continuing Ukraine crisis – to giving any further ground at all in bilateral arms control negotiations.
And these are not the only grounds for gloom. Across Asia, as already noted, nuclear stockpiles are growing, not diminishing; neither the Six-Party talks process, nor anything else, has done anything to curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations; there is continuing uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear program; there has been no movement on the Middle East WMD Free Zone issue, which will be crucial, as it has been in the past, to next year’s NPT Review Conference holding together; there has been continuing complete paralysis of the Conference on Disarmament on the Fissile Material Treaty issue; and a continuing inability to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified into effect. Against all that, about the only positive achievement has been the modest success of the Washington, Seoul and Hague Nuclear Security Summits in generating some consensus about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons and fissile material don’t get into the wrong hands. .
The Policy Challenge for the World. The challenge for policymakers was stated in the Canberra Commission report in three succinct lines, has been repeated in every major report since, including the Blix Commission and ICNND, and is as relevant today as it was three decades ago: So long as any state retains nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used – if not by design, then by human error, system error, miscalculation or misjudgement. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.
If we are to get serious about meeting this policy challenge, there are three big baskets of issues which have to be addressed, and addressed simultaneously because of the inter-related nature of the issues. In the 2009 report of the Australia-Japan initiated International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers, the necessary agenda was set out in great detail but its main elements can be succinctly stated.
At the base level, we have to get serious about nuclear security, to ensure that existing weapons and fissile material do not fall into the wrong hands. This should be the easiest of all nuclear policy issues to advance, because nobody is actually against it, either in principle or in practice. But we still need to do better than the orgy of self-congratulation following the Washington, Seoul and Hague Summits might make one believe we have done so far. There is now plenty of international regulatory architecture, and plenty of announced national implementation measures. But there is still not enough transparency or accountability for anyone to be really confident that enough is actually changing on the ground. And it won’t help that Russia this week announced that it will not attend next year’s Chicago Summit – meant to be the grand finale of the nuclear security summit process.
Moving higher up the mountain, we of course have to stay serious, as most of the world already is, about nuclear non-proliferation – including trying to find negotiated solutions to the problem of Iran and North Korea, and continuing to try to strengthen critical elements of the non-proliferation regime, including introducing meaningful penalties for NPT non-compliance or withdrawal, tougher safeguards including universal embrace of the Additional Protocol. Also important here are bringing the CTBT into force, negotiating a ban on fissile material production cut-off treaty, securing NWFZ protocol ratifications, and strengthening non-treaty mechanisms like the Proliferation Security Initiative.
And then, above all, we have to get serious about tackling the top of the mountain - taking serious, credible steps toward disarmament, both for its own sake, and to strengthen the hand of those arguing for a tougher non-proliferation regime.
…and Australia. In all of these policy enterprises there is an important role for middle power states like Australia, not least because of the visibility, and to some extent leverage, we have as an unequivocal ally of the United States.
Australia’s contribution to the global movement against nuclear weapons over the years has been better than most, but not always what it could and should have been, particularly on the central issue of disarmament. What I find most depressing is how much of Australia’s commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons has waxed and waned with changes of government – this ought to be a completely bipartisan issue, but it has not been.
I don't challenge the sincerity of our commitment to nuclear security, but we could be doing more to advocate for stronger transparency and accountability in the relevant treaty regimes.
On non-proliferation it’s also true that both sides of politics have long been forceful advocates for a stronger non-proliferation regime in all the ways I have mentioned (with the Howard Government, I readily acknowledge, playing an important role in bringing the CTBT to final conclusion in 1996), and both sides of politics supporting the PSI, and other initiatives like the NPDI (Non-Proliferation and Disarmament) coalition of like-minded countries, which is at least making the right kind of noises even if not doing much of practical substance.
All that said, Australia is now at some risk of blotting its non-proliferation copy-book over the issue of nuclear transfers to India, by being prepared to accept not only the basic principle of allowing uranium and other sales to a non-NPT state (about which I agree we did not have much choice after the US and others sold the pass) but apparently also a very soft safeguards regime, which will not ensure that Australian supplied material is confined to civilian use.
I am also concerned, on the non-proliferation front, when it comes to negotiating a solution to to the Iran issue that – seeing the issue through a US alliance issue as we usually do – we may not be as prepared to take yes for an answer as we should be. As someone involved in the North Korean Agreed Framework negotiations in the 1990s, I don't think we should put all the blame for the breakdown of that arrangement on the other side; and as someone who has had more contacts with Iranian policymakers than most Westerners over the last decade, I don’t think we should set the bar for an agreement as impossibly high as the US Congress and Israel is likely to demand
On nuclear disarmament, there are obvious limits to the influence any non nuclear-armed state can have, but I am concerned that – here as elsewhere in our foreign policy – we have too often been too quick to accept those weight limits, and to succumb to what Peter Hartcher in his just published Lowy Paper, calls “the pathology of parochialism”.
- I don't think that Australia was over-reaching when, under the Keating Government, we initiated the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which with a formidable cast of international characters (including Robert McNamara and the former head of the US Strategic Air Command Gen Lee Butler) first made a strong intellectual case for a nuclear weapons free world; but I do think we under-reached when the incoming Howard Government retreated from the report and the international middle-power initiatives it spawned.
- I don't think Australia was over-reaching when the Rudd Government joined with the Fukuda Government in Japan to initiate the ICNND, which produced a far-reaching but very realistic blue print for getting to a nuclear weapon free world, but I do think we have under-reached in refusing to endorse, under the Abbott Government, the New Zealand-initiated humanitarian consequences statement because it includes express language like “The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination”
- I don't think Australia would be over-reaching if we made less central to our position the Abbott Government line that we ‘must engage, not enrage nuclear countries’, and the perfectly fair point that nuclear weapons elimination is going to have to be a step-by-step process, with the reduction of tension and hostility between nuclear-armed states one of the necessary real world conditions for that happening –and made more central the argument that steps toward disarmament should not await efforts to improve global and regional security, but proceed in tandem with them.
- And I don't think Australia would be over-reaching, acting above its pay-grade, if it used it’s position as a key US ally to play a leadership role in changing nuclear doctrine to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policy: a point I’ll come back to.
The Disarmament Policy Agenda. In my remaining remarks I want to tunnel in more specifically on what both Australia, and the whole world, should be doing so far as the global disarmament agenda is concerned. It’s a bigger and harder issue to wrestle with than non-proliferation and nuclear security, and it needs more than the purely rhetorical, and largely dismissive, attention it gets from global policymakers.
How should we be exercising, individually or collectively, whatever influence we politicians, public servants, academics and NGOs and civil society members might have? What is a realistic – or at least not totally unrealistic – global disarmament agenda to be advocating in the present environment? How can we work our way back to a situation in which a nuclear weapon free world is a genuinely shared objective of all the NPT parties, and indeed the outlier states as well?
I think there are five broad strategies which we need to pursue in this respect, which I’ll spell out as succinctly as I can.
First, we have to, in all our writing and speaking, make not just the emotional but intellectual case for abolition – to challenge head-on the Cold War mindset which is still so extraordinarily evident among so many policymakers. Old habits of thought about nuclear weapons, and nuclear deterrence in particular, die hard. Too often the only focus is on capability, not the much more positive story about intent – the extreme unlikelihood that any state will deliberately initiate a nuclear war. Too often the only scenarios that matter are the absolute worst-case ones, not those bearing any relationship to real world probability. Too often the only language of analysis is arithmetical, and not remotely ethical.
In breaking out of that Cold War mindset, the necessary starting point is to challenge, intellectually, the assumptions on which it is based. The arguments for the elimination of nuclear weapons – humanitarian, financial, and above all strategic – must be made, and remade over and again, if basic attitudes are to begin to change. In bald summary, the strategic arguments are:
One, that nuclear deterrence is at best of highly dubious utility, and at worst of zero utility, in maintaining stable peace: that because of the obvious risks associated with their deliberate use anywhere at any time, and the almost universally accepted taboo on such use, nuclear weapons are simply not the deterrent or strategic stabiliser they may seem, whether the context is deterring war between the major powers, deterring large-scale conventional attack, deterring chemical or biological weapons attacks or deterring nuclear terrorism.
Two, that they encourage proliferation more than they restrain it, because – to repeat the Canberra Commission mantra – so long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them.
Three, that whatever may have been the case in the past, in the world of the 21st century – with multiple nuclear weapons powers, several with extremely fragile command and control systems, the risks of retaining them outweighs any conceivable benefits.
This all means, among other things, not letting go unchallenged the line, which we have been hearing from pro-nuclear weapons advocates over the last year, 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. Nuclear weapons do not act as a deterrent to the kind of adventurism we have seen in Ukraine, because both sides understand that the risks associated with their deliberate use are simply too high. Putin knows that even if he drives his tanks into Donetsk, there would be 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 today’s 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.
Second, 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, I think, being very careful about how we articulate the “Global Zero” objective, however passionate we may be – as indeed I am – about ultimately achieving a totally nuclear weapons free world. We have to frankly recognise that we will not get to zero as a straight-line process, and we certainly won’t get to it by anything like 2030. There will need to be, as the ICNND argued, two distinct stages, first “minimization” 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 serious technical barriers – of verification and enforcement – as well.
Getting to zero will be impossible without every state being confident that every other is complying, that any violation of the prohibition is readily detected, and that any breakout is controllable. Those conditions do not exist at the moment, although important work is being done on verification by the UK, Norway and U.S. and this part of the problem may well be solved over the next decade or so. Enforcement, however, will continue to be a major stumbling block for the foreseeable future, with the Security Council’s credibility on this issue manifestly at odds with the retention of veto powers by the Permanent Five.
By all means let us argue for work to be done on a draft Nuclear Weapons Convention to identify and find solutions to these various problems. But don't let’s pretend that we’re ready in this area for a “campaign treaty” like the Ottawa or Oslo Conventions on land mines or cluster bombs: we’re just not technically there – not nearly there – and pretending that we are is a turn-off, not a turn-on, for the states which we have to persuade.
The ICNND took the view that a target date of 2025 could be set for the achievement of a minimization objective. This would involve reducing the global stockpile of all existing warheads – now over 16,000 – to no more than 2,000 (a maximum of 500 each for the U.S. and Russia and 1,000 for the other nuclear-armed states combined), with all states being committed by then to “No First Use” – and with these doctrinal declarations being given real credibility by dramatically reduced weapons deployments and launch-readiness. That target date was optimistic when we set it in 2009, and is looking even more optimistic now. But it is not wholly unrealistic provided some serious momentum can start to build soon.
Third, we have to focus hard on getting some movement, somewhere, on numbers. Of course Australia’s voice will have limited impact on this issue, but it should still be heard. The obvious place to start on numerical reductions has always been bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia – because on any view they each have so many weapons to spare, way above even the most neurotic view as to what constitutes for each a credible minimum deterrent. But such negotiations are obviously for the time being at a dead-end. And it would be Quixotic to imagine any bilateral negotiation between the US and China being more productive given the scale of the current imbalance between them, and the extent to which China’s stated concerns about US ballistic missile defence and new generation conventional strike capability mirror those of Russia.
A lack of movement from China will also make it difficult to persuade India to reduce or even freeze its stockpile. Although, if rationality were ever to play a role in these matters, which of course it does not, there is every reason for India and Pakistan to call a halt to the nuclear arms race in which they are engaged and to freeze their present stockpiles at their present relatively evenly balanced, and perfectly credible levels.
If bilateral and multilateral arms reductions are going nowhere for now, the only way of getting reductions in numbers is going to be unilateral. The smart place to start, and one that might conceivably even be domestically politically saleable, would be for the US to wave goodbye to the land-based component of its triad, which is wildly expensive to maintain in an environment where there are huge budgetary imperatives to massively cut expenditure (not least to maintain the operational credibility of the rest of the US defence machine), and which as even the nuclear hawks acknowledge, is far more vulnerable to attack than the sea or air-based components.
The UK could also make a significant contribution both to the disarmament cause and its own budget by downsizing its Trident-carrying submarine fleet. Of course that does mean no more Continuous At-Sea Deterrence, but are there any circumstances in which the UK would ever be likely to need that capability? British policymakers have not been very articulate or persuasive in arguing for that need, and despite the caution which continues to prevail about any reduction in UK capability, it is very important, in the context of building momentum for disarmament worldwide, to keep that option alive.
Fourth, and this is where Australia could probably make the biggest contribution to the global disarmament debate, is to start a serious movement to reduce reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This issue goes to the very heart of the question as to whether we are really serious about nuclear disarmament. If we are not serious about doing what we can to reduce the role or salience of nuclear weapons in our own national security policies, then we should stop pretending that we are really serious about ultimately achieving a world without nuclear weapons.
I strongly believe that those of us U.S. allies, including Australia, who are presently sheltering – or believing that we are sheltering – under the US nuclear umbrella, should be prepared to make clear our acceptance of a much reduced role for nuclear weapons in our protection. So long as any nuclear weapons continue to exist, it is not unreasonable for us to want to be able to rely on U.S. nuclear protection for nuclear threat contingencies. Although I personally believe, as I have already indicated, that the arguments for the utility of nuclear deterrence have been grossly exaggerated, I have to acknowledge that there is some psychological comfort involved in being able to retaliate in kind against nuclear attack, and that, for Japan and South Korea particularly, the continued availability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to defend against nuclear threat contingencies has been politically important in stilling those voices who would like to see each country develop a nuclear weapons capability of its own.
But when it comes to non-nuclear threat contingencies, whether they involve chemical or biological or conventional or cyber weapons, surely it is time for us all to step back. We know that, with the U.S. help on which we can all reasonably rely, we have the capacity for the indefinitely foreseeable future to deal with any such contingency, however severe, through the application of conventional military force. And we should now all say so, in so many words. Because so long as we continue to insist that the nuclear option be kept open for a variety of non-nuclear threat contingencies, notwithstanding our collective capacity to deal with them by non-nuclear means, we are contributing absolutely nothing but rhetoric to the achievement of a nuclear-free world. Extended deterrence does not have to mean extended nuclear deterrence.
The Obama administration has wanted its Asian and European allies to down the path of accepting a declaration by it that the ‘sole purpose’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, not any other kind. This formulation does not go quite as far as a ‘No First Use’ declaration, but is a long way down that path, and as such would be an extremely important doctrinal shift, and a crucial way-station on the road to nuclear abolition. In the context of the lead-up to its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the then Labor Government in Australia indicated it could live with a ‘sole purpose’ formulation, and in Japan the then DPJ Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also dipped at least a toe in that water in a 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, saying that ‘While the Japanese Government places trust and importance on your government’s extended nuclear deterrence, this does not mean that the Japanese Government demands a policy of your government which conflicts with the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’.
But any such move was halted by the resistance of South Korea, led by its military, and a number of Washington’s NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe. The 2010 NPR ends up saying no more on the subject than that while the U.S. is ‘not prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons… [it] will work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted’. And nothing has happened since, other than the recent adventurism of Russia in Ukraine no doubt making it harder than ever to persuade Central and Eastern Europeans that they can live comfortably with less nuclear protection, and recent heightened tensions with China and North Korea in this region no doubt having a similar effect in Japan.
I know it is easier, psychologically and politically, for Australia, as compared with others who live in more troublesome neighbourhoods, to play a leadership role in this respect. This has not been an easy issue for Japan to deal with, torn between the horror of its 1945 experience and its passion for nuclear protection, but a more robust commitment to really leading the way on nuclear disarmament – not just through general rhetoric but by adopting specific path-breaking policies – would I believe pay it real dividends. And so would a similar policy choice by South Korea. But I really believe that all of us, acting together, with Australia playing a leading initiating role, could add very considerable momentum to the disarmament cause if we were to come out strongly in favour of the U.S. adopting a declaration that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack, and better still if we were to argue explicitly for Washington adopting a “No First Use” posture.
Fifth and finally on my wish-list, the NWS and their allies have to be persuaded to rethink their resistance to the humanitarian consequences movement, now generating significant worldwide momentum. To find common ground on this is not only obviously ethically right, but would much improve the atmospherics in the lead up to the 2015 RevCon and help it breaking down in a welter of recrimination on the issue.
The unhappiness of the NWS with any talk of humanitarian impact is not a new phenomenon: this is an issue on which they have always felt uncomfortable – not because they don't understand the ethical issue but because they fear the consequences of it becoming central to the argument about the future of nuclear weapons. The extent to which it has been banished from official discourse was brought home to me, in one of my most formative personal experiences, when, as a young Australian minister in the early 1980s, I received my first official briefing on United States nuclear strategy. It was given to me, in the bowels of the Pentagon, by a man with a white dust jacket and a pointer who looked uncannily like Woody Allen. His language was disengaged and technical – all about throw-weights, survivability, counter-force, and counter-value targets. And he had absolutely nothing to say, any more than anyone else in Washington did, about the countless real human beings who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever erupted.
The initiative that has been taken by the Swiss and Norwegian and Mexican and other governments, and a legion of NGOs, to bring back to centre stage our understanding of what these weapons actually do to real human beings, is profoundly worthwhile. If the campaign to raise the consciousness of policymakers and publics about the awful downside risks posed to our common humanity by nuclear weapons, has the result of diminishing the credibility and acceptability of the nuclear deterrent on which so many policymakers mindlessly rely, that is exactly what all of us should be applauding.
And if one of the results of this process is to create some momentum towards an ultimate legally binding treaty banning nuclear weapons – although as I’ve made clear I think any credible such treaty is, realistically, decades away – that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.
What I think has been profoundly indefensible has been the resistance that has been mounted against this initiative by the P5, none of whom have attended the Norway and Mexico conferences on he Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2013 and 2014, and none of whom have yet said they will attend the third conference in Austria next month, although there are signs that the US may be on the verge of making this commitment.
I am also deeply underwhelmed by the ducking and weaving and trimming and obfuscation that has been demonstrated by a number of countries – Australia, I am sad to say, in the forefront of them – who have not wanted to offend their superpower nuclear patrons by signing up to the mainstream declaratory statements that have emerged so far from the humanitarian consequences movement. Australia’s objection to the First Committee joint statement made by New Zealand on behalf of 155 states on 20 October was apparently to the line “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. Our preferred text, delivered on the same day on behalf of 20 states evidently more susceptible to US blandishments, does concede that “It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear war must never occur”, but omits the alarming end-phrase “under any circumstances”. This is nonsensical hair-splitting: even if these states (true believers as they manifestly still are in the utility of nuclear deterrence) wanted to preserve the possibility of retaliatory use, they could of course have acknowledged, consistently with that position, that if the worst happened in this respect it would indeed threaten “the very survival of humanity”.
I remember my friend and former colleague, US Secretary of State Jim Baker, once saying to me, in another context, “Well sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle”. Maybe he was right: sometimes you do have to make uncomfortable compromises to achieve defensible results. But I can’t believe that – whatever the procedural context – being seen to contest, or deny, or simply to be trying to evade wholeheartedly acknowledging the sheer horror of nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, can ever be remotely defensible. And nor do the politics of it – in terms of poisoning the atmosphere for 2015, and inhibiting the capacity of the NWS to advance their own priority issues – seem very smart.
It’s time for the NWS, and all the nuclear armed states, and all those states (including our own) who think of themselves as sheltering under the nuclear protection of other states, to get serious once and for all about disarmament in all the ways that I have described. For these states to continue to insist, as they do, that everyone else do as they say and not as they do, does not begin to be a recipe for reducing the terrible nuclear weapons risks the world continues to face. And it certainly doesn't help the non-proliferation agenda. All the world hates a hypocrite, and it’s time, once and for all, for the hypocrisy to stop.