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Getting to a Saner Global Nuclear Order

Keynote Dinner Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University, Chair of the ANU Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND), and Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN)  RMIT/MIT Conference on Reassessing the Global Nuclear Order: Past, Present and Future, Melbourne, 10 January 2015

Delivering something billed as a “keynote” address at the very end of a conference after 28 formal speakers have had their say over eight substantive sessions feels a bit like being left to do the dishes after the party is over. Mind you, given what Melbournians know about the prices charged by this restaurant in which we are now celebrating, unless our RMIT hosts have very deep pockets indeed we could all be washing dishes before this evening is over! 

The other disadvantage under which I labour this evening has to do with my antiquity. When Andrew McIntyre at the opening reception expressed his delight about how young, and manifestly bright-eyed and bushy tailed, he saw this group as being, he obviously wasn't referring to me. I was reminded in this respect of a telephone conversation I had with former British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan when I was putting together in 1995 the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. “My dear fellow”, he said, “I’m afraid I can’t possibly join your commission, I’m a CLOOF”. “What on earth”, said I in reply, “is that?”. “My dear boy, I can’t believe a man of your worldly experience could possibly be unfamiliar with that expression but – if you insist –  a CLOOF, of course, is a Clapped Out Old Fart”.

The only advantage conferred by great age on these occasions is that one has been around for some time, and had the chance to learn a lesson or two from hard experience which it might be of some use to share with you.  In my case I’ve only been closely involved with policymaking in this area for the last thirty years – since I became responsible for Australia’s uranium and nuclear energy policy as Resources and Energy Minister in the mid ‘80s, and then subsequently for nuclear weapons issue as Foreign Minister for eight years and wearing various hats since – but my emotional engagement in the issue really goes back fifty years, to the time when, in my first ever overseas trip, as a student, I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1964.

Standing at the epicentres of those first nuclear bomb strikes, and getting my first real physical sense of what had happened just two decades earlier, I was overwhelmed by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred.  There was one particular exhibit in the Hiroshima peace park museum that I have never been able to get out of my memory: a granite block, which had been part of the front of an office building, against which someone had been sitting in the sun when the bomb exploded early that August morning. Starkly visible on the stone was the shadow of that human being, indelibly etched there by the crystallization of the granite around that person’s body as he or she was, in an instant, incinerated by that blast: just one individual among the many thousands of men, women and children who were fatally and indiscriminately vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death on that terrible day.

I pledged myself after that experience to do whatever I could, when I could, to try to rid the world once and for all of these terrible weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever invented and the only ones capable of destroying life on this planet as we know it. I’m afraid that I have to admit I haven’t much to show for all the efforts I have subsequently made in this respect in and out of government, creating or chairing or participating in blue ribbon panels, writing reports, convening regional networks or speaking at endless conferences.  But there are a few things that have become clearer to me along the way.

Let me spell out what I’ve learned about four things in particular: the scope and limits of the power of emotion; the scope and limits of the power of reason; the need in pursuing both disarmament and non-proliferation not to make the best the enemy of the good; and the need to recognize that in geopolitics there are no eternal verities.

1. The Power of Emotion

The emotional charge that I experienced at Hiroshima, was obviously felt by many other ordinary citizens around the world during the Cold War years – reinforced by the fears engendered by the Cuban missile crisis, and by movies like On the Beach, screened during our conference.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. Is there any way that minds can be newly concentrated, short of a new Cuban-style crisis or an actual nuclear exchange on the India sub-continent or elsewhere?

As someone who has been a civil society activist as well as a government official it pains me to admit it, but I’m not sure that they can be, even in the context of the “humanitarian consequences” movement gaining the traction it recently has among so many governments outside the nuclear weapons club.  Organizations like Global Zero and ICAN have been doing everything they can to stimulate public opinion but the results have so far been negligible.

I, for one, had placed great hopes in Global Zero’s sponsorship of a film on nuclear risks made by the same team that produced the Academy Award winning Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth, which was hugely influential in focusing global attention on climate change:  given that these are the only two public policy issues where failure to get it right threatens life on this planet as we know it, and that nuclear weapons can kill us a hell of a lot faster than CO2, the movie idea seemed a no-brainer.  But unhappily Countdown to Zero, powerful as its story was to those true believers who saw it, disappeared almost without trace from the world’s cinemas.

While I wouldn't for one second suggest that the grass-roots mobilization effort should be abandoned, 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 has been), and from peer group pressure applied internationally by governments who see the status quo as unsustainable.   In this context I think it is important to recognize that while cool, rational argument about the balance of risks and rewards involved in the possession and retention of nuclear weapons will be indispensable – and I’ll come to this in a moment – emotion will also play a big part.

It is important not to underestimate the extent to which emotion – 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 use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at stake. 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 civilized, 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, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown. Even John Foster Dulles said that if the U.S. 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. I’ve long been persuaded in other contexts about the power of ideas, including new ideas, about what constitutes acceptable standards of international behaviour to directly influence behaviour:  particularly in the context of the international response to mass atrocity crimes committed beyond sovereign state borders, with the evolution of the norm of “the responsibility to protect” generating now almost universal acceptance that these atrocities are not nobody else’s business, but everybody’s.  And of course norms become even more powerful when they assume legal as well as just moral and political form.

The practical question is what can be done now to reinforce the normative taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. Hopefully the Marshall Islands litigation now under way against the nuclear weapons states for failing to meet their disarmament obligations under Article VI will give some robust new international law content to that article. Failing that happening, probably the most useful new initiative now under discussion is the idea of negotiating – at least among like-minded states outside the present nuclear club – a possession or use-ban treaty, which might have no immediate legal effect where it mattered but which, if sufficiently widely embraced, would add significant formal weight to the normative taboo already very widely informally acknowledged.

2. 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 – and we heard some echoes of this in the debate yesterday – that the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent. (I’m reminded in that context of former US Secretary of State Jim Baker once saying to me in another context, “Well sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle.”)

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.  And there are plenty of rational, evidence-based arguments that can be deployed in this respect, certainly enough to persuade hard-headed Cold War realists like the “four horsemen” – Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn and Perry – that whatever may have been the case in the past, in the contemporary international environment the potential strategic rewards of nuclear weapons possession no longer begin to match the risks.

On the question of risk, even if there is only a negligible likelihood that nuclear weapons will ever be deliberately and cold-bloodedly used as weapons of attack, no one should think for a moment that there is no risk associated with their possession. So long as any are retained by anyone, the risk really is acutely real of stumbling into a nuclear exchange through accident, miscalculation, system error, or sabotage.

There is now a mass of archival evidence from the Cold War years – when command and control systems on both sides were thought to be highly sophisticated, and were more so than are some between potential nuclear adversaries today – revealing just how close to calamity the world regularly came, much more so than was understood at the time. Although deterrence enthusiasts are hard to persuade in this respect, it really is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has not been a result of good policy or good management that the world has avoided a nuclear weapons catastrophe for nearly seventy years: rather, it has been sheer dumb luck. Of course that luck might continue to hold, but with Armageddon potentially just one wrong-move away, one would need to be pretty confident about the compensating utility of nuclear weapons to be prepared to take that gamble.

On the question of utility, the main argument that disarmament advocates have to meet is that possession of nuclear wars has deterred, and continues to deter, war between the major powers. It is certainly the case that nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution, but it can be strongly argued that their impact has been much exaggerated.  Certainly, there is simply no evidence that at any stage during the Cold War years either the Soviet Union or the U.S. ever wanted to cold-bloodedly initiate war, and were only constrained from doing so by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons.

We know that knowledge of the existence on the other side of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past between major powers.  Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians caused leaders in the past to back down – including after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the historical evidence is now very strong that it was not the nuclear attacks which were the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace, but the Soviet declaration of war later that same week.

If you want a plausible non-nuclear explanation for the “Long Peace” since 1945, it is that what has stopped – and will continue to stop – the major powers from deliberately starting wars each other has been, more than anything else, a realization, after the experience of World War II and in the light of all the rapid technological advances that followed it, that the damage that would be inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

A second major argument for the strategic utility of nuclear weapons is that they will deter large-scale conventional attacks. But 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: e.g. the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars. The calculation evidently made in each case was that a nuclear response would be inhibited by a combination of factors: military commanders’ understanding of the formidable practical obstacles involved in the use of these weapons at both the tactical and strategic level, not least the damage they can cause to one’s own side and to any territory being fought over; and the prevailing normative taboo on the use of such weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state was not at stake.

A further strategic argument for nuclear weapons possession, at least by the US, is that America’s willingness to offer extended nuclear deterrence to its allies and partners has restrained proliferation. It may be true, historically, that this has been an important inhibitor in the case of Japan, South Korea, Germany and others, but I for one remain unpersuaded that there is any continuing compelling necessity for American protection to retain a nuclear dimension.  What continues to matter for all of us is credible US conventional capability to meet any threat contingency with which we might be confronted that we cannot confidently handle by ourselves, and the objective reality is that the US has and will retain that capability for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

Outside the US alliance context, I think it is very hard for anyone to argue other than that nuclear weapons encourage proliferation, and stand in the way of further strengthening the non-proliferation regime. The psychological reality, as the Canberra and other commissions have endlessly stated, is that so long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them. And the reality experienced by anyone who has spent any time at all in the NPT implementation and review process is that the perceived lack of serious commitment by the nuclear-weapon states to their Article VI disarmament commitments creates endless bloody-mindedness among non-nuclear weapon states, even though they are the primary beneficiaries, in security terms, of the non-proliferation protections built into the treaty.  It might not be very rational for countries like Brazil to resist embracing the improved safeguard regime of the Additional Protocol, or for an army of developing countries to resist, at successive review conferences, doing anything to strengthen other compliance and enforcement provisions in the NPT regime, but resist they do because of the perception that they are the ones taking all the pain.

The truth of the matter is that all the world does hate a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear weapon states – and those which, like Australia, shelter under their umbrella – continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option but other countries’ concerns do not, that is exactly how the weapons states will continue to be regarded. For them to continue to insist 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 certainly does not help the non-proliferation agenda.

3.The Need to Not Make the Best the Enemy of the Good

For all the power of these rational arguments, and others as well which I haven’t time to spell out [1], I am of course conscious that in the real world they are no more likely by themselves to take us decisively down the road to zero than will emotional abhorrence of the horror of nuclear weapons use. They are at best necessary, not sufficient, conditions.  Realpolitik will always intrude: the strong will always be tempted to do what they can, while the weak will suffer what they must. The testosterone factor – considerations of status, prestige, nuclear bragging rights, whether rationally well founded or not – will be in play for most of the nuclear-armed states for the foreseeable future. Continued Russian adventurism, or any serious sign of aggressive adventurism by China, will see US allies rushing back into their nuclear umbrella comfort zone. As China’s conventional military capability continues to grow, as it undoubtedly will anxieties will multiply – almost certainly unfounded objectively as they will be- about America’s capacity to keep pace.

For all these reasons 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, I think, being very careful about how we articulate the “Global Zero” objective. 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 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.

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), which I co-chaired with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, took the view that it was simply not possible now to set any kind of timetable for complete elimination  (though we knew we were offending the purists in saying so) but we could set a realistic target date – 2025 – for the achievement of a minimization objective. We defined that objective as 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 as events have unfolded.  But it is not wholly unrealistic provided some serious momentum can start to build soon. It may not be the best imaginable outcome to have drastically reduced weapons numbers, drastically reduced operational deployment, and drastically modified nuclear doctrine, but a world that could manage these achievements within the next decade or so would be a much safer and saner one than we have at the moment.

I should add that the prescription not to make the best the enemy of the good, and to know when to take yes for an answer, applies equally to non-proliferation and counter-proliferation efforts. We did get North Korea signed up to denuclearization in the Agreed Framework exercise of the mid-1990s, before it had any demonstrated nuclear-weapon making capacity but let that opportunity slip: there was fault on the North Korean side, but I think the rest of us have to accept at least as much of the blame for not delivering our side of the bargain in a sufficiently timely and good faith way.  And I am certain that a deal with Iran was there for the taking a decade ago if only the West had not been so absolutist in refusing to make any concessions at all – of the kind we have at last now been forced into, 19,000 or so centrifuges later – on the reality of Iran’s right to enrich under the NPT regime as it stood then, and stands now.

4.The Need to Recognize that in Geopolitics there are no Eternal Verities

John Maynard Keynes was once challenged in a public hearing with offering a prescription which was inconsistent with a position he had earlier put on the record, to which he famously replied: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

I sometimes think that we are far too slow in public policy-making to accommodate to changing realities, and that is as true of the nuclear debate as anywhere else. The Cold War is long over, but nuclear decision-makers almost everywhere – and I fear rather too many of the academics who sail with them – do seem to be stuck in a Cold War time-warp, in which the focus is always on capability, rather than the usually more positive story about intent; where the scenarios that matter most are the absolute worst-case ones, not those bearing much relationship to real world probability; and where the only language of analysis is arithmetical, and not remotely ethical.

Of course we need to keep our wits and defences about us, and not succumb to naïve romanticism about what is still often a hostile and dangerous world. But there is an awful lot to be said for looking at the world through a cooperative rather than single-mindedly competitive lens, and in particular thinking anew what it would mean to really give weight and content in the world of today to the Palme Commission’s notion of common security – that security is best achieved with others rather than against them – an approach that I, for one, don’t think was given sufficient weight in the NATO-Russian arrangements put in place in the rather triumphalist atmosphere of the immediate post-Cold War years, with some consequences we are now perhaps harvesting.

The tectonic plates really have been moving internationally in recent times, and all of us, wherever we come from, have to continually be rethinking how to position ourselves in the world as it is, not the world as it used to be or would ideally like it to be. But if our American friends here will forgive me for saying so, I think it’s particularly important, because of the global leadership role you continue to play, for US policymakers and scholars to do some really quite fundamental rethinking about your own roles and responsibilities in the new dispensation.

The best account I have ever heard of the kind of mindset shift required came from a comment I heard former President Bill Clinton make at a private function where I found myself sharing a platform with him in Los Angeles in 2002:

The U.S. has two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

It’s not easy saying that kind of thing in public in the US, and Clinton never, to my knowledge, went on the record in precisely those terms. But a little bit more of that kind of rhetoric would I think be hugely helpful in not only avoiding the US-China relationship ending in tears, but also in winning a lot more global understanding and appreciation for the many great causes and values Americans continue to be about, to the enduring advantage of the global order.

One of the many great attractions of this conference so splendidly conceived by Joe Siracusa and Frank Gavin, and so splendidly put together by the RMIT team, is that it has brought together such an intriguing and diverse group of specialists,  enabled us to wrestle with all these issues openly, honestly and constructively.

Ava Gardner, during the making of On the Beach back in the early 1960s, was heard to say – to the shame of the local citizens of the time, but to the everlasting delight of Sydneysiders, that “Melbourne was a great place to make a movie about the end of the world”.  I can only hope that, as we have debated over the last three days how to avoid that unhappy fate, you have all found – despite having to deal with occasionally aggressive natives like me – the Melbourne of 2015, and in particular of this conference, a stimulating and enjoyable environment in which to do so.


[1] An important further argument is that there is plenty of empirical evidence that what may appear a stable nuclear balance actually encourages more violence under the shelter of the nuclear overhang – the so-called “stability-instability paradox”: the classic recent examples being Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, and North Korea in the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. As to the apparent belief of some smaller states, like North Korea, that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention, that is not objectively well-founded:  weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (e.g. missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack.