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Lowering the Nuclear Temperature: Australia's role

Evatt Journal Vol 21, '90 Seconds to Midnight', pp 9-14, April 2023

Of the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it – climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – the one about which both policymakers and publics continue to be most complacent, in Australia as elsewhere, is that flowing from nuclear war. Even though the issue has gained dramatic new salience over the last year with Russia’s President Putin, alarmingly, talking up the useability of nuclear weapons in language not heard since the Cold War years.

On the face of it, that complacency is extraordinary. Nuclear weapons are not only the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised but the casualties that would follow any kind of significant nuclear exchange would be on an almost incalculably horrific scale. Millions would be vaporised, crushed, baked, boiled or irradiated to death by the initial blasts, and millions more would die from the catastrophic starvation-guaranteeing nuclear-winter effect on global agriculture.

It may that, for all the posturing of Putin and others like him, these weapons will in fact never be used coldly and deliberately to wage aggressive war. The longstanding taboo against such first use may be weakening, but is still strong. But there is a very high probability that they will, sooner or later, still be used. The hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’, set each year by the globally respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, are now at just 90 seconds to midnight, the closest they have been in the clock’s long history. That we have not had a nuclear weapon used in conflict for nearly eighty years is not a result of statesmanship, system integrity and infallibility, or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck.

It is utterly wishful thinking to believe that this luck can continue in perpetuity, 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 in overcoming cyber-defence in the years ahead.

The depressing reality as the hands of the Bulletin clock make clear, is that while the risk of nuclear catastrophe is as great as it has ever been, the goal of achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth is as far from achievement as it has ever been. Longstanding major nuclear arms control agreements between the US and Russia are now dead (ABM, INF, Open Skies) or on life support (New START). Hopes for progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and reinstating the painfully negotiated JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran – torn up by the Trump administration - have completely stalled. The 2022 NPT Review Conference ended, like too many of its predecessors, with no consensus on a final statement (Russia opposing, inevitably, any reference to the nuclear risks involved in its invasion of Ukraine). There has been no progress on moderating the salience of nuclear weapons in strategic doctrines in the US or elsewhere: if anything the reverse. And stockpiles are growing in most of the nuclear armed states.

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, nearly 13,000 warheads are still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of close to 100,000 Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs. Around 6,000 nuclear weapons remain in the hands of Russia, 5,500 with the United States, and 1,300 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Israel and—at the margin—North Korea).

In our own Indo-Pacific region, delivery systems are being extended, weapons are being modernised and their numbers are increasing. A large proportion of the global stockpile—nearly 4,000 weapons—remains operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, nearly 2,000 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 nuclear-armed states 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 new players joining the nuclear-armed club. 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 also constantly downplay the most immediate and real threat of them all: the risk of use by the present nuclear-armed states of their own existing arsenals— even if not with deliberately aggressive intent, 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.

Australia’s Record. It is this test that Australian policymakers have too often failed. Successive governments have been actively committed supporters of non-proliferation through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its associated International Atomic Energy Agency–administered safeguards system. We have supported the creation of Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones, and joined that in our own South Pacific region. And we have made it abundantly clear that our proposed acquisition of nuclear-propelled submarines under the AUKUS agreement will be managed consistently with our non-proliferation responsibilities, and is in no way a prelude to Australia becoming nuclear-armed. But we have simply not been consistently serious about nuclear disarmament.

Labor governments have at least tried to move the dial, and it is reasonable to hope that the Albanese Government will do the same. In 1996 Prime Minister Paul Keating and I initiated the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. With an all-star international cast, including from the United States Robert McNamara and the former strategic air command general Lee Butler, this was the first international blue-ribbon panel to make a compelling case for the outright elimination of these weapons. Its central mantra was ‘So long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. So long as any state retains nuclear weapons they are bound one day to be used. And any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it’.

And this mantra has been repeated by every high-level international panel since then which has addressed these issues. Including, in 2009, the jointly Australia–Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament initiated by Kevin Rudd and co-chaired by me with former Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, which not only made a strong case for an ultimate elimination agenda, but mapped a realistic ‘minimisation’ (or risk reduction) path to get there.

But there has been no consistent follow-up to either of these initiatives, internationally well received though both were. Coalition governments have generally remained unhappily lovesick about nuclear deterrence, and the joys of sheltering uncritically under whatever nuclear umbrella the United States might be inclined to hold up for us in a crisis. Canberra has constantly taken its cue from Washington as to how far we can go, and it is not yet clear that anything will fundamentally change under the new Labor government, notwithstanding the very much greater discomfort with nuclear weapons embedded in our movement’s DNA.

Australia refused under previous Coalition governments to have anything at all to do with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), again uncritically following the United States. But under the leadership of Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, we have now at least started to participate as observers in meetings of its state parties, and have indicated an in-principle willingness – albeit heavily conditional – to join it. But no-one should expect our signature any time soon. There are serious technical weaknesses in the treaty text (including in relation to safeguards, and the absence of any provisions for verification and, especially, enforcement). And there is a particular political difficulty for Australia in that our signing it would be strictly incompatible with our continued hosting of US joint facilities with nuclear-related functions like Pine Gap, which would put the alliance under enormous stress – not a universally welcome outcome.

Whatever its limitations the TPNW, in force since January 2021, should be welcomed as a big normative step forward in delegitimising nuclear weapons. The product of a long campaign (actually initiated by the Australian-born Nobel Prize-winning NGO, ICAN), it was negotiated with the support of a large majority of UN member states. But its significance remains more symbolic than substantive. It is binding only on those states joining it, which none of the nuclear-armed states – and few if any of their allies and partners – are remotely likely to do for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

Making the Case for Disarmament. The biggest problem in winning universal acceptance for the ban treaty – or doing anything else to seriously advance the cause of global nuclear disarmament – has been a dogged belief in the continued utility of nuclear deterrence by all the nuclear-armed states, and too many of their allies and partners, with Australia too often going along for this ride. There has been an enormous reluctance to accept—as those hard-line Cold War realists Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn and the late George Shultz have done, in their famous series of Wall Street Journal articles since 2007—that whatever may have been its utility in encouraging US-Soviet caution in past decades, in today’s world the benefits of nuclear deterrence have been vastly oversold,

We cannot assume that we will ever get to a nuclear weapon free world through moral persuasion – the power of emotion – 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 their benefits are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved. It is not hard to make such a rational case, and it is important that our political leaders internalise and articulate that case far more than they have been in the habit of doing. The key arguments, in short, are these:

  • As to deterring war between the major nuclear players, it may be that the prospect of mutually assured destruction does continues to encourage a degree of caution in how they approach each other. But that is not to accept that nuclear deterrence has actually stopped all-out war in the past, or will in the future. During the decades of confrontation between the Soviet Union and US there is no evidence whatever that either side wanted at any stage to cold-bloodedly initiate a war – with all the devastating consequences that would entail – and was deterred only by the existence of the other side's nuclear arsenal. And it is reasonable to assume that that dynamic will continue to apply for the US and Russia, the US and China, and India and Pakistan.
  • As to war involving other players, and the claimed utility of nuclear weapons in deterring large-scale conventional attacks, there are many cases where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers, or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: think of Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Afghanistan and the first Gulf war for a start.
  • As to the apparent belief of some smaller states – like North Korea – that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against externally forced regime-change, that again has little or no rational foundation. Possession of nuclear weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal for a state to use are not a credible deterrent. Nor are weapons not supported by the kind of infrastructure (for example, missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. In the case of the DPRK, it knows very well that nuclear homicide ― against the ROK, Japan or the United States ― means national suicide.

The reality, unhappily, is that these arguments simply have not had the traction they deserve. While getting to Global Zero must never cease to be the objective for those of us who value our common humanity and the survival of life as we know it on this planet, and we should never stop arguing the case for it, outright disarmament – with the mindset changes necessary to achieve it – is manifestly out of reach for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

A Realistic Policy Agenda. If that is the case, what can those of us strongly committed to a nuclear weapon free world – as I know most Labor leaders, past and present, certainly have been – actually do to advance the cause? My strong view is that we should not, here as elsewhere in policymaking, make the best the enemy of the good. We should focus on nuclear risk reduction, finding common ground with those policymakers who may be uncomfortable abandoning weapons which they still see as the ultimate deterrent and security guarantor, but nonetheless understand all the risks involved with nuclear weapons possession and want to minimise them.

The most commonly proposed risk-reduction measures—and central elements in our Australia–Japan commission’s ‘minimisation’ agenda—may be described as the ‘4 Ds’. They are Doctrine (getting universal buy-in for a ‘No First Use’ (NFU) commitment), Deployment (drastically reducing the number of weapons ready for immediate use), De-alerting (taking weapons off high-alert, launch-on warning readiness) and Decreased numbers (reducing the overall global stockpile to less than 2,000 weapons). A world with 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 them, would still be very far from perfect. But one that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer world than we live in now.

What has been most depressing about Australia’s performance in recent years, which it is very much to be hoped will now change, is that even these realistic objectives have not been actively supported. Australia’s status as a close US ally and, as such, one of the ‘nuclear umbrella’ states—together with our periodic high-profile international activism on arms-control issues, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and Chemical Weapons Convention—gives us a particularly significant potential role in advancing some key elements of the risk-reduction agenda just described.

One especially important contribution – perhaps the most immediately useful step we could take – would be to support the growing international movement for the universal adoption of No First Use doctrine by the nuclear-armed states. At the NPT Review Conference concluded in New York in August 2022, a great deal of support was evident for such NFU commitments as part of a larger risk reduction agenda. But the delegation of our new Labor Government made no contribution to that debate. We must live in hope that that position will change.

Achieving a safer, saner, nuclear-weapon free world will at best be a long and difficult process. It will mean energising, and re-energising, efforts both top-down from policymakers and bottom-up from concerned publics. It will mean uniting around a common, realistic agenda that remains unequivocally committed to disarmament but does not make the best the enemy of the good. And it will mean harnessing the power of both reason and emotion.

It is crucial that those of us who yearn for a safer and saner nuclear weapon-free world stay both active and optimistic. As desolate as the nuclear scene now is, pendulums do swing, wheels do turn, and governments around the world do change. It is up to those of us who believe in both the possibility and necessity of a nuclear weapon free world, however disappointed and frustrated we may be right now, to get out there and argue and work for it, in every way we can and through every channel of influence we can mobilise. Starting with our own Australian Labor government.

Gareth Evans was Australian Foreign Minister 1988-96, President of the International Crisis Group 2000-09, and Chancellor of the Australian National University 2010-19. He initiated the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, co-chaired the Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, was founding convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), and co-authored Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (ANU, 2013 and 2015).