Calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons have existed since the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and advocate for the notion that warfare must have limits, lest both sides descend together into a lawless moral abyss.
Since then, countless leaders and ordinary citizens in an overwhelming majority of nations have recognised that nuclear weapons far exceed warfare’s moral and legal boundaries and must be abolished. One theory, nuclear deterrence, goes a long way to explaining why these worst of all weapons of mass destruction still exist.
Unfortunately Australia cannot claim to be on the side of the angels. For all the government hype about what good non-proliferation citizens we are, Australia is part of the problem. So much so that on Australia Day this year, over 700 recipients of an Order of Australia, including former prime ministers, governors-general, ministers, premiers, high court justices and chiefs of the armed forces, appealed to the Government to help achieve a total ban on nuclear weapons, and to adopt a nuclear-free defence posture. June 2, Nuclear Abolition Day, is a good opportunity to re-examine our record.
To be sure, we have no nuclear weapons. But we claim protection under the US nuclear umbrella, believing all the while that the "extended nuclear deterrence" the US offers it allies will keep us safe, especially from nuclear attack. Its value is regarded as so self-evident that it barely rated a mention in the 2009 Defence White Paper. After all, if nuclear war is deterred, it will not happen, so why bother worrying about how catastrophic it would be? It’s an appealing theory, but fatally flawed.
For deterrence to work, there must be a readiness to use the weapons. An empty threat will not deter. That means a readiness to incinerate cities and their inhabitants. It is a readiness to inflict terror indiscriminately, including on children. "Deterrence" and "terrorism" both derive from the Latin "terrere", to terrify.
In civil society, those planning such attacks would be labelled either psychopaths or terrorists and locked up out of harm’s way. In Australian defence policy, these weapons of terror are given a central role.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) delivered an advisory opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. Drawing attention to "the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons, and ….their capacity to cause untold human suffering", the Court concluded that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally violate the rules of international law.
Significantly, the Court did not draw a distinction between the use of the weapons and the threat to use them. If the use of a weapon is illegal, then the threat to use it is also illegal.
The moral and legal issues presented by nuclear weapons were also highlighted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in November 2011. With their significant input, the ICRC passed a resolution stating that the weapons "[raise]profound questions about the extent of suffering that humans are willing to inflict, or to permit, in warfare", and urging their abolition.
Even in Australia we have been closer to nuclear war than most people realise. According to Professor Paul Dibb, in November 1983 Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov believed a nuclear strike was imminent, and had the crisis not defused with the conclusion of the NATO exercises that had precipitated it, the first Australia would have known of it would have been attacks on Pine Gap, probably Sydney, and other targets. [Video, beginning at 38 minutes]
Now the former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the USSR, is among the many former leaders who recognise the dangers of deterrence. He wrote in October 2011 that "nuclear deterrence is a dead doctrine" and that "a serious program of universal nuclear disarmament" is needed.
While deterrence may work in a theoretical world where leaders act rationally in the best interests of their people. In the real world there are errors of judgment, ignorance, confusion, especially in a crisis, and malevolent leaders who care little for those who would suffer in the event of a nuclear attack.
Nuclear weapons have failed to prevent resistance or aggression against nuclear-armed nations in Korea, Sinai and Golan Heights, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Falklands Islands, Iraq, and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. India and Pakistan suffer a near constant state of tension, despite each nation being heavily nuclear armed. Deterrence theory breaks down mightily in the Middle East, where we excuse Israel’s weapons but issue threats against Iran. Deterrence advocates appear to believe that it works for some but not for others, an unconvincing argument.
Perhaps the greatest problem with Australia’s reliance on extended deterrence is that it presents a positive barrier to the process of disarmament that most countries and people want. Repeatedly, US officials from the president down have claimed that the responsibility of their nation to defend their allies is an important reason for the US nuclear arsenal to be maintained and strengthened.
In February 2009 the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons obtained a document under Freedom of Information laws that revealed Dennis Richardson, the then ambassador to Washington, had admitted to Australia’s reliance on America’s nuclear arms to a congressional commission hearing:
"Confidence that a nuclear attack on US allies would be met with a response-in-kind has assured very close US allies, like Australia, that they do not need to develop their own nuclear weapons," Richardson had said.
In other words, the Australian Government suggests, with no public knowledge or consultation, that without the US nuclear umbrella we might abandon our Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to remain nuclear-weapons free, an obligation that successive governments claim to have taken very seriously.
Australia’s nuclear deterrence policy is thus riddled with hypocrisy and inconsistencies, and is anti-democratic and opaque. While publicly advocating strongly for non-proliferation, and joining in the chorus of voices calling for tough measures against countries such as Iran, behind closed doors Australia talks of our possible violation of our own NPT commitment.
Nuclear deterrence relies on weapons of terror. It is high time for Australia to abandon it. Then the long-overdue nuclear weapons free world that most people and nations want will be one step closer.