Australia may be saying the same thing in public as it is behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean its stance on nuclear weapons can withstand critical scrutiny, Ramesh Thakur writes.
Using the Freedom of Information law, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has obtained a tranche of confidential cables between Canberra and various Australian diplomatic missions around the world, regarding the recent nuclear weapons’ humanitarian consequences movement. The cables contain no surprise and confirm what is broadly known about Australia’s approach. They underline some positive features of Australian foreign policy but also confirm the limitations inherent to bureaucracies in trying to find imaginative solutions to intractable problems.
The cables show Australia is a responsible state actor that takes international commitments seriously. It is not prepared to go along with a trending popular movement simply for the sake of getting along with the world’s ‘moral majority’. It takes its signature to international documents as a commitment that must be honoured. Accordingly, if the obligations conflict with existing commitments and policies, Australia will withhold its signature, even at the cost of unpopularity with sections of the domestic audience and the international community.
In this case Canberra concluded that signing the humanitarian pledge at the three global summits held so far – in Oslo, Nayarit (Mexico) and Vienna – and in the United Nations General Assembly would be inconsistent with Australia’s security alliance with the United States and its stated dependence on the US nuclear umbrella. Australia is to be applauded for holding steadfast to the courage of its convictions and demonstrating national integrity in foreign policy.
Moreover, there is no daylight between what DFAT officials were writing confidentially to one another and their explanations to concerned outsiders for the reluctance to sign the humanitarian pledge. Having gone through the 126 pages of declassified and released cables, I can find not one that surprises or contradicts any explanations and clarifications provided earlier. There may be details that were left out – no government can operate a foreign service with 100 per cent transparency on internal deliberations and processes – but at no stage and no single point was I ever misled as to what Australia wanted and why. It is good to have the consistency between public professions and private positions confirmed as a hallmark of a functioning democracy.
That said, neither of the two main grounds for Australia’s opposition withstand critical scrutiny. First, Australia relies on the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike by the US to deter a nuclear attack on Australia. There are several problems with this, starting with two interesting and important truths. Romancing nuclear weapons ignores the complete lack of evidence to suggest that any nuclear-armed country had planned to attack another but was deterred from doing so because the target country had its own, or was defended by a protector’s, nuclear weapons. Nor is there a single example of a nuclear-armed country successfully threatening their use in order to change another’s behaviour. Indeed in the 1980s Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands knowing Britain had the bomb but fully confident it would not be used even in the face of a British defeat.
The core claim by the humanitarian consequences movement is that it is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances. Canberra can subscribe to the first part but finds the final phrase – ‘under any circumstances’ – deeply problematic and inconsistent with its reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence.
It would be interesting to do a rigorous analysis of what potential enemy targets – on a realistic list of possible enemies – cannot be destroyed by the powerful and precise conventional US munitions. If all targets can be taken out by the highly lethal conventional US firepower, then Australia could drop the word ‘nuclear’ and rely on US ‘extended deterrence’ for its security.
Without a prior nuclear attack, the reputational damage of first use of the bomb would vastly exceed any conceivable military gains. If deterrence has failed and Australia is hit by the bomb, it would not profit Australia for the Earth to be destroyed with US retaliatory strikes on the attacker that trigger an all-out nuclear war. This would not be a rational strategy of defence but an irrational act of revenge initiating an all-consuming nuclear Armageddon.
In other words, beyond their sole (if questionable) utility in deterring attack, nuclear weapons cannot in fact be used – under any circumstances. Their very destructiveness robs them of any military or political utility, which is an important part of the explanation for why they have not been used again since August 1945.
Second, the humanitarian pledge is belittled for indulging in symbolic gimmicks at the cost of pursuing a realistic and practical agenda. This criticism too is fundamentally misconceived and attacks a self-constructed straw man. The Austrian Pledge of last December commits to filling the legal gap for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The key phrase is to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate them. Of course they can be eliminated only by those who have them. For states without the bomb to ban their possession by those with the bomb is also an empty gesture. Banning their use, however, is an attempt to deepen the stigma and add yet another significant normative barrier to any use of the bomb. And every additional stigma adds to the global pressure to reduce numbers, deployments and role on the path to elimination.
The realistic agenda Australia favours, through practical steps in collaboration with those with the bomb, has fallen far behind the urgency and gravity of the very real threats posed by these most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented. The humanitarian pledge is a critical step to their elimination, not an exercise in futility. The growing global support for it reflects, not naïveté by its proponents, but frustration with the glacial efforts of the nuclear-armed states in containing, minimising, reducing and eliminating nuclear risks that pose intolerable threats to all of us.