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Extended deterrence: Outdated, dangerous, wrong for Australia

September 29, 2009

Barack Obama has issued a massive challenge to the world.

It is a challenge to rid the world of its worst weapons of terror.. It is a challenge to banish one of humanity’s greatest fears– the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

President Obama’s chairing of the UN Security Council on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on September 24 served to focus the nuclear spotlight where it is most needed, on the Council’s five permanent members.

Between them – Russia, USA, France, China and the UK are responsible for all but a fraction of the world’s 26,000 nuclear weapons. The President spoke of the need for “new strategies and new approaches” to reach the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, with every nation playing a part.

Notwithstanding the enormous responsibility of the nuclear weapon states to get rid of their own weapons, the barriers to disarmament go further than just these nations, and far beyond the usual suspects such as Iran and North Korea.

That challenge includes Australia, and our subservience to an out-dated and dangerous Cold War policy that lives on. The policy is  “extended deterrence”.

Tucked away in the 2009 Defence White Paper is confirmation of our continuing reliance on it: “For so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.”    In other words, Australia remains complicit with the global threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

Such complicity brings multiple political, strategic, legal and moral dilemmas. It is also brazen in the extreme.  Australia went to war in 2003 with a sense of moral outrage that such threats, real or fabricated, were being made against Western nations.

The strategic problem is that as long as any nations, including Australia, give military legitimacy to nuclear weapons, other nations will seek to acquire them. Australia’s alleged need for a nuclear deterrent is even shakier when one considers which nations today are most threatened militarily.

The Defence White Paper confirmed that Australia is certainly not among them.   By the logic of deterrence it is in fact not Australia that needs these weapons, but several far more threatened nations whom we regard with deep suspicion, and whose nuclear programs we have strenuously opposed.

The truth about deterrence is that it works as long as things go to plan, and leaders are rational and care about their own people.  That’s an ideal world. The real world is a very different place.

The Defence White Paper referred to “stable nuclear deterrence” as if such a thing exists.  Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, describes the knife-edge instability of those fateful 13 days.

The legal and moral issues attached to deterrence are even more challenging to Australia’s position.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice, delivering its advisory opinion that nuclear weapons are generally illegal, treated the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as a single indivisible concept.  An illegal act must be neither committed nor threatened.

Australia is of course not alone in seeking security under the US nuclear umbrella.

Hundreds of US nuclear weapons are stored at bases in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). In Japan, where nuclear sensitivities run deeply, the issue arose during the recent election campaign when Yukio Hatoyama, now the country’s prime minister, vowed to keep American nuclear weapons out of Japan.

One US ally has long since rejected the “protection” of nuclear weapons.  In 1987 New Zealand banned US nuclear weapons from entering its ports, and that policy remains to this day.

Time is running short if further proliferation of these weapons is to be avoided.  Next year the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will have its 5-yearly review.

Following the disastrous 2005 review conference, many civil society organizations around the world galvanised to push for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty to ban all nuclear weapons.  Such a treaty is feasible and long overdue.   This week in New York, the UN Secretary General referred to the need for “new agreements including a Nuclear Weapons Convention…”

Prime Minister Rudd has taken the issue of nuclear weapons very seriously, not least through the setting up of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.  However our contribution to nuclear disarmament depends not so much on what we say but on what we do.  Currently Australia’s position is fraught with inconsistencies.

President Obama is right that every nation must play a part if we are to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The greatest contribution Australia could make would be to stop relying on them.

Dr Sue Wareham OAM is the Immediate Past President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, IPPNW’s Australian affiliate, and a member of the Management Committee in Australia for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons ( ICAN).

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