Australia’s Nuclear Disarmament Hypocrisy

By David Donaldson
atomic bomb, mushroom cloud, nuclear weapons

This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

By David Donaldson

On the face of it, Australia is a great advocate for global peace and disarmament efforts. It played a proactive role on banning chemical weapons, giving its name to the Australia Group of countries aimed at preventing the spread of chemical weapons. The Keating government created the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which illustrated the necessity – and possibility – of complete nuclear disarmament.

In the same vein, the Rudd government initiated the widely cited joint Australian-Japanese International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), whose report argued that nuclear weapons are “the most inhumane weapons ever conceived, inherently indiscriminate in those they kill and maim, and with an impact deadly for decades.”

In 2008 Kevin Rudd declared that “we must be committed to the ultimate objective of a nuclear weapons free world.” At diplomatic meetings, Australia says it wants a reduced role for nuclear weapons in military doctrines, and that it believes that nuclear weapons states “need to do more to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons.”

“We rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.”

In May 2012, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a motion in the House of Representatives that called for, among other things, “exploration of legal frameworks for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including the possibility of a nuclear weapons convention, as prospects for multilateral disarmament improve.”

Australia is good at talking the talk. Yet when it comes to taking action, Australia’s governments have fallen far short of their heroic rhetoric.

The primary issue lies with Australia’s policy of extended nuclear deterrence. This means, in the words of the most recent defence white paper, that “we rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.” Apart from the fact that this means Australia is prepared to incorporate weapons of mass destruction into its defence posture, there are several problems with this policy.

The first issue is that, in spite of successive Australian governments having promoted the idea, it is unclear whether the United States has ever explicitly agreed to defend Australia with nuclear weapons. Certainly, there is no known public assurance that this is the case, even though the US has given such guarantees to European NATO countries, South Korea and Japan many times. Given that the idea behind deterrence is to scare other countries off even considering using nukes, the conspicuous lack of public endorsement for the policy means that it is of questionable use.

Many will argue that it cannot hurt to maintain such a stance as back-up. But the central contradiction underpinning our nuclear weapons policies – promoting disarmament while relying on nukes for our own defence – has meant that Australia has ended up prioritising the maintenance of American nuclear weapons over global efforts to outlaw these weapons of mass destruction.

“So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them.”

In effect, Australia’s stance legitimises American nuclear weapons, and assumes that the US will be the last to disarm. Given that, as the ICNND report puts it, “So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them,” this is an unhelpful position to take.

In practice, this has seen Australia vote against motions to further nuclear disarmament efforts at the United Nations, as well as undermining the efforts of countries like Norway, Austria and Switzerland to set the diplomatic agenda in favour of disarmament.

This contradiction has also led the Australian government to tell the US administration in its submission on the US Nuclear Posture Review in 2009 – a document uncovered under Freedom of Information laws by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, Australia is likely to rely on the nuclear forces of the US to deter nuclear attacks on Australia.”

The Australian government’s submission also noted that extended deterrence has “removed the need for Australia to consider more significant and expensive defence options” – defence-speak for Australia developing its own nukes. Linking Australia’s decision not to develop nuclear weapons – a position to which it is bound by international law – to extended nuclear deterrence amounts to little more than an absurd threat to the Americans not to remove a guarantee that has never been publicly acknowledged.

Such statements demonstrate the lack of real commitment by the Federal Government to disarmament, and have no doubt made Obama’s stated desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world that little bit harder. Faced with an inevitably sceptical Pentagon and obstructive allies like Australia, the soaring anti-nuclear rhetoric of Obama’s 2009 Prague Speech has brought few results.

More recently, Australia refused to sign on to an 80-nation statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons at the 2013 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee. The statement sought to address the fact that, in spite of the widely acknowledged catastrophic effects of any use of nuclear weapons, such concerns have “not been at the core of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation deliberations for many years.”

The Future Fund continues to invest in nuclear weapons companies, despite having agreed to divest from tobacco, cluster munitions and landmines companies.

While more than 150 countries have expressed support for a treaty banning nuclear weapons under international law – based on similar conventions on landmines and cluster munitions – the Australian government is not among them.

Moreover, the Future Fund continues to invest in nuclear weapons companies, despite having agreed to divest from tobacco, cluster munitions and landmines companies.

Australia’s reliance on America’s nuclear stockpile remains in spite of strong public antipathy to nuclear weapons. The 2009 Lowy Institute poll report stated that seventy-five per cent of Australians “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that “global nuclear disarmament should be a top priority for the Australian government”.

On Australia Day in 2012, nearly eight hundred Order of Australia recipients – including former prime ministers, governors-general, foreign affairs and defence ministers, premiers, governors, High Court justices and chiefs of the armed forces – called on the government to adopt a nuclear weapon-free defence posture and work towards a nuclear weapons convention.

If we want to play a proactive role on disarmament, Australia should end its hypocritical reliance on US nu­clear armaments by renouncing extended nuclear deterrence. This would not require a repudiation of our alliance with the US. New Zealand opted for a nuclear-free defence policy in 1984, yet still maintains an otherwise fully functional defence relationship with the United States. Around 160 countries in the world manage to get by without any such assurance.

As a widely-respected middle power allied to the United States, Australia could play an important and proactive role on nuclear disarmament negotiations – but only if our politicians get serious about resolving the fundamental contradiction underlying our nuclear weapons policy.

David Donaldson is a research intern at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.