Stephen Murray-Smith was an inspirational figure for a legion of Australians – particularly young Melbournians of my student generation and either side of it – trying to make sense of Australia’s identity and place in the world, and our own intellectual and political responsibility to try to make it, and as much of the rest of the world as we could, more decent, compassionate and humane. I certainly owe a strong inspirational debt to Stephen – and, I must add, his closest friend Ian Turner, through whom I came to know him – for whatever I may have been able to achieve in my own career, and I feel very privileged to have been asked by his widow Nina and the State Library of Victoria to give this year’s lecture to honour his memory.
Stephen’s Overland was a journal that mattered, as it still does today although facing a lot more competition, and his innumerable other written and spoken forays into public controversy always had an impact on the terms of the debate, whatever it was, and often its outcome. His cajoling, hectoring and persuading always combined meticulous attention to detail with linguistic precision, clarity and effortless style. And his personal style – rather intimidating at first exposure – was a wondrous mix of the lordly, patrician, disdainful and fruity, and the wickedly earthy. With Stephen you had the lot: Geelong Grammar, Mt Eliza, the barracks and the bar-room, or – putting it another way, although the local examples will show my age – Samuel Johnson, Evelyn Waugh, Wallfy Curran and Norm Gallagher…
During his lifetime Stephen Murray-Smith wrote and spoke about just about everything. In the words of John McLaren, 'Australian literature, England, war-time experience, education, cultural studies, the history and natural history of island communities, travel and the Antarctic'. Or of Geoffrey Serle, in the inaugural lecture in this series: 'metrication, lighthouses, remote islands…quiz shows, bawdy songs - almost nothing was beyond his ken.' In fact about the only topic no-one can remember him having much to say about was the one I would like to talk to you this evening: nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament!
That said, I don’t think what I’ll be saying to you would be at all uncongenial to Stephen, were he sitting there puffing his pipe at me now: that what we are facing today is a global problem which, despite the evident complacency with which it has largely been greeted since the end of the Cold War, is equivalent in gravity to that of climate change; which simply defies such complacency; and which must be tackled with much more conviction and effectiveness than we have managed so far.
The present reality is this. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War there are at least 23,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, nearly every one of them having many times the destructive power of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima: over 9,000 of these are in the hands of the US, around 13,000 in the hands of Russia, and around 1000 with the other nuclear-armed states: China, France, the UK, Israel, India and Pakistan. Nearly half of all these weapons – some 10,000 - remain operationally deployed. And, most extraordinarily of all, over 2000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on 'hair trigger 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. Given what we now know about how many times the very sophisticated command and control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, and what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated cyber attacks on defence systems may get in the years ahead, it is hard to believe that our Cold War luck can continue in perpetuity.
In the years since the Cold War ended, moreover, we have seen the beginnings of a breakdown in the non-proliferation system, which despite many forebodings had held together remarkably for the first thirty years of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)’s existence. India and Pakistan, who had never signed the treaty, joined the undeclared Israel as fully-fledged nuclear-armed states in 1998, with each of them now possessing at least 60 warheads, and in the case of Israel maybe closer to 200. North Korea has thumbed its nose at the NPT, purporting to walk away from it and now likely to have five or six nuclear explosive devices, although is currently regarded as a backslider capable of redemption rather than a fully nuclear-armed state; and Iran, with its uranium enrichment program, probably now has weapon-making capability if it chooses to go down that path. With these developments all occurring in the world’s most volatile regions, with less reason to be confident about weapons security and command systems than in the case of the longer-established nuclear powers, and with considerable potential for what has been described as a 'cascade' of proliferation should Iran, in particular, go over the top, the risk of something going badly wrong here is disconcertingly high.
Add to all that now the risk of terrorist actors getting their hands on the makings of a nuclear weapon, or – much more easily – a 'dirty bomb' combining conventional explosives with radioactive materials like hospital isotopes, which would generate nothing like the casualties of a fission or fusion bomb but have a psychological impact at least equal to 9/11. We can no longer be under any illusions about the intent of certain messianic groups to cause destruction on a massive scale, and – although the probability is small, and probably lower than some alarmist accounts have suggested - their capacity should not be underestimated. To put together a Hiroshima-sized nuclear device, using manageable technology long in the public domain and back-channel sourcing of the kind the A.Q. Khan network taught us to be alarmed about, and explode it from the inside of a large delivery truck in Trafalgar Square, or Times Square or Federation Square, causing in each case hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries. This means that major continuing efforts have to be made not only in policing and intelligence, but in securing loose weapons and material, and in trying to reduce the number of potential sources of new weapons-grade nuclear material
There are also potentially significant risks, in this context, associated with the likely rapid expansion of civil nuclear energy in the decades ahead, in response not least to the need for non-fossil fuel contributions to base-load electricity generation. The present total of 436 nuclear power reactors is expected to grow, even with long planning and construction lead-times and taking into account closures along the way, to as many as 800 by 2030, with many new countries taking up this option. If effective measures are not sustained at both the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle, including the persuasion (through the creation of multilateral fuel banks and the like) of new countries not to get into the fuel production process at all, this civil nuclear ‘renaissance’ could mean a great deal more fissile material becoming available for destructive purposes.
What all this adds up to is a threat to the world as we know it, if things start going really wrong, which is absolutely commensurable - but much more immediate in its impact – than that from global warming. Nuclear weapons are the only weapons ever invented that have the capacity to wholly destroy life on this planet, and the arsenals we now possess – taking into account the technical refinement of current weapons and their combination of blast, radiation and ‘nuclear winter’ effects – are able to do so many times over. They have a blast capacity alone equivalent to 2,300 million tons of TNT, which adds up to more than 150,00 Hiroshima-scale explosions or, putting it another way, 760 times the combined destructive power of every bomb used by every combatant in World War II.
There was a period of extremely productive disarmament and threat reduction activity immediately following the end of the Cold War – with a flurry of treaties and agreements, scores of thousands of warheads being decommissioned (bringing the total global stockpile down to its present 23,000 from the almost unbelievable 70,000 which existed at the height of the Cold War), the agreed indefinite extension of the NPT and the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Whole categories of weapons, notably in the shorter-ranges, were abandoned. Countries with nuclear options, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina, decided not to pursue them, and South Africa gave up the weapons it had developed.
But for the best part of the following decade one could only describe the attitude of most policymakers as sleepwalking or worse. Efforts were made to introduce new non-proliferation disciplines, not least in the aftermath of 9/11, and with the emergence of the North Korean and Iranian problems, but on the disarmament side the response was at best neglect and at worst mockery, as with many contributions of the Bush administration’s Ambassador John Bolton. This was hardly calculated to win a positive response from the non-nuclear weapon states being asked to do more on the proliferation side - and it didn’t.
The wheel has now turned again, however, first with the hugely influential published articles in 2007 and 2008 of the four US realist cold warriors – Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn and Perry – arguing, startlingly, that the risks of retaining nuclear weapons outweighed any possible usefulness, and above all with the election of President Obama. Strongly personally committed to moving toward a world without nuclear weapons, as he made abundantly clear in his Prague speech in April, he has shown himself equally determined to deliver quickly some dramatic forward movement, starting with bilateral negotiations with Russia – on which President Medvedev has himself been very responsive – to achieve a further round of deep cuts in each side’s deployed strategic weapons. This has, in turn, injected some positive vibrations into the preparatory process for next year’s NPT Review Conference – following the disastrous failure to agree on anything last time round, in 2005 – and into the long stalemated negotiations at the UN’s Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on a treaty to cut-off any further production of fissile material for weapon-making purposes.
So this is the environment, a very much more positive one than even just a year ago, in which the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament – which, on the invitation of Kevin Rudd and former Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda, I am co-chairing, along with my Japanese counterpart, former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi – is doing the work about which I want to now talk to you in a little more detail.
It’s a fair question to ask about a commission like this, right at the outset: why Australia and Japan? And what could possibly be the value added by yet another high-level group of the great and the good when we have had already a multitude of such reporting panels, notably the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by Hans Blix, the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and the Commission of Eminent Persons on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s future led by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo?
The first question is easy enough to answer. Japan has the credentials of being the only country ever to suffer nuclear attack, and being a long-standing leading international campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Australia, though among the policy sleepwalkers over the last decade, has long been in the forefront of international disarmament and non-proliferation activity, with the Canberra Commission of 1996 – to which the present Commission is a natural successor – being the first initiated by a sovereign government to make a strong intellectual case for a world without nuclear weapons; we also have the moral responsibility that comes with having the world’s largest uranium reserves to ensure they are not misused. While it is the case that the crucial leadership on most major issues will have to come from the US and Russia – who between them possess over 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads – a great deal of buy-in has to come from many other countries if progress is to be made, and Australia, with its well-established reputation as an active, engaged and creative middle power has, working with Japan, greater capacity than many to energise the necessary multilateral response.
When it comes to value added, the first element is the timeliness of this enterprise. Rather than just trying to hold the line against a tide of indifference, as past panels have largely done, we all have the sense, with the arrival of the Obama administration, that we are – for the moment anyway – riding something of a wave. Our current objective is to have our major report out by the end of this year, or very early next, with plenty of time for its ideas to feed into next year’s big future-shaping event, the NPT Review Conference in May.
The second contributor to our value, I think, will be the very high-level and broadly representative character of the fifteen-member Commission, with high-level participants – although each of them act in their personal capacities – from all the nuclear-weapon states under the NPT (including former Defense Secretary Bill Perry from the US and Baroness Shirley Williams from the UK); from the nuclear-armed states outside it India and Pakistan; and from a good cross-section, globally and regionally, of the key non-weapon states (including former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway and President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico).
Thirdly, we have adopted a highly consultative approach, with commission and other regional outreach meetings held so far in Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Santiago, and others planned shortly for Cairo and New Delhi. We have a very distinguished global Advisory Board, and are working with nine research centres across five continents, which are contributing a steady stream of research and inputs to the work of the Commission.
The fourth element is the intended comprehensiveness of this Commission’s product. Whereas others in the past have tended to focus most on either disarmament or non-proliferation or peaceful uses of nuclear energy, we will be giving close attention to all three areas and, critically, the interconnections between them.
The fifth element that should add value to the Commission’s work is that we intend to be very realistic in the way in which we approach our task: certainly to keep up in lights the objective of a nuclear weapons-free world, but also to accompany the idealism with a strong measure of pragmatism, reflecting the geopolitical realities of the world around us, we have to recognize the constraints as they are perceived by all the key players, and not think that we will carry the day simply with moral pronouncements. We can all, like Shakespeare’s Glendower, summon spirits from the vasty deep: the real question, as Hotspur witheringly responded, is will they come.
A sixth element in the value we are seeking to add, is to write the report in a way that will be readable and accessible to non-specialists. Far too many contributions to the public debate in this area have been produced by specialists for other specialists – by wonks for wonks – succumbing to the pleasures of acronymphomania and using terminology and assuming a level of understanding of basic technical issues which frankly is just not there among most senior policymakers. If we want to energize a high-level debate, we have to produce a product that is actually going to be read and understood by the high-level players, and those in the media and elsewhere that we need to influence them.
The remaining thing to say about the value added by the Commission is that we are intending to produce a report that is very action-oriented, drawing clear attention to who should be doing what and when, and how all the many different policy elements come together over the short, medium and long-term. In terms of what we will actually be recommending, it’s a little difficult to be too specific just now, because the Commission is very much work in progress, but I will try to give you just a quick summary of the major themes that are emerging.
In the short term, which we are defining as the next four years, the immediate objective has to be securing a successful outcome for the NPT Review Conference next year. This will mean, in our view, reaching agreement on measures to strengthen the NPT regime, including improved safeguards, verification, compliance and enforcement; measures to strengthen the effectiveness of the International Atomic Energy Agency; on an agreed, forward-looking statement on disarmament issues; and hopefully on ways to at least move forward a few steps on the ever-burning issue of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.
Other critical issues for the short term are to find a way through the dangerous impasses in Iran and North Korea; for the US and Russia to successfully complete their current negotiations on deep reductions in offensive strategic weapons, and commence a new round of talks on further deep cuts to all classes of weapons; for there to be at least the commencement of a serious process of multilateralizing disarmament strategy, initially through major strategic dialogues between the United States and China, but also through the engagement of the other weapon States and the other nuclear-arms States outside the NPT; for there to be complete implementation of cooperative threat reduction and other programs designed to secure against misuse dangerous 'loose' nuclear weapons, material and technology worldwide; for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to be finally ratified into force; and for there to be major progress in the Geneva negotiations on a treaty to cut off the future production of fissile material useable in nuclear weapons. A long and ambitious agenda, to be sure, but not a totally Quixotic one if we can build quickly on the momentum.
For the medium term – which we are defining as 2025, which sounds a long way away but is in fact rather ambitious for the changes we have in mind – the main objective has to be to make really dramatic progress in nuclear disarmament, with a massive reduction in the overall numbers of nuclear warheads, both deployed and in stocks, both strategic and tactical. The Commission is still debating whether we can be confident in nominating specific target numbers for this minimization phase, both overall and for specific countries, but we are conscious that the more specific we can realistically be the more practically useful as a blueprint our report is likely to be.
We also see the medium term disarmament objective – hopefully in this case achieved much earlier than 2025 – as being to have all the nuclear armed states become genuinely committed to reducing to the point of invisibility the role, or salience, of nuclear weapons in their national security policies. That means signing up to nuclear doctrine based on the principle of 'no first use', and matching that with a physical deployment of their weapons, and launch readiness status, that actually makes such declaratory statements credible. If we can achieve a world in which the numbers are very low; everybody has signed up to a 'no first use' doctrine, or at the very least one accepting that the 'sole purpose' of possessing nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others; and where all the nuclear-armed states are organizing their military resources in a way that actually reflects that doctrine, with operational deployments absolutely minimal and relating only to ensuring the survivability of some retaliatory capability, and launch decision times bear no resemblance to today’s alarming 'hair trigger alert' status – I think that we would all acknowledge that we would be in a much better and safer world than the one we occupy at the moment.
For the longer term, beyond 2025, the task has to be to make the final leap from this minimization point to actual zero. We might wish there were a straight-line continuum between the world as it now is and a nuclear weapons free world, such that if real momentum is generated in the minimization phase it could be expected to carry over into the elimination stage, making it possible to set a specific target date for the achievement of 'global zero'. But there isn’t, and it isn’t. We have to acknowledge the reality that there will be very large psychological confidence barriers to overcome, as well as technical ones about verification and enforcement, before all nuclear-armed states are willing to give up all their nuclear weapons. But even if it is impossible to set a credible specific target date, it is critically important to keep alive and in sharp focus the ultimate objective, which must remain abolition. The mountain top might still be a long way away from what the four US statesmen have called the 'vantage point' or the 'base camp', but it is essential that it shine as a beacon in the sunlight, not be left shrouded in mist.
The biggest task of all for those of us who are determined to take on the challenge of nuclear disarmament may be to get policymakers – and for that matter the publics of which they occasionally take notice – to break out of the mindset that a nuclear-weapons free world is simply impossible, or if it possible, simply undesirable because of the role nuclear weapons are seen to have played in inhibiting various bloody-minded characters from going for each other’s throats, particularly during the Cold War. Part of the Commission’s report will, I hope, be a section working its way through all the major arguments of this kind that one most hears. For present purposes let me try and give some response to the five most familiar of them.
First, 'Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented so there is no point trying to eliminate them'. My predecessor Alexander Downer, for one, seems to regard this as an absolute knockout, if a recent article of his in the Adelaide Advertiser is any guide. My short response to him or anyone else is that of course nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, any more than any other human invention: but, like chemical and biological weapons, they can be outlawed.(And Australia, incidentally, has a proud record in advancing both causes). The two basic requirements for effective abolition, are verification and enforcement procedures capable of detecting and responding swiftly and effectively to moves toward rearmament, and states being convinced that they could protect their vital interests without them. No one denies that satisfying these conditions will be much harder in the case of nuclear weapons than anything else, but the fact that knowledge of how to make them will persist is not in itself any reason not to try to achieve their abolition.
Second, 'Nuclear weapons have deterred, and will continue to, war between the major powers'. It is hard to contest head-on the almost universally held view that the absence of great power conflict since 1945 must be at least in part attributed to the fear of nuclear war. On the face of it, nuclear weapons on the other side will always provide a formidable argument for caution, and it does seem that they generated a degree of mutual respect and careful handling between the US and USSR during the Cold War (and, for that matter, between India and Pakistan since 1998). That said, it is not clear that there is any evidence for the view that Soviet leaders, any more than their US counterparts, were determined to actually go to war at any particular time, and only deterred by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons.
And for all the careful handling, there were dozens of false alarms on both sides during the Cold War years: the fact that nuclear war did not erupt from technical malfunction or decisionmaker miscalculation should to an important degree be attributed to sheer dumb luck. Moreover, it would be quite wrong to say that nuclear weapons ushered in an age of peace elsewhere, for in many respects the Cold War years were very bloody indeed, and it is quite possible that nuclear deterrence, if it did work allowed more killing than it prevented during this period, in Vietnam and Afghanistan for a start.
Third, 'Nuclear weapons will deter any large scale conventional attacks'. Factors other than the possession of nuclear weapons, or explosive devices, can explain why the US, Russia, China, the U.K., France, India, Pakistan and North Korea have not been subject to large-scale attack. States and societies have learned from the devastation of World War II and the defeat of aggressors in almost every war since then. The enormous costs of war have to be weighed against any potential gains in starting them. Globalization intensifies the costs of territorial aggression as economic interdependence, especially in finance, leaves all states susceptible to isolation by others. While it cannot be proved either way, it does not seem likely that large-scale confrontations would become more likely in the absence of nuclear weapons: there would still be compelling economic, political and military incentives to prevent disputes between major powers escalating into all-out confrontations.
Fourth, 'Nuclear weapons will deter any chemical or biological weapons attack'. Some nuclear-armed states cite the threat of chemical or biological weapons as necessitating the retention of nuclear weapons. But this inflates out of all proportion the danger of such attacks. While terrible in their own way if used on a large scale (and biological weapons have the potential to do rather more damage than chemical ones), neither of these classes of weapon are ever likely to be as extensive, efficient or varied in their destructive effects as nuclear weapons, which – despite their regular treatment together as 'weapons of mass destruction' – remain in a category of their own. However dire the consequences, societies would find it less hard to recover from chemical and even biological than from nuclear attack. It is extremely difficult to paint plausible scenarios that would threaten destruction on such a scale as to begin to make nuclear, as distinct from conventional, retaliation a proportional, necessary, and therefore credible response. On the associated argument that one sometimes hears, albeit never advanced very confidently, that 'Nuclear weapons will deter terrorist attacks' the answer can be shorter: whether or not terrorism can be deterred, or only prevented and defeated, and whether or not terrorist actors are themselves threatening or using nuclear weapons or explosive devices, nuclear weapons are manifestly neither strategically, tactically or politically necessary or useful for this purpose.
Finally, 'Extended nuclear deterrence is necessary to reassure allies'. This argument arises particularly in the context of the US network of alliances put together in Europe, the Asia Pacific and Middle East in the 1950s, which was constructed, and has continued to this day, on the assumption that the allies in question – including Japan and Australia – were protected by the US nuclear umbrella, not least as a means of ensuring that none of the countries in question were tempted to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. There seems no doubt but that, for the foreseeable future, Washington’s own nuclear deterrent will continue to be extended to its allies to protect them against any nuclear attack or threat they might experience.
The question more immediately engaging policymakers is whether that 'extended deterrence' should involve the nuclear component of America’s deterrent posture being available for non-nuclear threats, be they chemical, biological or conventional in character, or whether rather such threats should be met wholly by non-nuclear means. The issue has yet to be resolved for the US itself, quite apart from its allies. It is currently being addressed in the current Nuclear Posture Review, due for presidential decision early in 2010. A critical question for that Review is whether the US will continue with its current posture of strategic ambiguity, leaving open the possibility of nuclear weapons being used to respond to any class of security threat to itself or its allies, or rather will move – as I for one very much hope it will – toward a declaratory policy that the sole purpose for nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, should be to deter the use by others of nuclear weapons against the US or its allies.
The issue is a complex and sensitive one. On the one hand there is an overwhelming attraction for all those supporting a nuclear weapon free world, in seeing the US – along with all the other nuclear armed states – making an unequivocal 'sole purpose' declaration, sooner rather than later. This would be a major step forward down the disarmament path, and help to put at rest the perception – so damaging to the cause of non-proliferation – that the nuclear armed states regard nuclear weapons as an indispensable, legitimate and open-ended guarantor of their own and their allies’ security, which they are born to have but others have no right to acquire.
On the other hand, some US allies argue that their national survival could be put just as much at risk by the use of biological, chemical or conventional weapons as by nuclear ones, and that so long as any such risk is conceivable they should remain fully protected by the US nuclear umbrella. If the premises of this argument are well-founded, the conclusion is a compelling one. Clearly, again, such allies will need to be very strongly reassured that they will not be exposed to unacceptable risk if the US changes its posture in the way described.
It ought to be possible for that reassurance to be given. Three lines of response suggest themselves. The first is that ‘extended deterrence’ does not have to mean ‘extended nuclear deterrence’. United States conventional capability, when combined with that of each of the allies in question, constitutes a deterrent to any conceivable aggressor at least as formidable as that posed by its nuclear weapons.
The second response is that nuclear weapons are simply not as useable as those who focus on their ultimate deterrent utility would like them to be. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban Missile crisis, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown.
A third line of response is that the US and all of the allies to whom it extends nuclear deterrence have obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to support the total elimination of all nuclear arsenals. At a time when major efforts are being made to reinvigorate the NPT in all its dimensions, and when so much depends on reducing the salience of nuclear weapons – continuing to delegitimize them – great care must be taken not to allow debate over extended nuclear deterrence to raise their salience in national security policies, particularly when there is no real security threat to NATO or East Asian allies today that justifies inflating the value of nuclear weapons.
I hope I have said enough – and not too much, though that’s always a risk on a topic as complex as this – to persuade you that the challenge of nuclear disarmament, though a mighty one, can in fact be met, and that the Australia-Japan Commission can make a significant contribution to advancing the cause by getting all the relevant issues and arguments on the table, doing so in a way that is both idealistic and realistic, and helping to energize, through our analysis and advocacy, the high-level debate the world has to have, whether or not it has yet realized and accepted that.
The trick will be to generate and sustain momentum at three different levels: top-down from the US and Russia; peer-group, through the UN and other multilateral forums because so many other international players have to deliver as well; and bottom-up, mobilizing all those sources of civil society action and commitment that keep governments focused and honest and engaged. In all this advocacy effort, there is one mantra – first articulated by the Canberra Commission in 1996 – which captures the issues more succinctly than anything else and is worth repeating to anyone who will listen, anytime, anywhere. It has a simplicity and a resonance which I think Stephen Murray-Smith would have appreciated, and let it be my last word this evening: so long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, it defies credibility that they will not one day be used, by accident, miscalculation or design. And any such use would be catastrophic for our world as we know it.