Australian PM Gillard’s Call for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons No Shot in the Dark

Australia’s prime minister Julia Gillard, reports Sydney’s Telegraph, “will call for a parliamentary vote on a motion calling for nuclear armed countries — including our closest allies in the US and Britain — to destroy their atomic weapons. It would be the first time the Australian parliament had adopted a resolution calling for global disarmament.”

Presumably it was only a matter of time since in June 2008 then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed the formation of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) to be co-chaired by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. The ICNND closed down operations in July 2010 after concluding what it considered its mandate, which, in large part was creating a comprehensive report titled Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.

But Ms. Gillard was reluctant to sponsor the motion and agreed to, the Telegraph reports, only “after pressure from Labor MPs on a parliamentary Committee on Treaties. . . . It is believed it was the second time the [committee] had written to Ms Gillard, after she ignored the first request earlier this year.” By doing so she assures the ICNND’s legacy.

. . . the Prime Minister confirmed the government would adopt recommendation 21 of its [the ICNND's, that is] Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament report. The resolution calls for an immediate cut to all nuclear arsenals, starting with a ban on enrichment and the production of fissile material.

Below are excerpts from a post I wrote at the time that “Eliminating Nuclear Threats” was issued (posted elsewhere, prior to the existence of Focal Points).

Another Nuclear-Weapons Commission? Wait, This One’s the Bomb!

In December, what for all intents and purposes looks like the mother of all reports on nuclear weapons was issued. The entity responsible is called the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND). A joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments, it was launched to reinvigorate global nuclear disarmament in time for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The ICNND is chaired by Gareth Evans, Australia’s respected one-time foreign minister who has since dedicated his life to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, and Yoriko Kawaguchi, Japan’s former minister of foreign affairs. Its other members are mostly individuals who’ve held high positions in government, including a former chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff, a former prime minister of Norway, and Prince Turki Al Faisal of the Saudi royal family.

Come to think of it, the commission’s mainstream membership is reminiscent of that of the recently concluded Congressional Commission on the Nuclear Posture of the United States. The latter included, on the one hand, Clinton Secretary of Defense William Perry, since reborn as a disarmament advocate, and, on the other, former CIA director and noted hawk James Woolsey. Among the Nuclear Posture Review Commission’s recommendations were ratifying the follow-up treaty to START, but not the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In effect, it nullified itself.

But disarmament itself was central to its deliberations, while in the ICNND’s case, it was its raison d’etre. Titled “Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers,” the ICNND’s report counsels disarmament in studied steps.

Reading it proves slow going — it’s as nuanced as it is comprehensive — but it’s no slog. To those of us who’d like to see a shortened route to disarmament and one shorn of the nuclear-energy programs ICNND considers essential to its agenda, the results of the report disappoint to a degree. On the other hand, it’s awash in keen observations and sound reasoning. As I work my way through it (about one-third thus far) I’ll highlight some of those — as well as have some fun with it.

Let’s begin with what the report refers to as nuclear weapons’ “delegitimation” (which, apparently, is to “deligitimization” as “preventive” is to “preventative”). The report reads:

If we want to minimize and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, the critical need is to change perceptions of their role and utility: in effect, to achieve their progressive delegitimation, from a position in which they occupied a central strategic place to one in which their role is seen as quite marginal, and eventually wholly unnecessary as well as undesirable.

We’re part way there, according to the report, because

. . . it is now broadly accepted that nuclear weapons have little or no utility as instruments of warfighting [because, among other things nuclear weapons], creating impassable terrains and causing long-lasting environmental damage, cannot rationally be used to take territory.

Not only are nuclear weapons weighed down by the irony that they’re inherently unusable, but one rung down the hierarchy of irony resides the humbling knowledge that the biggest, baddest weapons ever invented are of absolutely no use when it comes to seizing territory. If one state covets another for its resources or whatever and were to attack it with nuclear weapons, the resale value on the acquired state immediately plummets.

Even if the conquering state were willing to help rebuild its newfound acquisition, needless to say, great swaths of it are rendered uninhabitable by radiation. Of course, a nuclear-weapons advocate might make the case that not only do nuclear weapons deter a world war, they’re the reason that while states may fight over disputed territory like Kashmir, they no longer seek to acquire new territory.

As opposed to conquest or world wars, today small wars are all the rage. But nuclear weapons

. . . lack finesse in a world where advanced militaries increasingly focus on reducing collateral damage and civilian deaths. . . . weapons of choice in war these days are precise in both targeting and effect.

The last sentence might be amended to read “weapons of choice in war these days are intended to be precise in both targeting and effect.” The report also reads (emphasis added):

Nuclear weapons are essentially self-deterring for actors who depend upon public support from their own populations, their allies, and broader international society. Every time states have come close to their use they have recoiled.

Deterrence aside, another argument that the proponents of nuclear weapons proffer for the retention of nuclear weapons is

. . . the notion that because nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented they can never wholly disappear.

No question — refuting the uninvented argument isn’t easy. But that’s why God created compliance and verification: Vigilance is all. Besides, mankind hasn’t been able to uninvent torture and slavery, but they’ve been eradicated. Oh wait, no they haven’t. Moving on, the report reads:

If these perceptions [about the uninvention of nuclear weapons] are to change, they have to be tackled. . . in a way which recognizes and respects. . . the weight of opposing arguments. . . . The necessary commitments to disarmament will not be achieved by simply denouncing the nuclear-armed states. . . for being in thrall to false theories and prey to unwarranted anxieties.

In fact, said states

. . . can both recognize [the] long-term risks and at the same time fear the short-term impact on their security posed by the processes of disarmament. . . .They must be convinced that there is no incompatibility between nuclear disarmament and security.

As you can see, despite how hypocritical a state sounds when it calls for disarmament while also insisting on retaining nukes, concerns about a disarmament time frame are legitimate. Thus (emphasis added)

Those who advocate elimination need to break the process into manageable steps, countering perceptions that it is a leap into the unknown. . . . the number of diverse states that must cooperate to make nuclear abolition feasible is too great, and the issues too complex, to allow anything but incremental movement. Here as elsewhere in public policy, inertia tends to be the norm, major change the rarity, and sustaining major change extraordinarily difficult. The real alternative to an incremental approach is not more rapid change, but stasis. But doing nothing is not an option.

We can’t know if Prime Minister Gillard’s motion to abolish nuclear weapons will have any impact. But at least she and Australia’s parliament are not doing nothing.