The dispute over the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program is a disturbing example of the renewal of anarchy as the main determinant in international politics. It is being conducted by two unreliable leaders. Intervention by saner states is needed urgently.
The two horrendous great wars of the last century were accompanied by a distinctive scholarship of international politics: EH Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. Their analyses pointed out that international politics was essentially an anarchy: it had no rules. Its events were determined by power and national interest.
In reaction to the failures and carnage of that period two attempts were made to defeat this anarchy and establish a system of rules for the conduct of international relations. The second attempt – the establishment of the United Nations – has endured, now for 70 years.
The Charter of the UN was agreed simultaneously, with the revelation of the invention of nuclear weapons. The connection of the Charter to nuclear weapons is fundamental. The first resolution of the General Assembly, in 1946, was on nuclear disarmament; the largest multilateral treaty, the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT); 190 of the 193 member states of the UN adhere to it; the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, adopted by the UN in 1996, has 183 adherents; and two months ago the General Assembly adopted and opened for signature a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And the five states given centre stage and predominant power in the UN system – the Permanent Members of the Security Council – are those recognized under the NPT as the legitimate nuclear weapon states.
The corpus of UN treaties is now extensive and varied. They form the fabric of so very much of modern life; they reduce the tendency to anarchy. But nothing remotely compares to the effort that has been made, by the community of states, to contain and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons. Why?
Because nuclear weapons are recognized as posing a unique and dreadful threat to humans and the planetary environment. Those effects cannot be tolerated or relativised. Their use, or threat of use, would constitute the restoration of anarchy as the organizing principle of international politics; the exercise of force, without regard to the legitimacy or morality of such action. The International Court of Justice has found that any use of nuclear weapons would, with virtual certainty, constitute a crime against humanity.
This is precisely what we are witnessing, today, in the conduct by both DPRK and the US, on the grave issue of DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme. With Trump and Kim’s actions and statements, it’s hard to work out which feature is the more astounding: the bombast or the hypocrisy.
On the former both are threatening cataclysmic destruction in terms which are incredible; that is, hardly able to be believed and, in the case of Kim, not able to be achieved. In the case of Trump, were he actually to decide to authorize the threatened destruction of DPRK, “like the world has never seen”, presumably he’d be stopped by others in DC and other capitals. If not, the man who would make America great again would have presided over its moral destruction. Imagine, an attack with nuclear weapons, upon a state, because it was acquiring nuclear weapons!
Sane and mature people don’t indulge in such posturing, because the other side may be neither of those things. It’s hopelessly reckless when nuclear weapons are involved.
Hypocrisy has hobbled nuclear arms control efforts for the past 70 years. The fundamental agreement of the NPT is that the non-nuclear weapon states will never acquire them and the recognized nuclear weapon states will progressively eliminate them.
The outcome has been: only DPRK has withdrawn from NPT and proliferated; Iran has edged towards a weapons capability; India and Pakistan have become nuclear weapon states and are now recognized as such; Israel has maintained a significant, undeclared, nuclear weapons capability, which is absolutely protected by the US.
The recognised nuclear weapon states have reduced and withdrawn some systems, but have never kept their side of the NPT bargain, in direct rejection of their international legal undertakings. Instead, they are now in a phase of renewing and expanding their nuclear weapons capability.
For them to tell others that they may not develop or hold nuclear weapons for their own so-called defence, but to insist that it is legitimate and justified for them to do so, is the plainest of hypocrisy, widely seen as such, and condemns to failure further efforts at nuclear arms control.
It is the restoration of anarchy to the centre of international politics and this feeds the trend towards heightened nationalism now evident in a number of parts of the world.
Clearly, a renewed and actively pursued struggle for power and influence is under way, principally amongst the US, Russia, China, and involving other important regional powers: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, for example. The issue of DPRK has been incorporated into this, and thus has brought in Japan.
Attempts to reach a broad consensus on the conduct of international relations and, as prescribed in the UN Charter as “the maintenance of international peace security” following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, can reasonably be declared to have been exhausted. Instead we are witnessing a contest shaped by the post 9/11 world, as seen by the US. External actions by the US, principally in the Middle East, have been marked overall by substantial and expensive failure and provided the opportunity and incentive for other powers to pursue their national interests and, of course, a rationale for groups such as DAESH.
Virtually all of this is being done without reference to the Charter principles, and often in clear violation of international law. That the potential use of nuclear weapons has re-entered this setting is deeply alarming and overturns a strongly established informal understanding that nuclear weapons should never be used again.
By the way, consistent with that understanding, the notion of deterrence exercised through the threat of use of nuclear weapons, is widely regarded by analysts, not ideologues, as empty, unstable, and incredible.
It is virtually contemptible that the Australian Government, and the current loyal opposition, continues to tell the Australian people that we rely on an umbrella of US nuclear weapons, so called extended deterrence, for our national survival. We cannot and should not.
Are we really prepared to endorse the potential commission of a crime against humanity – that is what the use of nuclear weapons would entail – or indeed the threat of its commission, for our national survival?
In circumstances where the dominance of anarchy in international relations appears to have been restored, the US government is led by a person widely regarded as unstable and morally bankrupt and the DPRK government is dominated by a person of whom the only thing we know, reliably, is that he will continue its development as a nuclear weapons state.
It is irresistible to recall WB Yeats’ lines: ”mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity”.
Serious and informed states need to insist,that consequential, high level discussions and negotiations with DPRK and the US must be arranged. Australia could be one of those if it chose this path.
Richard Butler AC, former Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador for Disarmament, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.