A nuclear arms race between the US and Russia has resumed. The US is increasing the power and effectiveness of its weapons threefold, President Trump has indicated that he is prepared to contemplate using nuclear weapons to achieve some of his stated objectives.
Those who think nuclear weapons are useful, typically describe that utility in two different ways: deterrence, allegedly achieved by threatening their use; and by using them to achieve political and/or military objectives.
The main, historic, example of deterrence has been that which has prevailed for almost 70 years, between the US and USSR/Russia: the central strategic balance. Their nuclear arms race, at its height, produced no less than 80,000 nuclear weapons.
The only example of use, has been by the US, twice, against Japan, in 1945.
US/Russian deterrence, the threat of mutual assured destruction has become unstable. Both are building new weapons, qualitatively and quantitatively, in violation of their Treaty obligations. A new nuclear arms race is underway. But, above all, the US is now deploying a technology called super fuze, principally in its submarine based nuclear missiles, which increases their lethality threefold. (1)
The US may have achieved or be considered by the Russians to have achieved, a disarming first strike capability. If this is the case, deterrence has been destroyed and the question of when a decision to make that strike will be taken, is the only relevant one for the Russians. They are now working on counter measures.
A nuclear arms race is also underway between India and Pakistan. There are also other instances of proliferation; DPRK and possibly elsewhere.
A reaction to President Trump’s various scattered and bombastic utterances on nuclear weapons and foreign policy, has been the beginning of a debate in Western Europe on the establishment of a common EU nuclear deterrent force.
On the matter of the use of nuclear weapons, in pursuit of a military/political objective, current circumstances are alarming.
For example, President Trump has stated that he will eliminate ISIS by whatever means it will take and will prevent DPRK from a nuclear weapons capability able to threaten the US and/or Japan and the ROK. Some would say, particularly in Japan and the ROK, that in fact, DPRK already has that capability, or is very near it.
This notion of so called “extended deterrence”; a nuclear weapon state threatening to use its nuclear weapons to defend its partners, is the notion which Australia’s political leaders and defense thinkers say applies to us, under the US alliance. This view is an act of faith, ignoring the reality that no nuclear weapon state will risk nuclear conflict other than when it, itself, is jeopardised. It speaks volumes about our continuing psychology of dependency, formerly on the British, now the Americans.
The instance of extended deterrence which leaves all others well behind in terms of its credibility and the dangers it incorporates, is the US’ commitment to defend Israel. The odd twist to this however lies in its redundancy: Israel has its own substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, and can be expected to use them if it encounters what it calls an existential crisis; a term Prime Minister Netanyahu is given to invoking liberally.
The question of the dangers embedded in and the peculiarities of the US/Israel relationship, is a large and complex one, best treated separately.
Of central importance now are the signs that President Trump seems to consider that nuclear weapons are simply an integral part of the arsenal at his disposal for the fulfilment of his muscularity; simply, a bigger cannon. They are not. They do not form a part of such a simple continuum from smaller to larger weapons. They are qualitatively distinct.
Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic in: human terms, including through radiation effects which would range well beyond the place of their use, ecological terms, affecting agriculture and climate, economic terms, and in moral terms.
On the latter, a threshold was established in 1945, in Japan, which it is widely acknowledged should never be crossed again, because of the savagery it would introduce into the conduct of human relations. It is feared that if it were crossed again, the place to which this would lead would be horrendous.
The International Court of Justice has declared that any use of nuclear weapons would violate customary international humanitarian law.
The need to find a solution to the problem of nuclear weapons was recognized when Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik, in September 1986. Gorbachev proposed that they agree to work together to eliminate all nuclear weapons because of the inadmissible danger they posed. Reagan’s conviction was that “ nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. They agreed, initially, to seek to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but Reagan’s officials prevailed upon him to insist upon the continuation of the development of his proposed anti-missile defense system. Gorbachev could not accept this.
So, an agreement on all nuclear weapons was not reached, but they did agree to eliminate a whole class of weapons: the intermediate range weapons in Europe. And, there followed thereafter the range of bilateral agreements which brought the 80,000 weapons down to some 30,000.
Under the current agreement, START II, each side may deploy some 1500 warheads each.
When President Trump had his first telephone conversation with President Putin, in February 2017, Putin made reference to that agreement and Trump had to ask him to hold while he asked his staff what it was Putin was referring to. Trump then said to Putin that it was: “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration”.
So much for both his awareness of important issues in the relationship and the quality of the briefing he had received for his call. This latter point is serious. We are all too aware by now of the character and modus operandi of President Trump. They raise their own challenges, and they would appear to be woefully unsuited to decision making on the use of nuclear weapons. But, what of the quality of the advice he is receiving and his receptiveness to any advice. Who will advise him on the use of nuclear weapons, and what will they say?
The current consternation in Washington about contacts between the Trump team and the Russians and the notion that Russia interfered in the US election is flourishing and by no means over. On one level it is about the integrity of the last election, but more importantly it’s a part of the growing sense, or is it fantasy, that a wrong choice was made in Trump, and it may be possible to see him off the scene.
Of potentially far greater consequence is the McCarthyism that is now flourishing; the gross identification of Russia as an existential evil.
Given the instability of the central strategic balance and Trump’s attitude towards the utility of nuclear weapons, his contemplation of their use, this vilification of Russia and of anyone dealing with them is deeply dangerous.
It’s irresistible to ask. What would be so wrong about speaking with the Russians, treating them as an equal partner, in particular on the question of reducing the profound danger posed by nuclear weapons; a revisiting of Reykjavik?
Finally, in two weeks’ time, in New York, a conference established by the UN General Assembly, to begin discussion of the development of a legally binding instrument to outlaw all nuclear weapons will begin. The Turnbull/Bishop government, with the US, voted against the establishment of the conference and will not take part.
Such is our Alliance devotion, the same devotion which led John Howard to send Australian troops to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to deceive the Australian people and Parliament about the reasons for his decision.
(1) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1 March 2017: “How US Nuclear Force Modernization is Undermining Strategic Stability”, Hans M Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, Theodor A Postol . This is an authoritative and technically detailed article.
Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador for Disarmament, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and managed the adoption by the UN of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.