BINOY KAMPMARK. Des Ball: The man who sank the myth of controlled nuclear warfare

Oct 22, 2016

The late Professor Des Ball of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre came as close as any on being a public intellectual on nuclear strategy.

While some of his counterparts in the United States felt that using nuclear weapons was feasible and sound, Ball, who died last week, issued his pieces with mighty caveats and sensible qualifications.

Controlling the process of deploying weapons of mass extermination in an active theatre, far from being deemed obscene, was lauded by advocates. Human sense will always prevail, somehow.

Ball suggested otherwise. In Can Nuclear War be Controlled? (1981), he provided what one reviewer regarded as a ‘tersely argued’, ‘spare’ yet formidable case against credible controlled nuclear escalation. ‘Controlling escalation’, Ball ventured, ‘requires both adversaries to exercise restraint, and current US policy is to offer a … mixture of self-interest and coercion.’

Well it might be that ‘carefully conducted attacks designed to demonstrate political resolve’ could have a ‘salutary effect’, but to envisage cool control in cases ‘beyond the detonation of several tens of nuclear weapons’ was not tenable. The nuclear fraternity, in short, had lost the plot.

To that end, Ball exerted more than just a scribbler’s influence. Former US president Jimmy Carter credited Ball for being a seminal figure in sinking the myth of controlled nuclear warfare, notably at a time when its normality generally went unquestioned in strategic circles. His ‘counsel and cautionary advice, based on deep research, made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war’.

Ball was a difficult thinker to categorise, though he had been designated ‘a realist, as deeply committed to liberal institutionalism as the inductive approach’. A book in his honour, published in 2012, described him as the ‘insurgent intellectual’, though it is also fair to say he was less insurgent than his reputation suggested. But in a country where the intellectual is often questioned, Ball proved a titan of sorts.


Ball’s stance against the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the chronically draining conflict in Afghanistan was known, though he was hardly a pacifist. He made it clear that a defence force with teeth — preferably self-reliant teeth — was what Australia needed. This led to speculation on the part of former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans whether Ball was a hawk with dovish characteristics or a dovish hawk.

“There is a residual fear in Australia that we can’t defend this huge territory and only the Americans can really save us. We always have been a fearful country. We’ve always needed great and powerful friends.” — Des Ball

A feature of his insistence on self-reliance was his developing critique of the US-Australian strategic alliance. In some ways, Ball’s passing in the 15th year of the founding of the US Pine Gap facility is apposite. Along with Richard Tanter, he did more work on the subject of drumming up awareness of the secret base’s role on Australian soil than most. A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia (1980) drove interest on how Australian territory had become an imperial domain for Washington’s strategic push. His assertion that Australia reclaim sovereignty was deemed ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’.

Australia, for Ball, seemed gripped by a near infantile fear about its security, a requirement almost Freudian in its search for a protective paternal power. ‘There is a residual fear in Australia that we can’t defend this huge territory and only the Americans can really save us. We always have been a fearful country. We’ve always needed great and powerful friends.’

Precisely to that end, concessions have been made, notably over the enormous latitude allowed US personnel at Pine Gap. The use of the facility to provide data for drone strikes particularly troubled Ball, just as the facility’s use for US air operations over Vietnam and Cambodia troubled Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.

Comparison is often made with the British equivalent in the form of the RAF Menwith Hill facility, a base owned by the British Ministry of Defence but made available to the US Department of Defense. Between the two, Pine Gap might show ‘a much more genuinely “joint” facility’, though questions remain about its character and ‘its strategic and political implications for Australia’.

In a tone similar to the late Malcolm Fraser with his resentment of Australia’s ‘star spangled manner’, Ball felt that the base over time exemplified the worst in the US-Australian alliance. As he told the ABC in 2014, he had reached a point where he could ‘no longer stand up and provide the verbal, conceptual justification for the facility that I was able to do in the past’. Not only was he an important public intellectual, but an urgently needed one.

Dr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. This article was first posted in Eureka Street on 17 October, 2016.


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