Australia must stem our major military ally’s rush to nuclear weapon free-for-all?

Jun 9, 2020

The danger of nuclear war is growing. A new arms race is ramping up, and hard-won treaties reigning in nuclear weapons are being torn up – the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, now the Open Skies Treaty and a US threat to resume nuclear test explosions, writes Tilman Ruff.

Every nuclear-armed nation says it wants a world free from nuclear weapons, and each of them is legally obligated to eliminate nuclear weapons. This year marks 75 years since the radioactive incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 213,000 people by the end of 1945, and thousands more since. It also marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations, out of the trauma of World War 2. The very first resolution of the newly established UN General Assembly called for the elimination of atomic weapons. It is also now 50 years since the entry into force of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires all its members to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Past time, you would think, to complete that task. Not only has nuclear disarmament not happened, the danger of nuclear war is growing. This year the hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved to 100 seconds to midnight, further forward than they have ever been. Arms races are ratcheting up between NATO/US and Russia, and India and Pakistan, and explicit nuclear threats abound. Rather than disarming, all 9 nuclear-armed states are massively investing in retaining and modernising their arsenals with new weapons and new capacities, lowering the threshold for their use. Cyberwarfare and potential escalation of the growing number of internationalised armed conflicts occurring in an increasingly climate-stressed world add to the dangers of a final epidemic of indiscriminate nuclear violence from which there can be no recovery.

The grim reality is that the nuclear-armed states have no intention to disarm. The hard-won agreements that have constrained nuclear proliferation since the Cold War are being progressively dismantled, and nothing is being put in their place. The fact is, the current US administration is wrecker-in-chief, reflecting extreme hostility to any international treaties, including the Paris climate agreement it has rejected. The Trump administration has claimed that commitments made at 5 yearly NPT review conferences are non-binding and lapse at the next review. The administration has backed away from its earlier business as usual incremental disarmament approach, which paid lip service to measures stuck and unimplemented for decades. Its currently proposed framework is “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament“– a step away from even discussing specific disarmament measures. The administration deployed the first new nuclear warheads in years on a US submarine in December – “low yield” weapons that lower the threshold for nuclear use.

The Iran nuclear deal

President Trump has abandoned the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal), which put the most stringent constraints ever on a nation’s nuclear program, under the most stringent verification regime accepted by any nation, and every 3 months for more than three years the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran was complying with the agreement. This provided the best available model for what a de-nuclearisation agreement with North Korea might look like. The effect of the US withdrawal has predictably been continued hardship for the Iranian people through harsh sanctions, and an acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program, bringing it closer to nuclear weapons should its government so decide.

The world breathed a sigh of relief when escalating explicit nuclear threats between President Trump and North Korean leaders were replaced by dialogue, but this has faltered and is moribund, with no durable agreement achieved.

Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty gone

President Trump was the first to abandon the 1988 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty agreed by Presidents Bush (Republican) and Gorbachev, that ushered in the end of the first cold war and large reductions in the gargantuan Soviet/Russian and US nuclear arsenals. Russia followed. The INF treaty successfully and on time eliminated 2692 nuclear missiles that, if push came to shove, would mostly have been exploded on the soil of European nations. The fact that the carefully crafted mechanisms contained in that treaty to address disputes about implementation were not utilized prior to US withdrawal makes clear that resolving disputes about compliance was never the US goal.

The Open Skies Treaty is next

Two weeks ago Trump gave notice that the US intended to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, another treaty concluded under President George HW Bush. With 6 months notice of withdrawal required, the rushed timing, without the required preceding 120 day period of notice to the US Congress, suggests this is intended to lock the next administration into this decision. This treaty includes the 34 members of NATO and the Warsaw pact, and is intended to enhance mutual transparency and stability by reducing the possibility of military preparations by one side surprising the other. It allows for short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the territory of the other members. Data on military forces and activities collected is shared with the host country and is available to all members. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1500 flights took place, including nearly 200 US flights over Russia compared with about 70 Russia flights over the US. Again, no process was undertaken to address alleged Russian non-compliance before the US gave notice of withdrawal.

The US looks set to let New START expire on 5 Feb 2021

Russian and US nuclear weapons constitute 91% of the world total. Their use would plunge the world into a sudden and severe nuclear ice age that would freeze and starve people who survived the initial firestorms. Our species and most others would very likely become extinct. The last remaining treaty which constrains US and Russian nuclear arsenals is the New START treaty, which caps each side’s deployed long-range warheads at 1550, on no more than 700 deployed launchers. It has been effectively implemented, contains robust verification provisions, and provides clear pathways to address and resolve questions about compliance. Unless extended, after ten years the treaty will expire – on 5 Feb 2021. The Russian government has repeatedly offered to unconditionally extend the treaty; the Trump administration is stalling, saying it wants a new treaty that involves China, an unrealistic and unfeasible prospect which China, with less than 5% the number of nuclear weapons than either Russia or the US, has rejected. This appears no more than a red herring prelude for US withdrawal.

As the all-party UK House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations said in its 2019 report “Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”: “We are now dangerously close to a world without arms control agreements, paving the way for a new arms race and for increased risk of nuclear weapons use. … the risk of nuclear weapons being used is now greater than it has been since the end of the Cold War.” The credibility of commitments made, including in treaties between nations, by the US lies in tatters along with the current administration’s headlong rush to undermine and weaken a rules-based international order. In the time of COVID-19, it could hardly be more obvious that international cooperation, agreements and their effective implementation critically need to be strengthened. They provide the crucial path to effectively address global threats like pandemics, global heating and nuclear weapons.

Our dangerous lurch to an accelerating nuclear arms race out of all control doesn’t end there. Recently the new US Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea claimed the US could win a new nuclear arms race: “We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

US talk of resuming explosive nuclear tests

On 23 May, the Washington Post reported that senior administration officials had discussed a “rapid” nuclear test to provide pressure on Moscow and Beijing. This was reportedly “very much an ongoing conversation.” Three days later a Pentagon official was quoted as saying that a “very quick” underground nuclear explosive test with minimal diagnostics could occur at the Nevada test site “within months”. The adverse consequences should this happen are hard to put a line around. Other nuclear-armed nations can be expected to follow suit, North Korea first among them. Decades of painstaking progress would be shredded, and the danger of nuclear war career perilously closer.

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, in which Australia through diplomats Richard Starr and Richard Butler played key roles, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), that would ban all nuclear test explosions, has not yet entered into force because 8 of the 44 states that must ratify it before this can happen – China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and USA – have not yet done so. Nevertheless the CTBT Organization in Vienna supervises an extensive global network of monitoring stations shown to have excellent capacity to verify compliance with the treaty. The norm against nuclear testing has become strong. Apart from North Korea, which has not conducted a nuclear test since 3 Sep 2017, all other nuclear-armed states ceased explosive testing by 1998, when India and Pakistan were the last to stop.

Support for the CTBT has been one of the strongest and most consistent elements of Australia’s nuclear disarmament diplomacy. Australia now hosts 20 CTBT monitoring stations, and provides radionuclide testing services through the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency laboratory in Melbourne. Australia with New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice in 1973 over their atmospheric tests in the Pacific. The revulsion and protest among Australian citizens and parliamentarians across the political spectrum against French nuclear testing in the Pacific was near universal, particularly when this resumed in 1995 for a last flurry which our protests helped to curtail in 1996.

In Australia – complicit silence

Foreign minister Marise Payne tweeted on 12 June 2019: “Our most urgent global challenges won’t be solved by countries acting alone. We stand for an international order based on rules and cooperation.” In a speech to the UN Conference on Disarmament on 25 Feb 2019, she said “It is critical for the global stability that this arrangement [New START] is extended.” The Australian government has repeatedly expressed concern about North Korea’s nuclear tests. At the CTBT Conference on 27 Sep 2019 Payne tweeted: “The CTBT Conference … has sent a powerful message that weapons testing is not tolerated.” All fine sentiments.

Where now is Australia’s voice, loud and clear, to stem our major military ally’s rush towards a nuclear weapons free-for-all in a world without nuclear arms control? Our government has rather lamely said it continues to support the Iran nuclear deal. On the other treaties the US has walked away from and is threatening to abandon, we have said little if anything publicly, and there’s no good indications we’ve said anything robust privately. Where are voices from party leaders, foreign affairs spokespeople and parliamentarians on all sides protesting this madness? Of course there are other pressing concerns, and I may have missed some, but I am hearing almost no such public voices.

In this alarming situation, why does our government continue to oppose and refuse to join the one positive nuclear development that lights a path out of this worsening mess – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons? This year, Australian diplomats proudly sit on the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Australia played a leading role in. Our signing up to the bans on biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions enjoys wide political support. The inconsistency of supporting banning other major types of indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, while being part of the problem of by far the worst WMDs, is glaring.

Successive Australian governments have claimed that US nuclear weapons are central to Australia’s security. Through hosting key intelligence and communications facilities at Pine Gap and elsewhere, which assist command, control and targeting of US nuclear weapons, Australia provides material assistance for possible use of US nuclear weapons. Australia therefore bears a share of responsibility. We cannot claim that what the US does regarding nuclear weapons and disarmament is not our business. Right now, Australia has the presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament.

Where is Australia’s spine and leadership? Where is our voice for humanity? Before it is too late. The silence is deafening.

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