GARETH EVANS. Emotion, reason and nuclear disarmament

I first came to Hiroshima in 1964 as a twenty-year old student, and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of standing at the epicentre of that first nuclear bomb strike, and being overwhelmed by the almost indescribable horror of what had occurred here just two decades earlier

Utilising the power of emotion 

The strong emotion that I experienced at Hiroshima all those decades ago (and which was superbly articulated by President Obama in his own path-breaking visit here in 2016), was obviously felt by many other ordinary citizens around the world during the Cold War years. If any serious new momentum towards a nuclear weapon free world is going to be generated, we have to see at least some of that emotional charge replicated today, both bottom-up from publics and top-down from government policymakers.

The power of bottom-up pressure from seriously motivated publics is something with which all politicians are totally familiar. But how do we generate that bottom-up momentum in the present environment, where complacency about, and indifference to, the risks posed by existing nuclear arsenals is almost universal?

As someone who has been a civil society activist, as well as a government official, it pains me to admit it, but I am not sure that public minds can be newly concentrated, short of a new Cuban-style crisis developing in North Korea or elsewhere, or an actual nuclear exchange on the India sub-continent or elsewhere. I would not for one second suggest that the grass-roots mobilisation effort should be abandoned, and this kind of effort has certainly been encouraged by the awarding of the 2017 Nobel Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

But my own instinct is that most of the initiative and momentum for change is going to have to come top down, from key national and international leaders committed both intellectually and emotionally to change and from peer group pressure applied internationally by governments (including traditionally active middle powers like Australia) who see, or should see, the status quo as unsustainable.

Japan’s role in this respect is crucial. As the only country ever to have experienced the horror of nuclear weapons attack, you have enormous moral authority to argue that these most indiscriminately inhumane of all weapons should never be used again. No one, internationally, who has ever heard the raw testimony of hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could fail to be deeply moved by it. But whatever the efforts of individual Japanese, as a state Japan loses that authority when its national government plays the role of happy, uncritical shelterer under the US nuclear umbrella. Influential allies and partners of the US, and in particular Japan and Australia, simply have to accept more responsibility than we have, and to act more consistently than we have, in trying to reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons.

In this context, it is important to recognise that not just in civil society advocacy but in government advocacy, emotion will have to play a big part. It is important not to underestimate the extent to which, in real world government nuclear decision making, raw outrage at the sheer indiscriminate inhumanity of any nuclear weapons use does already play a part. Even the most hard-headed policymakers have to take seriously the profound normative taboo which unquestionably exists internationally against any deliberate, aggressive use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at imminent risk. Even that famously hard-headed US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, during the height of the Cold War, that if the US had used nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam or against China over Taiwan, ‘we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned’.

Utilising the power of reason 

All that said, I don’t think we can ever assume that we will get to a nuclear weapon free world through the power of emotion and moral persuasion alone. Hard-headed policymakers know perfectly well that any use of nuclear weapons would be an indefensible assault on our common humanity. Many of them quite unashamedly argue that the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent.

What they need to be persuaded about are the strategic arguments against nuclear weapons: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utility in maintaining stable peace. And that keeping nuclear stockpiles – even if you don’t ever intend to use them except by way of retaliation if attacked – is not in fact a risk-free enterprise. They have to be persuaded that the benefits of nuclear weapons are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved.

It is not hard to make persuasive arguments of this kind. For example, in terms of deterring war between the major powers, while of course Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) did encourage a degree of caution in how the Soviet Union and US approached each other, no evidence has ever emerged that either side wanted at any stage to cold-bloodedly initiate war but was deterred only by the existence of the other side’s nuclear arsenal. Again, as to the argument that nuclear weapons deter large-scale conventional attacks, there is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: think of the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan and first Gulf wars for a start.

But what of the apparent belief of some smaller states, like North Korea, that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention? The answer here is that while it is true that having some nuclear weapons is an evident source of psychological and domestic political comfort in these situations, belief in their protective power is simply not objectively well-founded. I have been told by some Chinese analysts in a position to know that the Pyongyang leadership does not really believe that it needs nuclear weapons for its survival, whatever show it continues to put on. It already has formidable deterrent capacity with its ‘ring of fire’ artillery and rocket placements within range of Seoul. Nuclear weapons that would be manifestly suicidal to use on the ROK, Japan or the US, are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (for example, missile submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. The DPRK knows that nuclear homicide means national suicide.

What is clear, for North Korea and everyone else, is that if the cause of disarmament is to gain momentum, the present nuclear armed states – and those who shelter beneath them – will have to be persuaded, both rationally and emotionally, that their own national security will not be prejudiced by relying not on inherently unusable weapons of mass destruction, but rather on conventional weaponry – and above all intelligent, cooperative-security focused, diplomacy. In each case, those of us who want to see disarmament progress will have to make credible arguments that none of these steps will mean diminished security for anyone. It is not hard to do that rationally: the biggest hurdles will always be psychological, emotional and political.

Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister, is Chancellor of the Australian National University and Chair of the Board of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. This is an extract from the inaugural Hiroshima Lecture delivered in Hiroshima on 22 August. The full text can be found here.


Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96.

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