MICHAEL McKINLEY. Reflections on the nuclear dimensions of Hugh White’s ‘How To Defend Australia’

Jul 24, 2019

Australian strategic thinking, like Dracula’s Transylvania, is very much troubled by the undead. Research undertaken 50 years ago by Ian Bellany, a nuclear physicist and predecessor of Hugh White in the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, wrestled with a remarkably similar Australian defence problematic – namely whether nuclear weapons might be a safeguard against a rising China and concluded that other options (military and diplomatic) were far more preferable. The times have changed, and with them, so it seems, the need to disinter the corpse if only to rebury it.  

In the area of Australian Defence Hugh White has a deserved standing as one of the few genuine public intellectuals addressing the need, as Herman Hahn once phrased it, to think about the unthinkable.  Moreover he does so in characteristically clear and logical analyses which impose upon those who would disagree with him the need to be equally rigorous in dissent.

In this most recent work he well serves the national interest, the University, and the need, as the Quakers put it, to speak truth to power, and does so by a commitment to exploring ideas that, no matter how unpalatable, will not recede unless they are defeated intellectually, politically, and ethically.

This is not only an extremely serious undertaking; more, it can be a tortuous process for the author and, while foreswearing any claim to be a psychologist at a distance, I have inferred that this was the case for White.

To sum up the significance of How To Defend Australia as a contribution to the debate and dialogue on national defence, it is one of the two most important contributions of the last forty years – the other being the capabilities review conducted by Paul Dibb in the mid-1980s.

That said, while the analyses and proposals relating to conventional force structure are empirically robust and logically compelling, the need to confront the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the adoption of a relevant strategy by Australia are exceptionally concerning, and for four reasons.

The first is the logic of their use which founders on a quite straightforward conundrum: any state which can be deterred by Australia’s arsenal and the declared willingness to use it will almost not be capable of mounting the level of aggression that would require a nuclear response. Conversely, any state capable of mounting the threshold level of aggression would quite  likely obliterate all or most of the main population centres and strategic sites and with a relatively modest expenditure of its nuclear assets.

In other words Australia would have what Mary Kaldor once called a “baroque arsenal” – ornate, complex and extravagant – which would only impress an irrational middle power enemy on the one hand, and irritate a dominant and determined super power on the other.

The second is the notable silence attending what might be termed the national ethics of the strategy in question: make no mistake, in extremis, it requires an indiscriminate and disproportionate attack on an enemy’s population  centres resulting in deaths to be measured (minimally) in the hundreds of thousands.

Admittedly, Australia has, through its various alliance arrangements, assented to such an attack vicariously, but with the possession of a national nuclear arsenal the essence of nuclear deterrence as a mutual suicide pact to preserve the status quo would go considerably further than the current normalised acceptance of US nuclear strategy which has taken place by stealth, inattention and deceit over several decades.

We need to ask what sort of nation would Australia be that threatens whole populations with annihilation even in the name of national defence.

Silence also covers an appropriate elaboration of third reason for a nuclear demarche: the global, multi-dimensional, strategic crisis occasioned by the rise of China and the various forms of decline being experienced by the United States which is leaving Australia in a state of strategic semi-orphanhood.

We live in that time of radical discontinuity known classically as the Interregnum, and defined as one in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and when] a variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Ostensibly, the period is transitional – hence the inferred proclamation of justitium from Roman antiquity – in which, though the old laws are suspended, there is the anticipation that new and different laws will be proclaimed by the emergent order.

However that order is configured it is unlikely in the extreme that it will reprise the post-1945 order dominated by the US, notwithstanding that the US will continue to be an extraordinary power in global politics for the foreseeable future.

What bedevils nostalgia for the days of alleged Pax Americana is that the period it refers to, if it ever existed as a golden era, is dead and gone and the frightening prospect is of a superpower in decline, reverting to a reduced status in the eyes of the world, and obeying Dylan Thomas: thus, it will not “go gentle into that good night;” rather, it will rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A final concern, therefore, is the seeming truncation of the options available to Australia by imposing a choice limited to  a horn of the dilemma – either nuclear weapons or subordination by a hostile power.

Such a construction, however, is unnecessarily constraining and deserves to be rejected  because it ignores the political and philosophical imperative to accept no impositions which imprison a reasonable imagination.

Where, for example, is neutrality or non-alignment?  If is acceptable – indeed, to be encouraged – to explore politically and ethically difficult ideas (as Hugh White does), then these two must also qualify for inclusion on the same grounds.

While I accept that all works have to have their limits, not to mention, even cursorily, alternatives which will resonate with the some in the immediate region – is a betrayal of a text which otherwise is to lauded for its provocations and general openness to engagement.

Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty of the Australian National University.

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