If Australia needs nukes, who doesn’t?

Apr 15, 2021

Sensible people are making the case for a nuclear-armed Australia. Given Australia’s other problems, the ruinous cost, and the dangers of proliferation, this is the last thing we should be considering. 

Given the number of global problems we currently face, it’s surprising and rather depressing to learn that some very smart people are debating whether or not Australia should acquire nuclear weapons, or at least the ability to rapidly produce them. Patrick Porter, for example, argues that without them, Australia could find itself vulnerable to blackmail (or worse).

Even thoughtful and informed commentators such as Hugh White have argued that despite the fact that the risk of a nuclear attack on Australia by China or anyone else is almost certainly zero, policymakers might ‘capitulate’ in the face of great power bullying if they didn’t have an independent nuclear deterrent of their own. Perhaps so.

Even enthusiasts would have to concede that whatever else one might say about nuclear weapons, they’re not cheap. Despite the fact that Australia has lots of uranium, it doesn’t have the domestic industrial capacity to easily manufacture nukes or the requisite ‘delivery systems’ to despatch them. On the contrary, the never-ending submarine saga provides a painful reminder that being even partially independent strategically is politically and technically complex, as well as eye-wateringly expensive.

There’s also the question of opportunity costs. While we’re investing scarce resources in weapons systems that we would never want to use, there are more immediate, albeit politically contentious problems, that demand attention, but which we might not be able to afford. Given that Australia is likely to be as badly affected by climate change as just about anywhere else on the planet, one might be forgiven for thinking that the environment would be top of the list when it comes to thinking about ‘national security’.

It’s not just the Morrison government that doesn’t think of the natural environment as a security problem, though. Regimes of all stripes continue to prioritise arms purchases and the economic development that funds them ahead of environmental sustainability. And yet the idea of environmental security can no longer be dismissed as a niche interest. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly commonplace and credible to talk about the proverbial ‘end of civilisation as we know it’ in the absence if hitherto unprecedented levels of international cooperation.

While it’s true that politics is still overwhelmingly local, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that nowhere is completely secure and even the most powerful states cannot guarantee the safety of the people they claim to represent. The most important lessons of the Covid crisis are that our collective impact on the environment can quite literally come back to bite us, and that as the fashionable cliché has it, ‘no one is safe until we’re all safe’.

No doubt some of the strategic hardheads in Canberra will be rolling their eyes. After all, the first duty of the policymaker is ensuring the safety of the nation, a task that has generally been achieved by buying ever larger bombs, or in Australia’s case, by ingratiating ourselves with one great and powerful friend or another.

But if this strategy ever made sense, it has been profoundly undermined by the unreliability of our principal ally, and by the evidence of our own eyes: this may be a country of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, but things are getting a bit serious when we have once in a century ‘weather events’ every year or two.

We’re still the lucky country in that we have the resources to manage better than most when dealing with climate challenges. But there is simply no doubt that, left unaddressed, they are going to get worse — much, much worse — in the lifetimes of the young people who despair of the current generation of political leaders and strategic thinkers.

Realists will say it was ever thus and we must treat deal with the world as we find it, not as we would like it to be. But if the realists are right —as I fear they may be—there really isn’t much hope. We probably will need advanced weapons systems to deter would-be climate refugees trying to escape circumstances even more dire than our own. Whether we’d actually want to nuke Jakarta, or wherever the slightly higher new capital may be, to discourage them is another question.

For a country that’s always banging on about the merits of creative middle power diplomacy, it would be good to actually see some in action. If Australia needs nukes, who doesn’t? Global or regional proliferation of nuclear weapons cannot be in our interest.

The plague demonstrated that Australia is still one of the most naturally secure places on the planet; what sort of message does it send about us as a responsible international actor if we go down the nuclear road and encourage our neighbours to do the same?

More to the point, by the time we actually get nuclear weapons the deteriorating natural environment will have made the original strategic calculus entirely redundant. If this is the best we can do when it comes to strategic policy, things are worse than I feared.

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