A whitewash rather than a white paper on how we go to war

Nov 28, 2017

The ‘organising principle’ of the 2017 foreign policy White Paper is the importance of and commitment to a rules-based order. At the heart of that order lies the United Nations and “Australia is a principled and pragmatic member of the United Nations, contributing to its vital security, environmental and humanitarian endeavours” (p. 81). In one important respect,how we go to war,it is a whitewash rather than a white paper.

One of the most critical components of the UN-centred rules-based world order is the prohibition on the unilateral use of force to attack another country. Australia joined the US to do just that in Iraq in 2003. Most independent analysts hold it was an illegal war of aggression. Australia has never conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the politics of its war-making decision, is arguably still engaged in illegal combat operations in the Middle East and still preserves to the executive the anachronistic privilege of committing us to war without parliamentary debate and vote.

The White Paper contains no hint of a fundamental re-think on why and how we would go to war in the future. On this vital issue the document is more of a whitewash than a White Paper, despite the acknowledged fact that, as power shifts away from the hitherto dominant West, strong rules that constrain the exercise of power contribute to global security and are becoming more important for Australia’s own national security (p. 82).

Similarly on nuclear weapons, there are multiple references to North Korea’s challenge, a reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a restatement of Australia’s reliance on US nuclear weapons for security – but no mention of the new UN ban treaty adopted by 122 countries.

On 11 January 1962, in his “State of the Union” address, President John F. Kennedy described the bomb as having turned the world into a prison in which humanity awaits its execution. Nuclear risks have escalated dramatically and Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un – like Australia, opponents of the ban treaty – have increased the visibility of nuclear weapons and are normalising the possibility of use. The character and leadership flaws of these two ‘godfathers of the ban treaty’ have heightened global anxiety about nuclear peace being hostage to the quality of their decision-making.

The ban treaty looks for security from, rather than in, nuclear weapons. Ignoring the new institutional reality of its existence is neither principled, pragmatic nor UN-friendly.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor at Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

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