I told you so: realists need to get real on nuclear policy choices

Jul 10, 2017

The DPRK is developing a nuclearised ICBM capability as fast as it possibly can because it fears a US attack and forcible regime change. And the dear leader fears the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.  So the US threatens him even more as the answer to make Kim Jong Un desist from his chosen nuclear path. Go figure. 

Gareth Evans frequently describes himself as an incorrigible optimist and indeed that is the title of his forthcoming book of memoirs on international affairs. I have worked with him (former foreign ministry officials often highlight the distinction between working for and with Evans – I can only speak of the latter experience) on a range of issues for almost a quarter century. I once described him as the patron saint of the world’s lost causes and myself his most faithful devotee. University colleagues and former foreign affairs officials alike have sometimes referred to the anti-nuclear weapons centre that Evans and I set up at the ANU in 2011 as among his ‘Pollyanna’ follies.

I am often reminded of this by the responses to articles, interviews and speeches on nuclear arms control and disarmament in particular. Our mission and work is apparently too idealistic, far removed from the actual world of realpolitik, wheeling and dealing, deception and betrayal, where might and cunning are the arbiter of the destinies of nations. This year such comments have come mostly in relation to my support for the nuclear prohibition convention about to be adopted by the UN on Friday New York time.

The short answer to the charge of Utopian pursuits is it is far better to be an optimist and be proven occasionally wrong, than to be a pessimist and be proven always right. But there is also a more substantial and serious response, and that is to go back over many decades of writings that are in the public record and test them against events as they have unfolded in the real world since they originally appeared in print. And compare them to the analyses and prognostications offered by the hardhats among the strategic studies community. For one of the most striking things is how often the so-called realists, mesmerised by the trap of ‘presentism’ and the short term, have completely misjudged the impact of their policies in the long run.

Consequently I offer below some excerpts from my analyses in the past, which I would be happy to compare with the analyses of the same issues and events offered by the sober realists. All can be cross-checked by anyone interested.

I. If you want non-proliferation, prepare for disarmament

Ramesh Thakur, ““The Desirability of a Nuclear Weapon Free World,” in Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Background Papers (Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1996), pp. 74–88 at p. 85.

The gravest nuclear danger now is not war between Russia and the United States, but the spread of nuclear weapons technology and materials to others beyond the five NWS [nuclear weapon states]. But the danger of horizontal proliferation cannot be contained indefinitely by maintaining the status quo of five NWS. For the threshold NWS to move towards non-nuclear-weapons status, and for the latter group to remain so, the existing NWS must take concrete steps towards a time-tabled elimination of their nuclear stockpiles.

… we have already achieved about the maximum possible in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. But this is a dynamic equilibrium, not a static equation. Without concrete disarmament on the part of the NWS, the world will slip back into real dangers of horizontal proliferation. So the choice is between progress and reversal, not between progress and the status quo… The two policy options, therefore, are a progression down to zero for the existing NWS, or the spread of nuclear weapons to other states.

Since then India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined the ranks of the nuclear weapon possessing states.

II. CTBT & India

Ramesh Thakur, “Nuclear India needs coaxing, not coercion,” The Australian, 6 September 1996

Faced with US-led UN coercion, an isolated, sullen and resentful India is more likely to respond with an open nuclear programme, including a… series of nuclear tests

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 September and opened for signature on 24 September 1996. India tested in May 1998.

III. Iraq War 2003

Ramesh Thakur, “US test of UN relevance,” Japan Times, 9 February 2003

Washington underestimates how its rhetoric and actions worsen the proliferation challenge. The world has signed on to the Nonproliferation Treaty; Washington exempts itself from NPT clauses requiring nuclear disarmament. Small states put their faith in the protection of international law; Washington is disdainfully dismissive. Small states pin their hopes for security from predatory powers on a functioning UN system; the US declares the UN to be irrelevant unless supportive of what Washington desires, even while demanding Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions, and issues threats of unilateral preemptive strikes.

As Washington throws off its fetters on the unilateral use of force and the universal taboo on nuclear weapons, it simultaneously increases the attraction of nuclear weapons for others – like North Korea – and diminishes the force of global norms and regimes in restraining their nuclear ambitions.”

Ramesh Thakur, “Let’s decide what kind of world we want,” International Herald Tribune, 17 April 2003

Victory in Iraq comes at the price of relegitimizing wars of choice as an instrument of state policy – something that we have struggled against for centuries. It will lead to more determined efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction by countries and perhaps terrorist organizations, since nothing else is capable of deterring the US juggernaut.

Ramesh Thakur, “War vindicates UN stance,” Japan Times, 27 April 2003

… the Taliban too were welcomed into Kabul as liberators when they first went in, amid wild scenes of cheering and celebration. We know what happened next.

Ramesh Thakur, “Contradictory US triumph,” Japan Times, 1 June 2003

How is it possible to achieve victory in the war on international terrorism directed at American targets by inciting a deeper hatred of US foreign policy around the world?

It is difficult to see how one country can enforce UN resolutions by defying the authority of the world body, denigrating it as irrelevant and belittling its role.

Nor is it possible to promote the rule of law and the role of international law in world affairs and to act as the world’s policeman by hollowing out some of the most important parts of international law that restrict the right to go to war except in self-defense or when authorized by the UN.

In the same vein, I say again today:

The DPRK is developing a nuclearised ICBM capability as fast as it possibly can because it fears a US attack and forcible regime change. And the dear leader fears the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

So the US threatens him even more as the answer to make Kim Jong Un desist from his chosen nuclear path.

Go figure.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.

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