RICHARD BUTLER. Nuclear disarmament – Australia’s Profound and Cynical Failure.


In 1995 Prime Minister Keating established the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. He did this because he was appalled at the intensity of the, mainly US/USSR, nuclear arms race. He wanted to find a safe way in which nuclear weapons could be eliminated, to which international agreement might be given. The Commission was composed of 16 eminent persons from relevant fields. Keating appointed me as Convenor of the Commission.

In 1996, Keating having lost the national elections, I presented the completed Commission Report to Prime Minister Howard. His demeanor was as if I was handing him a funnel web, but I had taken with me to the meeting, Commission member Sir Josef Rotblat, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. I asked Joseph to make the speech. Howard was obliged to be polite to him.

A month or so later, in New York, Australia broke a deadlock on the text of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was then adopted by the General Assembly. It makes illegal the conduct of all nuclear explosions, in all environments, for all time.

A month later it was signed by all Permanent Members of the UN Security Council – the recognized Nuclear Weapon States. I was present at the table when President Clinton signed for the US. Although its terms are being observed by all signatories, CTBT has not yet formally entered into force because it has not been ratified by a few essential states, including the US.

Last week, in Geneva, a negotiation involving all state members of the UN Conference on Disarmament, came to an end. The agreed report, to be sent to the UN General Assembly, proposed that the Assembly institute a multilateral negotiation on a Treaty to ban all nuclear weapons.

It had been understood in Geneva that the report would be adopted by consensus. It had been the subject of much negotiation and compromise. At the last moment, Australia’s representative, objected and insisted that there be a vote. The vote had the following result: 69 in favour, 22 against, (all 7 nuclear weapon states ),13 abstentions. Although there was deep concern, indeed some anger, that Australia had insisted on a vote, the result was considered to be clear enough. So, the proposal of a Ban negotiation will go to the General Assembly. It is considered certain that the Assembly will adopt the proposal and establish a negotiating mechanism to commence work, next year, on a Ban Treaty.

With respect to Australia’s role and policy, this story has obvious bookends. Until 1996, that is until John Howard’s arrival as Prime Minister, Australia had been a leader in efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. And it had not only been Keating; Hayden, Evans, but also Fraser and Peacock also worked hard on this job. Twenty years later we have become a virtual pariah amongst the significant collection of states that have stuck at the task of reducing and aiming towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Why have our elected leaders (Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull, Shorten, Bishop, Plibesek) done this ?  All sides have been involved, all have concluded that their political survival depends on their complete affirmation of the alliance with the US, and to justify this they say that the alliance relationship ensures that US nuclear weapons will be deployed to preserve our national security. It is pure scare tactics. They never say on whom those weapons would be used or threatened, or why. That’s because they don’t know.

Julie Bishop issued the instruction to our delegate in Geneva to refuse consensus on the draft Ban negotiation report and had him state that this was because an attempt to negotiate such a Ban would lead to the production of more nuclear weapons. Papers obtained through FOI indicate that the real reason for the Government’s stance was, in fact, the Alliance based one; the belief that “ Australia will continue to rely on US extended nuclear deterrence”.

The publicly delivered rationale was a deception, but of course, fooled no one. Australia stepped forward and self identified as the key surrogate of the US.

Our wish to protect the US from having to even discuss or explain to the community of nations why it must continue to hold nuclear weapons, doesn’t stop with them. This stance necessarily extends to the weapons held by the other 7 nuclear weapon states, but particularly to Russia because together, the US and Russia hold 90% of all nuclear weapons in existence.

The central contention of states supporting the beginning of a negotiation on outlawing all nuclear weapons is that they pose an unacceptable threat to all and to the planetary environment and all nuclear weapons states must be involved. No one remotely expects unilateral disarmament or gives credence to the notion which underlies so much of the posturing by holders and supporters of nuclear weapons, that there are good ones (“our” sides) and bad ones (the others’). Australia’s newly articulated position rests on this folly.

The attachment by our politicians to their belief that the US Alliance and protection of Australia by the US and its nuclear weapons, represents a profound and cynical failure. They will not speak the truth to the electorate including in particular; the immense cost of the Alliance to Australia in money and lives by our becoming virtually automatically involved in all of the US’ misadventures (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria), the current pressure on us to make an enemy of China, the fantastic cost to us of defence procurements interoperable with the US, the shocking deception involved in insisting that the US will defend us with their nuclear weapons. They would only deploy those weapons and thus accept the horrible outcomes of their use, in their interest, no one else’s.

The post cold war world that has unfolded is very complex and being played out under new rules, or it could be said that in fact they are the old, traditional, pre-UN, power based rules.

In this context we are repeatedly bombarded with scary, distorted, stories and predictions of the rise of China. Of course China is growing and expanding but the greatest proportion of it actions in the world are “soft” diplomacy: building roads, bridges, hospitals etc. in the developing world, sometimes in return for access to resources. Its “hard” actions, on fleet and weapons development, and the illegal building of islands in the South China Sea pose serious concerns.

Against these realities and challenges, US global actions stand in stark contrast. They are those of an imperial power; 800 military bases in 70 countries, 200,000 troops stationed in 144 countries, the drone programme, to mention only a fraction of its global actions. If we are to manage today’s world with skill, we need to start telling ourselves the truth about it. Michael McKinley of ANU has, in Pearls and Irritations, given us a great deal to think about with respect to US imperial/interventionist history.

But, essential reading on the US polity, that is on the sinews of the political community on which our present leaders place so much reliance, is Eliot Weinberger, “They could have picked…”, London Review of Books, 28 July, 2016. It analyses the Republican candidates for the presidency and he achieves, whether intended or not, the result that the grotesque and wildly dishonest Trump, was probably the most rational of them.

I have discussed the past 20 years of Australian policy towards nuclear weapons, to illustrate how far we have moved towards shredding our own independence. And we have done this in the name of a grossly misrepresented US Alliance. Truly, this must stop.

Richard Butler AC, was Ambassador to the United Nations.


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