RICHARD BUTLER. The Real Danger: A New Nuclear Arms Race.

Jan 16, 2018

New US nuclear weapons policies, quantitative and qualitative will ensure that a new nuclear arms race proceeds. Global danger will increase as will the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. Its not just Trump that is at issue. He has merely enabled an increased influence of the US military/industrial/intelligence complex and, of a specifically imperial mind-set, in the US: the one that has seen the US author war repeatedly since the Second World War. Does the Alliance compel Australia to support this?  

A new US nuclear posture review (NPR) will be issued, following Trump’s State of the Union address to Congress on 30th January.

It will state that: the US will increase the size and variety of its nuclear arsenal; an expenditure of some $1 trillion over the next 30 years will be sought; new, smaller, more mobile nuclear weapons for battlefield use will be built, that is below the strategic level; the strategic level weapons capability will be maintained, but at levels of deployment not seen since the Cold War and, new weapons will be added to increase that capability.

The planning for this has been done in the Pentagon, enabled by the presence in the White House of a person who has signalled, in so many ways and areas of policy challenge, domestic and international, his deep attachment to the use and threatened use of force.

What we are witnessing is not simply the wild excesses of Trump, but the re-emergence, in an enhanced version, of a mind-set and, a coalescence of interests embedded in the US military/intelligence/ industrial complex, which demands US global military dominance, expressed doctrinally as the pursuit of “full spectrum dominance” and, the related need for enemies; indeed, their track record suggests, for wars.

No facts or reflection on where the perceived dangers have come from, let alone on what actions by the US may have contributed to the emergence of them, is permitted to get in the way. Very importantly, there is refusal to acknowledge the US’ betrayal of Russia on the pledge, following the reunification of Germany, not to expand NATO eastwards.

The US is an imperial power; as described compellingly, by Jeffrey Saks and Andrew Bacevich, in these pages (Pearls and Irritations: 1st and 5th January, 2018 ). The coming NPR can be expected to attest to that, fulsomely. And, very importantly, consistent with the historical habits of such powers, the US places its actions beyond the reach of international law, on the basis that it is the “exceptional country”.

The key piece of international law the US NPR will violate further than is already the case, is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). As a signatory to NPT, the US with the other four states named in NPT as the “nuclear weapon states” are pledged to progressively eliminate their nuclear weapons.

The US is not alone in failing to fulfill this obligation, The other four, Russia, China, France, UK are also in breach. The main offenders are US and Russia, who hold some 90% of nuclear weapons in existence. Four other states, which are not parties to the Treaty and, hold nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, Israel and DPRK.

The policies expected to be announced, in the US’ NPR, will place NPT in jeopardy. The candidates to be the next proliferators are well known and include, Saudi Arabia and Japan, both of which have been encouraged in statements by Trump that he would understand their deciding to become nuclear armed. And, there is the case of Iran, which, for the moment is being constrained by the agreement negotiated with them, but which Trump is threatening to abort. If that occurs, Iran has said it would resume its nuclear programme. It is credibly reported, that the US’ preferred action against Iran, is to attack it.

The current mind-set in the Pentagon and it’s intelligence and industrial collaborators, is stunningly self-centered and careless of the evident implications their decisions, for the great enabler to sign-off on. They are willfully ignorant of the “Thucydides trap”, a major contemporary result of which was the massive nuclear arms race; the main feature of the Cold War.

They appear to be careless of how their decisions will enlarge, not reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, any use of which will author a catastrophe. Their continued existence means that they will be used, either as a consequence of a decision, miscalculation, or accident and, their spread or further development increases all of those possibilities.

It is possible to think of a more rational and, ultimately effective way of solving the problem of nuclear weapons: action by the two major nuclear weapon states, US and Russia, together, to design and advance a process of progressive reduction in their stockpiles. They could then insist, irresistibly, that the other nuclear weapon states take part, when their holdings approach that of the others. Indeed, those other states have indicated that they would take part, if the US and Russia got started.

This would signal an end to the rank hypocrisy that is a key feature of current nuclear arms control efforts: the phenomenon of the major nuclear weapon states insisting to Iran, DPRK, for example, that they may not hold those weapons for their own alleged defence; the very weapons that they insist are essential to their own. Such hypocrisy has never washed, nor will it ever. That hypocrisy makes nuclear weapons proliferation inevitable.

This is not a hopelessly utopian approach. It’s starkly realistic, as real as the massive threat posed to all people and our planet, by nuclear weapons.

The obviously aspirational part of this approach, is that it posits the willingness to exercise leadership, the willingness to take a leap and, to stand up for the idea that it is not a good reason to avoid doing something that is right, simply because you know it will be difficult.

That leadership appears to be unavailable in Washington at present and sadly not in “joined at the hip” Canberra.

Beginning under Howard, successive conservative Australian governments have progressively terminated Australia’s participation in work to strengthen nuclear arms control, preferring instead to endorse whatever nuclear posture is maintained by the US. They have silenced any serious consideration within Australian official policy debates of the dangers we face as the consequence of our integration into US nuclear war fighting plans and mechanisms. This not only endangers us, but also neuters the central argument we could deploy towards changing the conditions of our participation in alliance cooperation: commitment by the US to measures of nuclear arms control.

The prevailing fundamental perspective of our alliance policy, is that the US side, in international relations is both the “good” one and the winning one and, its best for us that we be on that side, at all costs.

No serious country holds such a cartoon-like view of the nature of international relations, but instead focus on policies and outcomes pursued; an attitude closer to the pragmatic observation by Palmerston, almost 150 years ago, that in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.

Our continued fealty to US imperialism, and the nuclear dangers it brings is a serious problem for our national security. It is apparently forbidden to speak these words in Canberra.

Commentary in the US and, indeed, elsewhere is increasingly and ever more openly worrying out-loud about Trump having his hand anywhere near the nuclear launch codes. The quality and range of the weapons he could release is about to be enlarged and the scenarios for their use multiplied.

Indeed, commentary in Europe and the US is beginning to suggest that the US has become the greatest danger to global stability.

It is time we had an independent foreign policy and we could start at no better place than by telling the Americans that the path along which they are setting out on nuclear weapons, is the wrong one.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

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