SUE WAREHAM. Nuclear weapons must be rejected

Professor Hugh White’s recent suggestion that Australia might need to consider nuclear weapons is highly provocative and dangerous. He is helping to legitimise these instruments of terror, and gives credence to the deeply flawed notion of nuclear “deterrence”. Australia must instead support global efforts for nuclear weapons elimination, especially the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

As the Australian government appears at risk of involving us in yet another US war of aggression, a leading strategic thinker has dropped a bombshell. Professor Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at ANU, has suggested that Australia might need to consider acquiring nuclear weapons. He writes in his new book “How to Defend Australia” that, because US influence in our region is waning and Chinese influence is rising, “there are circumstances in which the development of nuclear forces could be justified”.

Professor White claims that in the future we might not be able to rely on US “extended nuclear deterrence” to protect us from adversaries. However his comments carry the potential to severely damage the ever-fragile progress that has been made towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, for several reasons.

Firstly, any advocacy for nuclear weapons will serve to legitimise and normalise these most horrific of all weapons. It overlooks the fact that even in warfare there are rules and limits, which nuclear weapons far exceed. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted by the UN in 2017 precisely because nuclear weapons are illegitimate, and any use would cause catastrophic human suffering and long-lasting environmental damage. The International Committee of the Red Cross is prominent among many organisations that have urged all nations to adhere to the Treaty. (The current Australian government strongly opposes it.)

Secondly, White’s arguments boost the deeply flawed notion of nuclear deterrence, the myth that these weapons deter acts of aggression. He says that China could use the threat of a nuclear attack to blackmail Australia. However history doesn’t support this theoretical possibility. Translating a nuclear threat to actual military advantage has proven far more complex than a simple win to the player with the most obscenely destructive weapons. If it were so simple, the US would have won in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; the USSR would have won in Afghanistan, Argentina would not have invaded the Falklands, and the list goes on.

To be reliable, deterrence must work perfectly in every conceivable situation for all time, with everything going according to plan, and regardless of whether the finger on the button belongs to a strategic genius or a dangerous idiot. Enter human or technical error, and dangerous idiots – i.e. the real world – and deterrence crumbles.

The third reason for alarm is the likely entrenching of the “nuclear apartheid”, whereby nuclear weapons are “allowed” for some nations and prohibited to others. If Australia might get the bomb, why not other nations, even those whose leaders we don’t trust? Would North Korea, surrounded by enemies, then be entitled to its arsenal? Then what about Japan and South Korea? Iran? Closer to home, how about Indonesia? And who’s going to make the rules?

If Australia were to develop nuclear weapons, or even be suspected of thinking about it, should Iraq and/or Iran invade Australia? The idea is absurd, and yet no more absurd and dangerous than the uncertainties, instabilities, hypocrisies and pretexts for aggression that have already arisen in our world of nuclear haves and have nots.

A nuclear armed Australia would have to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a treaty that has, for all its flaws, helped prevent the very weapons proliferation that Professor White now suggests Australia might need to consider. Australia should support, not abandon, hard-fought multilateral agreements that promote a sense of common security.

Finally, there is the issue of morality – acknowledged by White to be at least part of the equation. However, his relatively dispassionate discussion of the types of weapons we would need in order to unleash attacks on Chinese cities with millions of inhabitants creates a chilling reminder of Cold War era nuclear planning, whereby whole cities were mere pawns on a giant chess board. It was precisely this dehumanising of humanity that has led to a focus by progressive governments in recent years on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons.

a series of government and NGO conferences in 2013 and 2014 highlighted the fact that there could be little short or long term humanitarian assistance in the event of any use of nuclear weapons. In Nayarit, Mexico, in 2014, the conference chair summarised that the mere existence of these weapons is “absurd” and “contrary to human dignity”. These conferences led to the conclusion of the TPNW.

Perhaps in order to address the moral objections to apocalyptic scenarios, “How to Defend Australia” argues that a nuclear-armed Australia would not intend to use its weapons, but simply threaten to use them: “their sole purpose is to deter nuclear attack by others”. This is unconvincing. If a threat to incinerate cities is to be credible, then we need to be prepared to incinerate cities, as White acknowledges. We cannot comfort ourselves that we’re only kidding about going through with it all.

Australia could equally consider acquiring nerve gas or biological weapons as a “deterrent”, but the notion is unthinkable. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, which are far more destructive, should be equally so.

In 1996, the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons noted: “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility”. That proposition still defies credibility. For those such as Professor White, and “security” establishments that have not rejected the idea of nuclear weapons for Australia, the key question to be answered is “What happens when nuclear weapons are used?” Not in the war room, but what happens on the ground? That question is routinely ignored by the nuclear strategists, as the answers would reveal their plans to be morally repugnant.

Professor White’s advice to keep the nuclear weapons option open should be rejected outright. It is a recipe for nuclear weapons proliferation, and a world armed to the teeth with self-destructive capacity. We survived the Cold War but might not be so lucky again. Nuclear weapons must be abolished, and the discussion in Australia should be about rapidly getting on board with global efforts to achieve this critical goal. Signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would be a good start.

Dr Sue Wareham is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, and a board member of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 9 July, 2019.


Sue Wareham has spoken and written widely on peace and disarmament issues. She is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) , a board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and a board member of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Australia. Dr Wareham is a former Canberra GP.

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10 Responses to SUE WAREHAM. Nuclear weapons must be rejected

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you Sue for your timely article I read in my local paper when delivered at home. I have read the Hugh White book that is is well presented and agree with his views. He does not predict Australia will acquire nuclear weapons nor advocate that it should. Look at page 231. He omits all reference to nuclear disarmament that is not in the index. We have to look to the Morrison Government to work at the NPT Review in New York in 2020 to put on the agenda of the P5 ( nuclear weapons states) action to disarm as in Article VI of the NPT treaty. The reason is not legal compliance but the fact that nukes will be used and most states will have to acquire them for “protection” starting with the Saudis. This review may see the end of non proliferation but more “great” arms deals. We could see a Trump /Putin pact to reduce nuke risks we must support while engaging China to work for peace by openly ending the first nuclear strike on China capacity of Pine Gap.We mostly prefer peace to war but world leaders could now start WWIII soon.

  2. Let us not allow the nuclear issue to side-track us from the main game in Hugh White’s campaign to wake up Australia. We can deal with the nuclear side of business at our leisure. The main game is urgent.

    Hugh’s book is on my desk but I don’t want to start it before I finish Geoff Mann’s fascinating examination of Robespierre and Keynes. However I have followed Hugh’s work for years and I strongly agree with him.

    The main question regarding our ability to defend our country is whether we can overcome the loss of BHP as an integrated Australian iron and steel producer. Probably not but at least we can try. The next major blow after the loss of BHP was the failure to establish the resource super profits tax in 2010. Other heavy hits included the imposition of Fred Hilmer’s competition policy, the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, Joe Hockey’s closure of the motor vehicle manufacturing industry and the disaster of an industrial sector battling to obtain supplies of gas in our natural gas exporting nation.

    The rapid passage of tax cuts shows our Parliament is not giving any thought to the defence of the Commonwealth and the public won’t find any inspiration from the front pages of our newspapers still chewing on the left-overs of Israel Folau’s idiocy and contemplating the Attorney General’s unenviable task of writing religious legislation that is unnecessary, dangerous and inherently unconstitutional.

    The nuclear issue is superstructure. Our problems are foundational.

  3. Con Karavas says:

    Thank you Sue for expressing our feelings so well.

  4. The great risks to Australia’s security are:
    – civilian government abandonment of strategic thought to the military
    – gross overexpenditure on defence forces, noting that they are structured to be elements of United States adventures
    – obsession with budget balancing, neglect of social policy, enablement of inequality
    – political and media enthusiasm for manipulation by inciting fear and anxiety in a country which… hello?? … remains third on the UNDP’s Human Development Index
    – inability to see our drift away from sensible international policies and collaboration with smarter countries nearby, heading – as we risked heading half a century ago – towards being the thick skulled apartheid state of Asia

  5. Andrew Glikson says:

    The splitting of the atom has changed everything, save man’s way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes” (Albert Einstein).

    The odds of a nuclear calamity, already extreme, would grow by orders of magnitude if every country adopts the insanity, following the “rationale” of fear.

    It is the nuclear arms which are the enemy.

  6. David Macilwain says:

    It seems almost beyond credulity that someone as serious and knowledgeable should make such a wildly irresponsible suggestion at this very time. How can we possibly take a stand in support of the current sanctions regime against Iran, based simply on allegations that Iran might be seeking to build ONE nuclear weapon, not as a deterrent – which it surely needs – but to fire off in an insanely suicidal attack? It also must be an open secret that both the US and Iran – and presumably the UK and France, have been exploring the use of tactical nuclear weapons and developing and testing different types of nuclear warheads with the express purpose of making them “usable”. There have even been indications that Israel may be testing such weapons, both in Yemen and in Syria, where unusually powerful blasts have been recorded. Equally given Iran’s admirable record in doing what it promised, and signing the NNPT, it is the current nuclear states with their unstable leaderships who present the greatest risk to our lives.

  7. Rob Stewart says:

    I have always found the anti-nuclear weapons argument – the abolish by treaty argument – a little disingenuous. I actually agree with almost everything Dr Wareham says, including about the foolishness of possessing nukes as a “deterrence” without ever intending to use them. Just how long was it that the current hegemon had them before dropping them on Japan not once but twice? Was it days, weeks or a few months, I can’t remember? That would be the same hegemon that, today, is armed to the teeth with nukes and thinks it can pick and choose who can and cannot have them, did someone say Israel? And that would be the same hegemon that we think we can rely on to protect us! Gee, shudder the thought if that hegemon was ever led by “an idiot”. And the current leader of the hegemon has hardly seen a treaty that it doesn’t either ignore or tear up. Imagine what might happen if it was being run by an idiot.

    Perhaps I am naive but my feeling of hopelessness concerning the ideals of nuclear weapon abolitionists is that the argument centres around morality and war as Dr Wareham says. But, in my opinion the terms morality and war are mutually exclusive, oxymoronic or whatever. A bit like “capitalist democracy”. It’s nonsensical. On a more practical note, dismantling every nuke on planet earth won’t remove nuclear technology or knowledge. And my understanding is that nukes can be assembled and armed rather quickly provided raw material for their manufacture remain available. Does anyone really think that in a denuclearised world, the US or Russia or China, or……say, Israel, would let itself be slowly defeated in a conventional war without “last” resorting to WMD, including by quickly remanufacturing and using nukes, before surrendering? I agree that nukes are an abomination, disgusting, outrageous, an existential threat etc. But I think that about all war. Fact is the cat’s out of the bag when it comes to nukes, and those that have them know it.

    We face two existential threats: climate catastrophe and nuclear conflagration. We’re doing precious little about the former and unless humanity can “unlearn” science or “deknowledge” itself, to resort to Orwellian type terminology, unfortunately I think we will do precious little about the latter as well.

  8. brian toohey says:

    the depravity of nuclear war planners knows no bounds. High White states that it would not be Australia’s intention to use nuclear weapons developed. The reality is that decisions to use them would not be up to White. A future government could do so if it felt it could gain a political. or military, advantage. does anyone think that some of our current leaders in the national-security area the more benign than Harry Truman appeared.

  9. Stuart Rees says:

    Brilliant analysis, first rate rejection of the nuclear possession arguments. To Dr. Sue’s appraisal, the life enhancing power of the philosophy and practice of non-violence could be added.

  10. Tony Mitchell says:

    Prof White on TV was cringeworthy – droning-on ………Oh so dispassionately about the advantages of nuclear weapons. As examined above by Sue Wareham, the deterrent argument is quite unsupportable; plus the danger is immeasurable especially when the fingers on the nuke buttons are those of the child Trump. Of course, here in Hugh White’s Australia – the decision makers are irrationally directed by the ludicrous ” 5 eyes” of security. Throw-in our own assorted religious fundamentalists empowered by the absolutes of the word-of-god; and the input from the promoted Minister Reynolds whose vast military experience will presumably guide her in the path towards peace. What a farce. Gilbert and Sullivan have already covered this material.

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