The first legally binding international agreement of its kind, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was passed by the UN General Assembly on 7 July, 2017. The Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty comprehensively prohibits the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons alongside the development, testing, production, stockpiling, and transfer of such weapons. Nuclear armed states party to the treaty will receive time-bound commitments to irreversibly eliminate their nuclear weapons programmes. The Treaty intends to completely eliminate nuclear weapons in the future.
Building upon the commitments of the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the TPNW intends to reaffirm commitments to a nuclear weapons free world and accelerate efforts to deconstruct nuclear weapons as a legitimate contingency plan for State security. Despite being a signatory to the NPT and a non-nuclear nation ourselves, Australia is an adversary to the TPNW and remains steadfastly committed to the U.S.’ nuclear prominence. Defence analyst Hugh White reignited the nuclear debate with claims that Australia’s reliance on the United States was dubious and that with concerns for China’s increasing power, Australia should reimagine its defence strategy and seriously consider obtaining nuclear weapons.
Although the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has not fully committed to White’s vision of a nuclearized Australia, the Department’s position towards the TPNW and nuclear weapons in general is notably ambivalent. While firmly stating “Australia does not support the “ban treaty” which we believe would not eliminate a single nuclear weapon” on the grounds it creates parallel obligations to the NPT, fails to engage nuclear states and ignores the reality of the global security environment, Australia still identifies itself as committed to a ‘progressive denuclearization strategy.’ In its paradoxical stance, Australia sides itself with many of the non-nuclear-armed members belonging to NATO under the belief that U.S.’ nuclear weapons enhance their own security.
This level of resistance cripples the Treaty, which in order to come into effect requires the signatures and ratification of 50 countries. It is currently ratified by 32 states. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. and Russia are staunchly opposed to the agreement. Rather ironically, North Korea is the only nuclear state to vote to initiate ban negotiations. This pacifist move by an infamously deviant state is reflective of a bigger issue with nuclear deterrence.
Australia’s sitting on the fence on the issue of Nuclear Prohibition rests largely on confidence that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is our best trump card in the case of state conflict and by signing the TPNW we would be breaking down this relationship. In fact, the TPNW would not directly contravene the legal obligation of our ANZUS Treaty with the U.S. ANZUS does not refer or require parties to prescribe to any particular defence strategy, including an umbrella arrangement, to maintain defence guarantees.
A key security reason for Australia to change its position towards the TPNW is that nuclear weapons may become the greatest source of destruction, human fatality and environmental degradation for the countries that produce and hold them. Cases such as the 1966 Palmores Crash demonstrate the reality of the greater risk Australia could be exposing itself to with its hesitation to prohibit nuclear weapons and potential intent to produce them. Not only do nuclear weapons come bound up with a series of accidental and unauthorized safeguard problems but are firmly at odds with our democratic decision-making procedures. As a highly monarchic weapon, the use of nuclear weapons is isolated from public decision-making processes and may be used by irrational decision makers. Australia’s stance towards nuclear production and use is highly negative, with over 75% of Australians supportive of the TPNW.
The most crucial argument to contest advocates of nuclear weaponry is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Deterrence theory under the potentially lethal MAD ideology has become grounds for governments to possess and produce nuclear weapons, claiming that their severity deters initiative attack. Based on the premise that to arm to the threshold of apocalypse is to assure safety is not only counterintuitive but purely theoretical. MAD has no historical precedent and its closest example during the Cold War failed in the Petrov Incident of 1983.
If Australia were to subscribe to the theory of MAD and produce nuclear weapons, we would risk the outbreak of large-scale nuclear war resulting from a global Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a situation where the greatest incentive is to act first, Australia is contributing to a more hostile global environment, not a more secure one. In this situation, as we have seen in the early Cold War Years, a nuclear arms race would likely transpire, and the world would find itself on the uneasy see-saw between peace and nuclear war.
Australia should seriously consider following the actions of its regional partners such as New Zealand as they work to de-nuclearize the Asia-Pacific Region. As seen in the case of South Africa’s denuclearization, prohibiting nuclear weapons can in many ways build trust and encourage great cooperation rather than maintaining weapons of mass destruction to force the point.
A key oversight for policy strategists, analysts and advocates for nuclear weapons is the irreversible and irrecoverable human impact of nuclear attack. Not only is the use of nuclear weapons unimaginably destructive for human life but has atrocious inter-generational impacts, as seen for decades after Chernobyl. While the suffering of victims after the bomb drops in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were and continue to be overwhelming, the impact of a nuclear attack today would be even more deleterious. The B-83, one of the nuclear warheads in the U.S.’ arsenal, is 80 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Since 1983, the U.S. has built 650 B-83 bombs.
Australia communicates itself as committed to an advanced disarmament architecture. However, despite being signatory to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) we hesitate to fully commit to a global order not guaranteed by weapons of mass destruction. Australia must re-asses its commitment to the U.S. and the ideology of deterrence. To put simply, it does not deter, and it is not as remotely compelling of a security principle as it initially appears. The only way to ensure nuclear weapons are not used, is to ensure there are no nuclear weapons at all.