Barack Obama has issued a massive challenge to the world.
It is a challenge to rid the world of its worst weapons of terror. It is a challenge to banish one of humanity’s greatest fears - the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
President Obama’s chairing of the UN Security Council on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation served to focus the nuclear spotlight where it is most needed, on the Council’s five permanent members.
Between them Russia, USA, France, China and the UK are responsible for all but a fraction of the world’s 26,000 nuclear weapons. The President spoke of the need for “new strategies and new approaches” to reach the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, with every nation playing a part.
Notwithstanding the enormous responsibility of the nuclear weapon states to get rid of their own weapons, the barriers to disarmament go further than just these nations, and far beyond the usual suspects such as Iran and North Korea.
That challenge includes Australia, and our subservience to an out-dated and dangerous Cold War policy that lives on. The policy is “extended deterrence”.
Tucked away in the 2009 Defence White Paper is confirmation of our continuing reliance on it: “For so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.” In other words, Australia remains complicit with the global threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
Such complicity brings multiple political, strategic, legal and moral dilemmas. It is also brazen in the extreme. Australia went to war in 2003 with a sense of moral outrage that such threats, real or fabricated, were being made against Western nations.
The strategic problem is that as long as any nations, including Australia, give military legitimacy to nuclear weapons, other nations will seek to acquire them. Australia’s alleged need for a nuclear deterrent is even shakier when one considers which nations today are most threatened militarily.
The Defence White Paper confirmed that Australia is certainly not among them. By the logic of deterrence it is in fact not Australia that needs these weapons, but several far more threatened nations whom we regard with deep suspicion, and whose nuclear programs we have strenuously opposed.
The truth about deterrence is that it works as long as things go to plan, and leaders are rational and care about their own people. That’s an ideal world. The real world is a very different place.
The Defence White Paper referred to “stable nuclear deterrence” as if such a thing exists. Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, describes the knife-edge instability of those fateful 13 days.
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