As the Australian government appears at risk of involving us in yet another United States 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 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 - ie 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 was 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 non-government organisation 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 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
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 Medical Association for Prevention of War and a board member of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.