Articles by " Rod Lyon"

A world of Scotlands

The Not So Distant Past 1Regardless of how the Scottish referendum on independence turns out, it’s worth putting the event into context by recalling some basic facts concerning the rate of state proliferation. That’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention in news media. But how many countries do you think there are in the world today? Actually, the answer depends on how you define ‘countries’, but ‘about 195’ wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Given there were 68 in 1945, the number of countries in the international community has—roughly—trebled over the past seventy years. In short, state proliferation has been a powerful force, even during those Cold War years that we like to think of now as a veritable model of strategic stasis.

Moreover, there’s no reason to think the number of countries in the world has peaked. In his work on geopolitics, Saul Cohen, for example, argues that ‘the creation of up to fifty additional quasi- or fully independent states over the coming decades will change the territorial outlines and functions of many major and regional powers’. Indeed, political disaggregation will likely continue despite—indeed, partly because of?—the centripetal forces of globalisation, as testament to the strength of what we might call ‘identity politics’. Read more

These days, there’s a popular myth that state boundaries tend to be fixed and inviolable—witness the recent outcry over the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia. In reality, though, state boundaries are not nearly as fixed as many might imagine. Take a look at this brief three-minute video of how borders have changed in Europe over the last thousand years. It requires no great act of imagination to believe that an independent Scotland might arise—nor that it might, at some point in the future, be reabsorbed into the United Kingdom. Over long time frames, change seems normal.

The map’s not good at depicting the global growth in the number of states over the last seventy years—not least because decolonisation was a strong driver of state proliferation and most of that happened away from European shores. Nor is the map a good indicator of strategic angst. Seen at a distance—on a computer screen or from the other side of the world—state proliferation is an interesting phenomenon to watch. Seen close up, it’s highly unsettling and strategically unnerving. Consider the attempts by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to force Bougainville’s secession from Papua New Guinea. Or remember when East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia and the effects that had on the Indonesia-Australia relationship? Similar effects, perhaps more severe, would attend any move towards independence by West Papua.

And so far we’re only talking about relatively small cases of state proliferation. While some might think the prospect a Black Swan event, a broader break-up of the Indonesian archipelago, for example, would have major geopolitical consequences—indeed, it would fundamentally reshape Australia’s strategic environment.

Whether Scotland votes for independence or not, the big message is that state proliferation remains an important driver in international politics, and our own region is not immune to it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Bradley Wells.

Security and liberty: a schematic

In recent weeks, three of my colleagues have written about the appropriate balance that we should attempt to strike between national security and civil liberties. Toby Feakin began the series with a post which argued that positioning security and liberty as opposite ends of a single spectrum, and then trying to find an appropriate balance point, was an inadequate way of thinking about the topic. Anthony Bergin replied that striking some sort of balance between security and liberty was a practical necessity. And Andrew Davies argued that having appropriate oversight mechanisms in place is a necessary condition for allowing secret state powers within a liberal democracy.

In this post, I want to explore the relationship between security and liberty. Stating the argument at its bluntest, I don’t find it helpful to think about security and liberty as the end points of a single spectrum. That’s because security and liberty aren’t polar opposites of each other. The opposite of security is insecurity. And the opposite of liberty is control. So if we want to explore the relationship between them, we should have a schematic that looks something like this:

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Positing the relationship that way gives a better picture of what we’re trying to do. Ideally, as a liberal, democratic society, we’re trying to find security measures that land in the top left quadrant—the ‘sweet spot’—where we enhance our security in ways that accommodate our civil liberties. The core of our national discussion should be about that quadrant because it lets us have both liberty and security. We don’t trade them off against each other; we seek ways to achieve both simultaneously. Doing that isn’t easy; it involves debate and hard work—especially since security and transparency aren’t always compatible objectives.

A different problem begins once we reach proposed security measures that don’t fit the sweet spot quadrant, because then those who we might call ‘libertarians’ and ‘securitisers’ head in different directions. The libertarians—those who value liberty higher than security—default into the top right quadrant and tolerate a higher level of risk. The securitisers—those who value security higher than liberty—default into the bottom left quadrant and tolerate a lower level of liberty for the gain of feeling more secure. I’m uncertain who, if anyone, lives in the bottom right quadrant, though some might end up there temporarily and by accident.

The strength of the libertarian default position depends on the level of risk. The higher the risk becomes—say from a serious bird flu epidemic—the harder it is to argue that civil liberties can remain unconstrained. Several countries in West Africa are facing those sorts of challenges today in relation to the Ebola outbreak. Conversely, the strength of the securitiser default position depends on the existence of a clear and present danger—unless such a danger exists, democracies don’t usually tolerate stricter controls.

As a liberal, democratic society, Australia should be reluctant to trade away liberties for gains in security. Having a liberal society doesn’t usually require us to be unsafe: much can be done in the sweet-spot quadrant, especially when threats are clear. The bottom left quadrant is the natural home of authoritarian governments and dictatorships, who are typically unconcerned about civil liberties. It should require extraordinary dangers for us to venture there.

Still, extraordinary dangers do sometimes arise—dangers that force us to devise and impose security measures outside the comfort zone of the sweet spot. When they arise, the usual reaction of governments is to move towards the securitiser default position, and not towards the libertarian default position. Few governments respond to new threats by becoming more libertarian. But for a liberal democratic government, time spent in the securitiser default quadrant becomes a factor in its own right. ‘Emergency measures’ are for emergencies, after all, not for normalcy. The measure of a liberal democracy is how quickly it can shape those new protective measures to allow it to return to the sweet-spot zone.

I suspect all of my colleagues are actually having a discussion about three things: what we can and can’t do in the sweet-spot quadrant; when we should and shouldn’t contemplate alternative measures; and how we might qualify those measures to better protect our civil liberties. Seeing the security–liberty issue as a two-axes problem and not a single-axis one helps us sharpen both questions and answers.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.

The US and nuclear weapons: a turning of the tide?

While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

First, the administration has committed to the long-overdue modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. True, the initial funding decisions are merely the opening salvoes of a program that will take decades to unpack, and key decisions about the shape and size of the arsenal remain unresolved. But the administration has signalled a commitment to renovate the strategic triad, and even to modernise its principal tactical weapon, the B-61 bomb. Read more

Second, Washington has been busy putting its nuclear ‘house’ in order. By January this year, almost 20% of US Air Force officers in its nuclear weapons corps had been implicated in a proficiency-assessment cheating scandal. The Navy wasn’t immune either—earlier this month it expelled 34 sailors caught up in the nuclear cheating scandal. A senior naval officer was dismissed in October last year for inappropriate behaviour in Moscow. Some might even see the sacking of James Doyle by Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of that pattern. Certainly a more restrictive approach to nuclear information management and a more disciplined approach to command and control of the arsenal seem to be the flavour of the day.

Third, evidence points to a determination to rebuild the intellectual capital necessary to sustain the nuclear mission for another generation. A senior State Department official, at the Annual Deterrence Symposium in mid-August, spoke of the need to recruit a new wave of ‘political scientists, lawyers, physicists, geologists, engineers, and more’, in order to ‘bring the next generation into the nuclear deterrence enterprise’.

Fourth, what we might call the ‘three musketeers’ (Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Franklin Miller) seem to have displaced—at least temporarily—the ‘four horsemen’ (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn), as the media commentators of the day. The four horsemen have published a range of important op-eds since 2007 about the need to move away from nuclear weapons (see, for example, here, here, and here). Their arguments have generally gone unanswered. The musketeers’ recent article in the Washington Post, underlining the importance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, was obviously written with one eye on the approaching NATO summit in Wales. But it has wider implications: after all, if forward-deployed nuclear weapons are so important in Europe, why aren’t they just as important in other theatres?

Fifth, the administration seems to have wound back slightly the significance it attaches to the imperative of ‘nuclear security’—a protracted exercise to round up insecure warheads and quantities of fissile material in the world. Clearly that mission’s still important: Washington continues to fund it during straitened budgetary times. But one gets the sense that, for the coming few years, rounding up stray quantities of fissile material is not as strategically important as resuscitating the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

And sixth, the administration seems to have gone back to taking seriously the nuclear policies of the other nuclear-weapon states: witness the State Department’s recent finding that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Now, some will argue that those are all just straws in the wind, and that if Obama wanted to shift his nuclear policy, he would just say so. But one year out from another NPT Review Conference, could he? Besides, has policy changed, or are we just seeing a shift of emphasis? In 2009 Obama said he thought a non-nuclear world would be safer and the US should work towards that goal. The goal, he said, might not be reached in his lifetime. And in the meantime, the US would need to ensure it could rely upon a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal. So a theme of continued reliance always sat side by side with the grander goal of nuclear disarmament.

I think the straws tell a story: that nuclear weapons are making a comeback in US strategic policy—driven by a growing mood of strategic realism in Washington. The strategic environment of 2014 looks different to that of 2009. True, the comeback will probably be limited. But when future historians look back on 2013–14, they’re likely to paint it as a turning of the tide on nuclear weapons policy, occurring—ironically—under the administration of one Barack Obama.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

Is major war obsolete?

Poppies

August has seen a wave of reflection on major war. It’s a question we seem to revisit every time the key anniversaries of WWI and WWII roll around, but given special significance this year by the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. Some pundits are keen to draw parallels between 1914 and 2014—though on its face it’s not apparent to me why 2014 should be more like 1914 than 2013.

Academic strategists familiar with their disciplinary history will know that the issue of whether major war’s obsolete received a detailed coverage back in Survival magazine in the late 1990s. To save readers the trouble of digging through their archives, one contributor, John Mueller, argued that it was obsolete—gone the way of slavery and duelling—while others wrestled partly over how to define obsolescence and even more over how to define major war. Was the Vietnam War ‘major’? Was the Cold War a ‘war’? Michael Mandelbaum argued that perhaps major war was just a poor policy option nowadays—because of the steep rise in the costs and the thin rewards for success. Read more

It’s intriguing that the question about the obsolescence of war is typically qualified by the adjective ‘major’. No-one seems particularly keen to claim that nasty little wars—in particular, nasty little wars in faraway places—are obsolete, perhaps because they patently aren’t. From memory, Mueller didn’t want to call those conflicts ‘wars’, though; he saw those more as ‘opportunistic predation’. (That’s the reason the cover of his book, The Remnants of War, features an image—from the Balkan conflict in 1991—of a thug swigging from a bottle.)

9/11 came along and sideswiped that whole debate. The nasty little wars of the 1990s didn’t stay in faraway places. A superpower got up and marched off to war—albeit a war against al Qaeda, its supporters, and all its works. Somewhere along the line the mission became conflated with a host of other problems, and Washington ended up obsessing about the Global War on Terror for longer than it probably should have done. But Washington’s behaviour at least answered one question related to the Big One: did great powers still go to war? Yes. Now, the question still unanswered—unanswered since 1945 if you think major war has to be hot; unanswered since 1991, if you think major war can be cold—is whether or not major powers still go to war with each other.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued that the better angels of our nature are making us turn away from violence. I’m not wholly convinced by his argument—the better angels of our nature seem pretty militant to me, and always have been. (See Ephesians, 6:12.) But academic research from a few decades back suggests that great-power wars against each other aren’t common. Jack Levy in his research on war in the international system between 1495 and 1975 found only nine of what he would call ‘world wars’—wars where almost all great powers were involved. Much more commonly, he found ‘interstate wars’—113 of which engaged a great power. I cite those figures to underline two points. First, if world wars are rare, maybe we don’t need special explanations to say why there hasn’t been one since 1945 (hot) or 1991 (cold). Second, that definition of major war is still a problem.

Let’s put aside the academic arguments and look straight at the case that most worries. Is a great-power war between US and China possible? I think we could answer that question directly: possible, yes; likely, no. Great powers, especially nuclear-armed ones, don’t go to war with each other lightly. But sometimes wars happen. And they aren’t accidents. They’re about international order. They’re about, as Raymond Aron said, the life and death of states. And the principal reason for fighting them is that not doing so looks like a worse alternative.

Moreover, the paths to war—including rare major-power war—are not reserved solely for conventionally-armed states. Where both powers are nuclear-armed we should expect a conflict, even one at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder, to be fought with a high degree of political control, and an understanding that the objectives of the conflict are limited. Naturally, it would help if both sides shared a common understanding of where the firebreaks were between conventional and nuclear conflict, and already had in place a set of crisis-management procedures, but it’s possible that neither of those conditions might exist. (Neither would prevent a war, but both would provide a better sense of the likely escalation dynamics of a particular conflict.) Indeed, it’s because major war is possible that we retain such a keen interest in war termination. Unconstrained escalation doesn’t lead to a happy place.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jenny Downing.

The future of the US–Australia strategic relationship

AUSMIN 2014With the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) recently concluded in Sydney, it’s a good time to reassess the broader Australian–US strategic relationship. I want to frame that assessment here by employing a SWOT analysis. The methodology is clunky but simple enough to allow a set of insights about the relationship’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I’ve allowed myself three of each, as follows.

Three strengths: familial closeness, shared grand strategies, a solid foundation. First, closeness. The Anglosphere’s our international family, and while it’s easy to mock the importance of belonging to an international family, states that don’t belong to one (like Japan) would beg to differ. Ties of blood and culture run deep. Second, grand strategy: the best long-term allies are those who essentially want the same thing. In grand strategy, Washington and Canberra both want a stable, liberal, prosperous global order. And that’s a good basis for long-term cooperation—because the tie isn’t just of blood but of interest. Third, the foundation: we both enjoy an alliance that’s over 60 years old and is as close today as it’s ever been. Both allies are still looking for new ways to cooperate in order to make the alliance more relevant to the 21st century. Read more

Three weaknesses: time, place, strategic personalities. After the Global War on Terror the US is a weary Titan. That effect might last another five to ten years, but—over the longer haul—US vigour will wax as well as wane. There’s a second, longer-term ‘time’ factor, and that relates to the broader pattern of regional transformation: while the US rebalance to Asia is good, Washington’s rebalancing at a time when Western influence in the region is slipping because of the rise of regional great powers. Second is geography. At the best of times, Australia’s not Washington’s top priority—geographically we sit too far back from a strategic order essentially built along the Eurasian rimlands. True, the shift of strategic weight in Asia is changing that, to some degree—but we’re never going to be as relevant as front-line US partners. Finally, personalities: the US and Australia are two different strategic personality types: Americans are Extroverted, Intuitive and Feeling; Australians are Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking. In short, we‘re British empiricists, they’re the City on the Hill. There’s a messianic core to US strategic policy that isn’t replicated in ours.

Three opportunities: a more receptive Asia, a US more interested in Southeast Asia, a treaty with an in-built capacity to engage. Evidence of the more receptive Asia abounds. Regional countries want to do more with both the US and Australia. Japan’s the obvious example, but others aren’t as far behind as some think. It wasn’t always thus: remember, we couldn’t do much more with Japan before Abe, nor much more with Indonesia before SBY. A second opportunity, a shifting US perception of Southeast Asia. Washington has traditionally seen that subregion as a set of sealanes, and after 9/11 as a possible second front in the War on Terror, but it’s finally coming to see it as a set of influential players at the intersection of two key oceans. Third, both the US and Australia are classic networkers. And the ANZUS treaty already gives them scope (in the unused Article 8) to do more networking together in the regional context. I’m amazed we aren’t doing it.

Three threats: complacency, category mistake, distraction. Let’s start with complacency, because that’s the most insidious threat to the relationship. There’s something of a danger on both sides of the Pacific that capitals will treat the relationship as ‘business-as-usual’. Oddly, the simple regularity of AUSMIN actually increases that danger, reducing high-level political commitment to the alliance to an annual ministerial meeting. We need to work to sustain a broader base of political engagement. Second, the threat of the category mistake: that we come to see ANZUS as a barrier to our closer engagement with Asia, rather than an enabler of such engagement. It’s a simple mistake to slip into, and it typically follows from seeing ANZUS as a strategic hangover from a different era. And finally, there’s the threat of distraction. Distraction can come to both capitals from a range of sources. Washington can easily be distracted by more urgent priorities, both domestic and international; but so too can Canberra. Despite the excitable tones in which the future of our strategic partnership with the US is sometimes debated, the real threat isn’t that our relationship will be ruined by disastrous war, nor even that it’ll be traded away to accommodate China: it’s that the relationship will be eaten out from the inside, leaving a hollow, reactive partnership in the place of a substantive, proactive one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Analysing the China choice

Choices ...

The recent posts by Peter Jennings and Hugh White outline an interesting set of thoughts about Australia’s strategic policy options in a transformational Asia.

If I can summarise the argument bluntly, Peter says we don’t need to choose between the US and China, nor even between Japan and China—explicitly making the case that ‘countries in the Asia Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other’, and implicitly making the argument that zero-sum strategic competitions come along a lot less frequently than many people suppose. Just as well too, says Peter, since the choice Hugh outlines is one between ‘subordination or incineration’. Read more

Hugh agrees that the objective of Australian policy should be to avoid having to choose between the US and China. But being able to do that, he says, turns critically upon how well the US and China get on with each other: ‘the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them’. Since Hugh is a self-confessed pessimist, he doesn’t expect the two great powers to get along well. So he does think we face a looming—stark—choice between great powers. Hugh’s answer is greater accommodation of China: ‘the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate’.

The argument between Peter and Hugh is rather more subtle than it appears at first glance, but I think it turns upon one important difference: Hugh wants Australia ‘to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia’, where I get the sense that Peter would like Australia to promote a new responsibility-sharing order in Asia. Between the two competing principles, I’m attracted to the notion of responsibility-sharing. If China’s ambitions don’t include a role as something like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the regional order (yes, I know Robert Zoellick’s term is unfashionable these days, but it captures the right metric), why should we accommodate it?

Power is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in international relations—it’s what it’s used for that matters. In that sense, power’s like war and intelligence operations—you judge it by its political objectives rather than standing in slack-jawed admiration of power in its own right. That’s the way we’ve always judged other powers: it explains why we think now that concluding ‘peace in our time’ with Hitler was wrong, and also why we thought the Soviet Union had to be contained, even if it couldn’t easily be fought in a nuclear age.

So, the real determinant of whether we have to make a choice between the US and China isn’t how well they get on with each other. It’s ‘what does China see as its role in the world?’ The problem is that question doesn’t get a single answer, even in Beijing. Chinese grand strategy is a mish-mash of: its earlier expectations of what it meant to be a great power; a sense of entitlement now China has escaped the century of humiliations; a great sense of economic interconnectedness to the outside world; and a history of fractious relations with its neighbours.

That means Beijing likes some parts of the current regional order but dislikes others. It likes maritime security and safe sealanes so it can trade. It likes regional stability so it can concentrate on development. It accepts that US alliances help ‘tether’ Washington’s regional allies, though it’s becoming a bit more hesitant about that one. It dislikes foreign barbarians encroaching on Chinese civilisation. It resents that it’s a great power with unsettled territorial claims. It dislikes an Asian security order organised in Washington.

Hugh says that accommodation doesn’t mean giving Beijing everything it wants. That’s true. But what do we do when push comes to shove on something it wants but we don’t want? At some point, even in Hugh’s universe, the rubric of ‘choice’ cuts both ways. And choosing to resist China in a regional order we’ve designed to accommodate it might involve a set of strategic risks that we’d be unwilling to run on the day: by necessity, there’d be a set of salami-slice calculations in which the running of great risks for small gains could always be reasoned away.

Let’s go back to the nub of the problem: what does Australia want in Asia? I think the answer is relatively simple: it wants a stable, liberal, prosperous regional order. We can accommodate a China that wants that too. But power-sharing for its own sake doesn’t strike me as a recipe for strategic happiness. And arguing in Washington for a course that dilutes US influence in order to fashion a workable G2 with China means arguing for a smaller role for the one great power that’s actually built a stable, liberal, prosperous order in Asia. I’m not in favour of our doing that.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Lee.

A generational shift in the North Korean nuclear program?

The death last week of General Jon Pyong-ho, aged 88, chief architect of the North Korean nuclear program, raises the tantalising question, ‘where to from here?’. We’ve become accustomed to a North Korean nuclear program that limps rather than runs. Two factors have constrained the program: a shortage of fissile material and a lack of nuclear testing. Deals cut in the 1990s and at the Six Party Talks (SPT) have also slowed proceedings; twice now the small 5MWe gas graphite reactor (the source of all the North’s current stockpile of plutonium) has been mothballed—and subsequently de-mothballed. But with that reactor being restarted last October, and a new 25MWe light water reactor (LWR) coming on-stream, are we about to see a generational shift to a new, more energetic North Korean nuclear program?

The short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer is more complicated. Broadly, fissile material shortages seem likely to hamper the program for some time yet. Estimates vary as to the size of the current North Korean plutonium stockpile. The US Congressional Research Service figure of between 30 and 50kg (enough for five to eight bombs) seems reasonable, but that figure could be lower if the third nuclear test involved a plutonium device rather than a uranium one (something we don’t know). If the 5MWe reactor is now running smoothly again, Pyongyang can use it to produce about one-bomb’s-worth (6kg) of plutonium per year. But the process is slow, beginning with construction of suitable fuel rods for the reactor, irradiation of the fuel in the reactor, removal and cooling of the fuel, and reprocessing to extract the plutonium. Read more

Size matters. Pyongyang’s problem is that the facility is just too small to allow greater production. Had it completed construction of either its 50-MWe reactor or a 200-MWe reactor, both of which it began building some years back but subsequently abandoned, the equations would look much more unsettling. The 50-MWe reactor would have created enough plutonium for ten bombs per year; the 200-MWe reactor enough for 40 bombs per year.

True, Pyongyang might choose to pursue simultaneously a second path to fissile materials—as the US did during the Manhattan Project. If it used its uranium-enrichment facility solely to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU), it could produce about 40kg per year. The IAEA defines 25kg of HEU as a ‘significant’ quantity, so let’s say that 40kg equals a capability to make one and a half bombs. But the enrichment facility must spend some time creating low-enriched uranium-oxide fuel pellets for the new LWR. And each new nuclear test will subtract one bomb’s worth of material from the stockpile.

Won’t the LWR provide an alternate source of plutonium for Pyongyang when it begins operations? Yes. Depending on how it chooses to run the reactor and how often it wants to—or can—refuel it, Pyongyang could use it to produce plutonium. Estimates vary about how much. Charles Ferguson, from the Federation of American Scientists, has recently argued that Pyongyang could extract 30–40 kg of plutonium each year (enough for five to seven bombs) from just that facility. That seems a high figure; others suggest lower ranges. Siegfried Hecker suggests a plutonium figure of 10–15kg per year might be more realistic.

The LWR isn’t an ideal producer of weapons-grade plutonium for Pyongyang. The fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets, each fuel-load requires low-level uranium enrichment (unlike the Magnox fuel being fed into the small reactor) and the plutonium reprocessing facility has previously been set up to reprocess metallic fuel, not ceramic. Some analysts—Hecker for example—argue that the LWR’s inherent proliferation-resistance means the North will probably use the LWR for electricity production rather than plutonium production. Further, the fact the North’s restarted its small reactor suggests it wants to retain its present plutonium path.

Still, the possibility for misuse of the LWR—while low—is sufficiently concerning that getting a handle on the program is becoming more important. Recent developments have certainly not been lost on the South Koreans, who have stated that a freezing of the North Korean program at its current level should be a precondition for any resumption of the SPT. Hecker used to champion a proposal called ‘the three nos’: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export. If Pyongyang keeps going in its current direction, the first two nos seem unlikely to be satisfied.

What can Australia do? Unfortunately, not much. We don’t control the supply of uranium to North Korea, we can’t influence how Pyongyang uses its nuclear infrastructure, and we can’t shape its decisions about missile and nuclear weapon testing. Our intelligence community might be able to lead an effort to clarify stockpile numbers, which would be valuable but not game-changing.

Despite the concerns of the international community, Pyongyang in recent years has constructed a new reactor and enrichment facility, tested longer-range missiles and nuclear devices, and declared that it’s a nuclear-armed state. It isn’t about to turn over a new leaf. But its nuclear program still lives on Struggle Street—and will for some years yet. That certainly doesn’t make it irrelevant; further testing, for example, could help North Korea miniaturise its weapons. Still, it buys us a little time—if we can find a way to use it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of yeowatzup.

Australia, Japan and the future of strategic relationships in Asia

His Excellency Shinzo Abe, PM of Japan & Mrs Akie Abe visit AWM 8/7/14

The rapidly-warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterised by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defence policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defence cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule. Read more

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialisation would enhance national defence force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian War Memorial

What’s Australia’s strategic narrative?

As work on the Defence White Paper begins to quicken, I think there ought to be a broader public debate about what Australia’s strategic role should be. This is the under-discussed part of every White Paper. We seem to have endless coverage of what the strategic environment is like; and almost as much on how we manage the constraints on our role, such as defence budgets and legacy force structures. But it’s the bit in the middle—the section that joins together the environment and the constraints—that’s always undercooked. What role does Australia want to play in the world and how does it want to play it?

I was reminded of how little we address the question when the topic surfaced unexpectedly in a recent discussion at ASPI. We were discussing Asian strategic narratives when a visitor asked what Australia’s strategic narrative was. It’s a deep question, and mimics the classic question of grand strategy: what’s Australia’s project for the world? Large questions of identity and history swirl together here. Identity, because the question asks in part how we see ourselves. History, because there’s no Australia that comes to the 21st century but the one that played the role it did in earlier centuries. Read more

Australian identity is now complex and multifaceted. Undoubtedly there are still vestiges of ‘the Japanese colony in Africa’ as William Hudson used to call us—a colony established on the far side of the earth from the mother country, populated initially with prisoners and their guards, fearful of engagement with its neighbours, and 200 years after white settlement retaining the British Queen is its Head of State. Being so far from our home protector, we thought naturally that our security was tied to that of the Empire. And we were born to think of naval power as our creator, supplier and protector, nurturing a strategic inclination to partner with the dominant Western maritime power of the day.

But since at least the 1970s, a growing strain of nationalism has been echoing in Australian foreign and strategic policy, reflecting the emergence of a generation that found dependency shameful and wanted a more independent strategic voice. In the years since, we’ve unpacked a doctrine of defence self-reliance, explored the idea of Australia as a Good International Citizen, and embarked upon a debate about whether Australia is a middle power, a pivotal power, a second-tier power, or something else. Blending those roles with our traditional great-power-partnering role hasn’t been smooth. And given the likely shifts in strategic weight that’ll unfold over coming years, both within Asia and beyond, our relative power status is likely to be more of a topic for discussion rather than less.

We’ve also become more comfortable with the notion of Asian engagement. True, we don’t fully agree where on the possible spectrum of engagement we want to place ourselves: from mere functionalism at one end of the spectrum, to identity issues (thinking of ourselves as Asians) at the other. Critically, we want to play several strategic roles in Asia: as multilateral architect, order-builder, trading nation, muscular Asian power, strategic partner, and US southern anchor in the region. The roles don’t all pull in the same direction. At a time when Asia is experiencing transformational change, it’s unsurprising when we’re uncertain which role we want to play when.

The effect of regional transformation has been to fracture Australia’s strategic narrative even more than it already was. From various corners of the strategic prism, voices now shout out for us to stay linked to the dominant Western maritime power, to strengthen ANZUS for a new century of challenges, to be self-reliant in key missions and capabilities, to be an order-builder in Asia, to partner with the rising like-minded Asian players, to muscle-up for a new round of regional coercion, to accommodate China’s rise as US power declines, to step back from entanglement in possible Asian conflicts, to reinforce the strategically cohesive effects of closer economic cooperation, and to step up to the new benchmark of good international citizenship and accept our Responsibility to Protect. Lest you think I’m over-egging the pudding here, let me caution that those are just the mainstream voices.

For each of those possible roles, there’s a supplementary question. How much of the role do we want to buy into? A strategic role can be pursued either proactively or with greater restraint. If we were proactive, we would define our strategic interests broadly, use our security instruments frequently, accept a leadership role in terms of costs and burdens, and decline the option of being a passive bystander. If we were restrained, we would define our strategic interests narrowly, use our security instruments rarely, share out costs and burdens with other players, and choose the observer option more frequently. It might be we choose to be proactive on some issues or in some regions, but not in others.

This post can’t resolve all the tensions in Australia’s possible strategic role, but it can underline how much the undercooked middle section of the White Paper debate contains a set of deep and problematic questions. The questions are every bit as serious as ‘Is China an order-builder or a revisionist?’ And every bit as serious as ‘Do we need a bigger submarine or a smaller one?’

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marko Mikkonen.

Sole purpose and strategic crises: where’s the beef?

I thank Crispin Rovere for his thoughtful response to my original post on US declaratory nuclear policy. But I must take issue with the guts of his argument in relation to the sole purpose issue. In particular, I want to touch upon his two specific cases: Russian conventional aggression against the Baltic states; and, some form of US–China conflict close to the Chinese mainland.

Let’s start with the Baltic. Crispin says the US simply won’t use nuclear weapons to defend the Baltic states against Russian aggression, even though those states are members of NATO. After all, he notes, the Baltic territories were earlier occupied by the USSR for fifty years and no-one contemplated fighting a nuclear war over them. There’s a logic to that position. But two points need to be made. First, President Obama has specifically stated that there’s no difference between new NATO allies and old ones. And NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review states clearly that ‘the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States’. If that assurance turns out not to be true, it’ll raise questions about the credibility of US extended nuclear assurances elsewhere, and not just in the rest of NATO.

Second, even if the US is pretty unlikely to use nukes to defend Lithuania (for example), does it really want to stand up in advance and promise Putin that, no matter what level of conventional force he uses to seize Lithuania, the US won’t cross the threshold? That’s what a sole purpose declaration does. Such a declaration says unequivocally that nuclear weapons exist only to deter other countries’ use of nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t we want a potentially pushy Putin to have even a small doubt in his mind about whether the US extended nuclear assurance to Lithuania might actually turn out to be real? I don’t see how a sole-purpose declaration helps. Read more

What then of the second case, the hypothetical US–China conflict? Here Crispin says the US has a clear incentive to use nuclear weapons first against China, because of its nuclear advantage, especially once American ballistic missile defences are factored in. The implication is that a sole purpose declaration would make China less anxious, and so less inclined to pursue an expansion of its nuclear capabilities in ways that would make Asian neighbours nervous. Mate, China already is expanding its arsenal. But it’s not the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal that most worries neighbours; it’s the expansion of its conventional power—which it’s not shy of using.

Exactly the same argument applies here as in the Russian case; why would the US want to tell China that regardless of how it uses its conventional power, and regardless of the costs it imposes on US forces or those of its allies, such actions won’t carry any risk of nuclear escalation? How, exactly, would that make US allies and partners in Asia feel safer?

At a time when hard power is increasingly pushing its way back to centre stage, it doesn’t make sense for the US to declare that its nuclear arsenal is reserved solely for the deterrence of nuclear coercion. It’s like owning a car, but declaring you’ll only use it when other people use theirs.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.

No first use, sole purpose and the intricacies of declaratory nuclear policy

"Fat Man" was the codename for the type of atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on 9 August 1945.

Nuclear arms control has always involved two separate efforts: designing arsenals to ensure they are threatening but not destabilising; and enunciating declaratory policy to clarify expectations about when and why nuclear weapons might be used. The second of those efforts involves both positive security assurances (provided by nuclear weapon states to allies and partners), and negative security assurances (provided by nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states and potential adversaries). A pledge not to use nuclear weapons first during a conflict, for example, is one variety of negative security assurance. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union made such a pledge but NATO, fearing forward-deployed Soviet armour, did not. For the US to provide such a no-first-use commitment to its adversaries might well have weakened the assurances it provided to its European allies.

The Soviet pledge was never entirely credible—Moscow certainly had an interest in early nuclear use in naval contests, where it was conventionally weaker—and Russia withdrew it in the early 1990s. But over recent years, the notion of ‘no first use’ has started to make a comeback—albeit disguised as a declaration about ‘sole purpose’. What, you may ask, is a sole purpose declaration? It’s a declaration that nuclear weapons states make to the effect that ‘the sole purpose of the possession of nuclear weapons is to deter the use of such weapons against one’s own state and that of one’s allies’. Read more

When the Evans-Kawaguchi International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament made its final report, it gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the notion of ‘sole purpose’ declarations. When the Commission explains the attractions of such a declaration, it’s perfectly honest about what those are: a sole-purpose declaration is essentially a no-first-use commitment disguised under a different formulation (see paragraph 17.28 of the Final Report). Indeed, read strictly, a sole-purpose declaration might be interpreted as an even more severe restriction than a no-first-use commitment, because if the purpose is solely to ‘deter’, there’s not necessarily a recognition of the entitlement to retaliatory second use. If deterrence fails, nuclear weapons have failed in their sole purpose.

For its proponents, the attractions of a sole-purpose declaration lie precisely in its ability to reduce the mission of nuclear weapons and thereby the likelihood of use. In principle, it makes disarmament more achievable, because all nuclear weapons are strategically related only to each other. But doesn’t a sole-purpose declaration trip over precisely the same hurdle that made a no-first-use pledge sound incredible? Would a nuclear-armed state facing conventional defeat actually abide by the pledge? Many states build nuclear weapons because of security worries—including a worry about the prospect of conventional defeat.

At a deeper level, why would we want to corral nuclear weapons into an artificial, strategically-separate world within which they deter only each other? Why should nuclear weapons deter nuclear use, but not anything else—not great power war, not major conventional attack, not use of chemical or biological weapons, not dangerous contests in escalation. In reality, nuclear weapons have a wider rather than a narrower role. They help set ceilings on conflict wherever conventional imbalances exist—and those either already do exist, or potentially might exist, across a wide range of possible conflicts. Even a conventionally-strong nuclear weapon state, like the US for example, might find itself tested trying to project conventional power against a strong regional state, close to that state’s home territory.

The concept of sole purpose has purchase in Australia precisely because for much of the nuclear age we have lived a long way from conventional front lines. We came to see extended nuclear deterrence as the deterrence of a remote scenario—an actual nuclear attack upon Australia. I don’t believe any Australian minister ever actually said that we thought it should apply only in such a scenario, but in practice that’s where we thought it most relevant. Most US allies lived close to serious threats, and didn’t have the luxury of thinking about extended nuclear deterrence applying in such limited circumstances. The question for Australia now, as it thinks about the sole-purpose issue, is whether our security blanket of distance is likely to be as effective in the future as it has been in the past.

The previous Labor government gave muted support to the notion of sole purpose. My own view is that persuading our ally to move towards such a declaration isn’t in our interests. Given that we live in a nuclear age, and that the spread of such weapons is still more likely than not, we should be thinking about ways that nuclear weapons can make a positive contribution to international security: capping large-scale conflict, regardless of whether it involves conventional or nuclear attack; strengthening the credibility of positive assurances to allies and partners in order to deter proliferation; and ensuring that nuclear deterrence plays just as effective a role in the Asian century as it did in the European one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Iranian nuclear deal—what’s happening?

1370th Board of Governors Meeting. IAEA Headquarters, Vienna, Austria, 24 January 2014.The six-month temporary agreement between Iran on the one hand and US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China on the other is rapidly running out. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) took effect on 20 January, and therefore expires on 20 July. The JPA is renewable by mutual consent, so no great drama necessarily ensues in late July. But readers might like a quick summary of what’s happening.

In truth, reports of the negotiations paint a confused picture about how much progress is being made towards a comprehensive agreement. Iran’s insistence on being able to manufacture sufficient low-enriched uranium to avoid a reliance on foreign suppliers for nuclear fuel is clearly a major sticking point. Much depends on how the parties eventually define Iran’s ‘practical needs’ for enrichment technology. But if those needs include the capacity to supply fuel for the current reactor at Bushehr and other planned reactors there, Iran would need centrifuges in the tens of thousands. Iran’s nuclear chief has estimated it would need 50,000 centrifuges, which is about 30,000 more than it has now. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to fly. Read more

Since needs aren’t wants, the key question is just how self-reliant do the Iranians need to be? The logical place to source fuel for Bushehr is Russia, which already has the contract to supply the current reactor until 2021. So the self-reliance claim might be merely a negotiating tactic, intended to wrest concessions from the great powers. For their part, the great powers are probably willing to live with an enrichment capability that might allow for a few thousand closely-monitored centrifuges, but 50,000 is right out of the ballpark. A comprehensive agreement can’t allow Iran a breakout capability that would let it quit the NPT (like North Korea did back in 2003) and move quickly down the road to nuclear weapons.

Over at the Foreign Policy journal, Jeffrey Lewis insists the real problem isn’t Iran’s having the capacity to refuel Bushehr, but the possibility of hidden facilities—because those would fall outside IAEA monitoring. In truth, both capacities should be cause for worry. Obviously, a small, covert facility would let Tehran manufacture and hoard small stocks of enriched uranium. But a large number of centrifuges supporting an open civil program, and providing the basis to enrich uranium relatively quickly, would always be something of a worry while fissile material remains the long pole in the proliferation tent.

There’s a parallel set of negotiations underway between Iran and the IAEA, intended to resolve outstanding questions about the Iranian nuclear program in earlier years. So far, the degree of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA to resolve those concerns—including questions about the extent of Iranian weaponisation efforts, for example—is variable. The IAEA Report on Iran (dated 23 May, but ‘derestricted’ only on 4 June) is cautiously phrased. The overall tone of the Executive Summary suggests Iran is making a serious effort to meet designated targets. The stock of uranium enriched to 20%, for example, has fallen dramatically, though the quantity of uranium enriched to 5% continues to rise as Iran steadily builds that part of its inventory.

But the detail of the report (see paras 53-59, for example) suggests Tehran still has some way to go to answer questions about the possible military aspects of its nuclear program. True, Iran has shown some willingness to discuss the issue of exploding bridgewire detonators, which it argues were tested with a civilian application in mind. But other questions remain. And there’s debate about the level of transparency that Iran is showing. Metrics about transparency aren’t as clear-cut as they are on enriched-uranium quantities—after all, how much detail is enough to satisfy the IAEA’s concerns?

The picture is also murky away from the negotiating room. The Iranian supreme leader says, in public, that the US has taken ‘off the table’ the option of using military force to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. (What President Obama actually said was ‘We reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon’.) What’s Ayatollah Khamenei doing? Is he intending to reassure hardliners within Iran that a bargain can be struck with the great powers that dismantles the sanctions regime against Iran but doesn’t expose it to new threats? If so, the statement could be read as Khamenei freeing President Rouhani’s hands in a bid to reach a final settlement, but the evidence is too mixed to be persuasive. The recent US deal with the Taliban over POWs—and the inequitable trade therein—might be hardening opinion in Tehran against further concessions.

It’s always difficult to make judgments about how well negotiations are going from outside the negotiating room. At this point, the most likely outcome is a renewal of the six-month bargaining period. Precipitate agreement on a comprehensive deal looks unlikely. But so too does a breakdown in the talks—no-one’s talking about walking away. What’s becoming clearer is that even a final agreement will leave Iran with some breakout capability—and one of the key issues is whether that capability will be small or large.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.