Last week, a major UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament (known as the 2013 NPT PrepCom) wrapped up in Geneva. The outcome? Yet another frustratingly weak factual summary, reflecting the seemingly irreconcilable positions of deterrence and disarmament advocates. With the exception of a dramatic and unprecedented walkout by the Egyptian delegation, which withdrew due to its frustration over the indefinite postponement of the Helsinki Conference, it was business as usual, with states agreeing to disagree over some of the most critical issues affecting humanity.
For the civil society participants with the patience and dedication to sit through the two weeks of negotiations, it must have been an intensely disappointing experience. It led Rebecca Johnson—usually a glass half full person—to conclude that, as nuclear weapons continue to proliferate and many remain on high alert, the NPT has become ‘toothless in the face of real world dangers’. She also coined my favourite quote of the conference, stating that the NPT seems ‘locked inside a bubble of diplomatic fantasy’. It’s hard to reach any other conclusion, after watching so many diplomats spend weeks earnestly debating the precise wording of non-proliferation and disarmament commitments that they know or suspect their governments will not honour.
Often, more meaningful discussions occur on the sidelines of NPT meetings. I wasn’t able to attend this year’s, but those who did have provided some interesting insights. Two particularly caught my attention. First was the acknowledgement, by senior Washington analysts, that the Obama administration has abandoned a 2012 proposal to pursue deeper, faster cuts to the US strategic nuclear arsenal following opposition from US allies worried about the impact on extended nuclear deterrence and assurance. Second was the response that Tom Countryman (US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation) gave to a question over why Australia relies on the US umbrella for its security. He was unable to answer the question, and appeared open to the suggestion that Australia could follow New Zealand’s path to non-nuclear status. According to reports, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans agrees, believing that nuclear weapons could be taken out of the equation without weakening Australia’s security or undermining the US alliance.
As he would be the first to admit, Gareth Evans’ views do not reflect the position of the Australian government. And, what’s more, no one in the Australian defence establishment will lose any sleep over his or Tom Countryman’s off the cuff remarks in Geneva. Last week’s Defence White Paper clearly states that Canberra intends to retain the nuclear umbrella ‘as long as nuclear weapons exist’, and—despite DFAT’s proactive disarmament diplomacy—any suggestion that this position could or should be abandoned is usually met with derision. If there was ever a group of people who believe that non-proliferation and disarmament negotiations have an air of unreality about them, it’s those at the sharp end of defence decision-making, who are far removed from the diplomatic merry-go-round of the UN and seemingly immune to the widespread nuclear allergies of civil society.
However one feels about the NPT and the prospects for nuclear disarmament, whether fantasy or reality, there’s a wide gap in many countries between official policy and public opinion across a range of nuclear issues. Most people seem to have more sympathy with the diplomats and campaigners who are trying to reduce nuclear dangers— however slowly and ineffectually—than with the nuclear strategists and officials who believe nuclear weapons have prevented major war and continue to do so.
This gap between policy and public opinion is very evident here in Australia. An oft-cited (and now very dated) 1998 poll by Roy Morgan research found that 92% of Australians were in favour of a global treaty that would eliminate nuclear weapons. Since then, polls carried out by the Lowy Institute have revealed that Australian public opinion continues to be strongly anti-nuclear, placing nuclear proliferation high on their list of global threats (2007), believing nuclear disarmament should be a top priority of the Australian government (2009), and opposing the export of Australian uranium to India (2012).
This makes one wonder how the Australian public would feel about the government’s recent activities at the PrepCom in Geneva. Despite the awkwardness of pushing a strong anti-nuclear agenda at the UN, while the country retains a pro-nuclear strategic doctrine at home, Australian diplomats did a good job of identifying areas where non-proliferation and disarmament efforts could focus. People might be surprised, however, to hear that Australia didn’t sign up to the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which was sponsored by 78 governments, including a number of NATO members. This was one area where many countries managed to come together to recognise the uniquely destructive nature of nuclear weapons. It’s a pity Australia didn’t join them. While doing so might have appeared hypocritical given Australia’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella, it would at least have signalled the government’s acknowledgment that nuclear weapons, whether they are held by allies or adversaries and whatever their role in strategic thinking, present real and horrific dangers that are far removed from fantasy.
Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.