An Australian view of nuclear deterrence
27 Jan 2015|

No Australian minister has made a full-blooded speech on nuclear deterrence for many a long year—not since the early 1990s, I suspect. In truth, that’s not surprising: it’s been proliferation that’s grabbed all the attention since then. Moreover, talking about nuclear weapons requires the speaker to perform a delicate balancing act between upholding the current reliance upon nuclear weapons and endorsing a longer-term post-nuclear vision. Because nuclear weapons are—by their nature—scary, the speech has to contain core elements of reassurance and moderation. And there are no votes in it.

True, a succession of governments over the last couple of decades have nailed their colours to the mast on deterrence as part of formal declaratory defence policy. Those wanting to trace the issue through a succession of Defence White Papers (DWPs) since the end of the Cold War should have a look at paragraph 9.7 in the 1994 DWP, paragraph 5.15 in the 2000 DWP, paragraph 6.34 in the 2009 DWP, and paragraph 3.41 in the 2013 DWP. Echoes from those DWPs can subsequently be heard in other ministerial comments—in Stephen Smith’s response to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament report of late 2009, for example.

But none of the White Papers unpacks government thinking about nuclear deterrence and, in particular, extended nuclear deterrence, in detail. Indeed, most governments seem to have convinced themselves that—on that topic at least—the less said the better. The Rudd government went so far as to say that if extended nuclear deterrence ceased to be effective, ‘significant and expensive defence options’ would come onto the Australian strategic policy agenda—a statement which implies that nuclear deterrence isn’t merely long-lived, but important for Australian security. The Gillard government thought that a bridge too far. Its DWP endorsed extended nuclear deterrence in much the same manner as its predecessors, but the comment about significant and expensive options disappeared.

So what should a more long-winded statement actually say? First, that the government retains its commitment to a Menzian vision of nuclear weapons. Menzians—as opposed to Gortonians and disarmers—are ‘middle-of-the-road’ thinkers. They believe that nuclear weapons can play a stabilising role in international order, so long as they’re held by great powers sensible enough to be self-deterred in their use. They believe that nuclear deterrence works, and that arms control has a distinct role to play both in moderating the tensions between the nuclear powers and in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to a less exclusive set of owners. Finally, they believe that US extended nuclear deterrence to its allies, including Australia, works well enough that Australia has no need of its own arsenal (though in just about every protégé state there’s a debate over what ‘well enough’ means).

Second, a statement would say that the government believes a post-nuclear world is possible but not close—indeed, it might be drifting further away. What’s close is strategic transformation in Asia, and nuclear weapons’ role as an order-stabiliser might well have a part to play before that transformation’s complete. Because of that, Australia accepts that its ally, the US, will soon embark upon a wave of nuclear-weapon modernisation, and that nuclear weapons might come to have a more important role in US alliances in Asia than hitherto. Such developments are likely because nuclear deterrence will retain its role as an important gravitational shaper of international relations, and a cap on major-power war.

Third—following on from the second point—that Australia supports the US deploying a nuclear arsenal of the size and shape needed to support nuclear deterrence in general and to extend nuclear deterrence to allies and partners. The Australian government believes that a failure of US extended nuclear deterrence—currently offered as an assurance to nearly forty countries—would not simply be a serious problem for Australia but would likely precipitate a wave of nuclear proliferation that would be destabilising for global and regional order.

Fourth, that the idea of sole purpose that’s underpinned most official Australian commentary about nuclear weapons should be read merely as an empirical statement about Australian strategic conditions in a non-transformational Asia—not as an ideological position denying the utility of nuclear weapons in countering large-scale conventional force. Geography and distance, plus US conventional force superiority, have previously provided Australia with the luxury of thinking about nuclear deterrence only within specific scenarios—such as a nuclear attack upon the Australian continent—but it’s uncertain whether that luxury will endure.

Fifth, that Australia remains a strong advocate of nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and eventual disarmament. A world in which many fingers rest on many triggers would be an unhealthy and dangerous one. But nuclear disarmament can’t be sensibly discussed except in the context of other moves to stabilise and enhance international security.

Between them, those points say the following: Australian policymakers have a sensible, ‘centrist’ approach to nuclear weapons; they believe that nuclear weapons still have a positive role to play in global and regional security; they accept that the US has to field an arsenal that supports its doctrine and obligations; they don’t accept the doctrinal shibboleth of sole purpose; and they favour non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament. And that’s a position we should be willing to put on record.

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