Australia and nuclear weapons
1 Dec 2015|


In late October, Christine Leah and Crispin Rovere published a provocative piece on the War is Boring blog. Titled ‘Australia needs nukes’—and the Twitter accounts of the authors suggest it wasn’t their title—the piece argued not merely that Australia would benefit from having its own nuclear deterrent but, more audaciously, that Australia might properly be seen as a legitimate nuclear weapon state under the NPT. That second claim’s a bridge too far for me, and a rebuttal published on Arms Control Wonk suggests it was a bridge too far for others as well. Notwithstanding the rebuttal, the National Interest Buzz subsequently republished the original Leah-Rovere piece, from where it was picked up and republished by the Asia Times.

Since the piece refuses to die—despite Dr Leah’s acceptance of the criticisms on Arms Control Wonk—I want to offer a brief commentary here on the original argument. To get the specific out of the way of the general, let me say that I don’t believe the Australian government ever gave much consideration to the option of seeking nuclear-weapon-state status under the NPT. We know for a fact that some officials considered the option. But I’m not aware of ministerial weight ever being put behind the idea. And, as Hassan Elbahtimy and Matthew Harries argue in their rebuttal, it would involve some heavy-duty lifting to make the claim now, 45 years after Australia signed the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Let’s start with some basic facts. First, Australia is a signatory of the NPT and it’s not a repentant state. It doesn’t regret the choice of nuclear identity it made by its signature. That choice wasn’t made on a sudden whim. Australian thinking about nuclear weapons, since at least 1957, has been dominated by a ‘Menzian’ vision—that such weapons could make a positive contribution to global security as long as they are held by responsible great powers sufficiently aware of the awful consequences of use as to be self-deterred. The two competing visions of nuclear weapons—Gortonians who wanted Australia to have its own arsenal, and disarmers who favoured universal disarmament—represented distinct minorities on the Australian strategic spectrum, albeit long-lived ones. True, the Gortonians enjoyed their best years in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. But it would be wrong to think that by 1970 Australia stood committed to a nuclear weapons program abruptly and reluctantly terminated by signature of the NPT.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Menzian vision is destined to rule forever. The vision turns upon two assumptions: that nuclear weapons remain confined to responsible great powers, and that the Asian strategic environment doesn’t slide towards a darker future. Both of those assumptions are eroding—although we might argue amongst ourselves about how much and how quickly. Nuclear weapons are gradually spreading to states that we wouldn’t usually think of as responsible great powers. And the pace of proliferation would quicken sharply if status quo powers—like Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey—were to withdraw from the NPT and begin manufacture and deployment of their own arsenals.

The darker future in the Asian strategic environment has two, possibly related, forms. The first form would involve loss of credibility in the US’s extended nuclear assurances to its regional allies. That might seem unlikely, but it certainly isn’t impossible. As the region becomes more multipolar, relative US strategic weight is going down—meaning the credibility of US assurances faces a more challenging structural environment. Moreover, if credibility breaks at one point a ripple effect could easily ensue.

The second form of the darker future would involve the return of revisionist powers in Asia. In a regional strategic environment where coercive powers enjoyed greater freedom to coerce, other states would start looking for game-changers of their own. Part of that search might well involve the re-consideration of serious options set aside in more benign times. The notion that deterrence should become a national enterprise rather than an international one—a core tenet of the Gortonian vision, but one disabled by signature of the NPT—might well grow a new set of legs in such circumstances.

Where does all that leave us? Australia isn’t a nuclear weapon state under the NPT. And its dominant view of nuclear weapons is one under which Australia doesn’t need an arsenal of its own. Australia’s strategic preference would be for that status, and the permissive conditions which enable it, to continue. We just can’t be sure they will.