Extended nuclear assurance: another thread in the tapestry
25 Nov 2014|
Another thread in the tapestry

Last year the government released a range of documents relating to Australia’s approach to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The documents, dating between 1945 and 1974, were edited by Wayne Reynolds and David Lee and published as part of DFAT’s Historical Series—a series that has previously done good work in relation to Timor-Leste, ANZUS and other topics. An electronic version of the latest text is available here.

I’ve been reading the manuscript off and on over the last couple of weeks, and the work certainly deserves greater public attention than it has so far attracted. Yes, the documents are heavily redacted—the phrase ‘matter omitted’ appears with depressing frequency. Still, what’s included is comparatively frank—and revealing. Moreover, given the scarcity of material released from Defence files across this period, some glimmers of policy thinking are better than none.

The documents cover a number of policy issues surrounding the central question of whether or not Australia should sign and ratify the NPT. Some details come as a surprise. For example, we learn that some officials were giving consideration to Australia’s seeking recognition as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) under the NPT. Since the country had already hosted a range of nuclear tests on its territory, and Australian personnel had been engaged collaboratively in a number of non-explosive nuclear activities, the bare bones of an argument existed that we had a case to be treated as a NWS. (See paras 36–37 in Document 89.)

These days the broad outline of Australia’s nuclear history is no secret. But time and again, the documents reward the reader with interesting insights. The record of the interdepartmental meeting on 19 April 1967 (Document 88), for example, contains an assessment of where Australia then stood in its technical capabilities. In the words of Sir Leslie Martin, one of the defence scientific advisers at the table, ‘No other country outside the nuclear powers knew more than we did on nuclear weapons. Our physicists had participated in explosions. We had seen what was inside a weapon, and knew how to make it’. No wonder Australia appeared on the CIA’s 1963 assessment of possible future nuclear weapon states.

As the prospect of a treaty gathered pace, officials became anxious to ensure that it didn’t cut off Australia’s options. Similarly, they worried about the safeguards provisions, and how intrusive those might be. But my own interest lies more in their worries about security assurances: whether the ANZUS treaty guaranteed protection against a nuclear attack or large-scale conventional attack, and whether in the event of such an attack the political pressures would favour US nuclear retaliation on our behalf or not.

Many conversations, with the Americans and others, cover that topic. Of particular interest is the following text taken from an aide-memoire sent by the US government to the Australian government on 1 May 1968 (Document 126):

The United States Government fully appreciates the reasonableness of the Australian Government’s intention to give the Nonproliferation Treaty careful study. However, the United States Government believes that the question of Nonproliferation Treaty security assurances is one of primary concern to non-aligned non-nuclear states and not to military allies of the United States, who are already covered by the nuclear protection of the U.S.

Australia is an especially close ally of the United States, having joined with the United States in two security treaties—the ANZUS Pact and the SEATO Pact. These alliance commitments are stronger than any we could give to non-allied states in conjunction with the Nonproliferation Treaty. The strength of our security commitments pursuant to treaties of alliance is based not only on the treaties themselves but on a history and tradition of close political and military collaboration. The United States and Australia have fought together as allies in World War II and Korea, and are now fighting together in Vietnam. The sacrifices which the United States is sustaining in Vietnam testify to the seriousness with which the United States views its commitments.

That final clause of the first paragraph is especially interesting: US allies are ‘already covered by the nuclear protection of the US’. I’ve previously written that a public form of the US extended nuclear assurance to Australia can be found in the Nixon Doctrine, Clause 2 of which was interpreted by both government and opposition in Australia as constituting such an assurance. From the aide-memoire, it’s clear that other confidential assurances preceded that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words by themselves don’t appear to have satisfied the doubters. Document 153, for example, records Minister for External Affairs Paul Hasluck’s doubts in a discussion with the Italians in September 1968: ‘would the United States use its deterrent to save 12 million people in Australia, in the knowledge that this action would immediately endanger 200 million people in the United States?’

But the declassified documents verify one important fact: the doubts about extended nuclear assurance that have waxed and waned in Australia over decades don’t stem from the failure of the US to provide such an assurance. They stem from the failure of some Australians to believe it.

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