An inflection point in nuclear deterrence?
23 Aug 2017|

In recent days, Wilton Park—the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s discussion forum—released a report (PDF) on its June workshop on nuclear deterrence and assurance. The report’s not overly long, but bears a close reading given the current debates about the future of nuclear weapons. One of its conclusions is that Western governments need to make greater efforts to engage their publics on the difficult issue of nuclear deterrence, ‘to maintain—and to lead—a balanced and nuanced debate’ about the place of nuclear weapons in their own future defence strategies. Presenters at the workshop were drawn primarily from NATO countries and Northeast Asia, but Australian policymakers would do well to heed some of the key lessons.

I’ve argued before that Australian governments have broadly stepped away from publicly defending the doctrine of nuclear deterrence since the Cold War ended. Personally, I think that’s unhealthy. When governments cease to defend nuclear deterrence, public support wavers. And building and sustaining that support is getting harder with the passage of years. Both the risks and the benefits of the doctrine were comparatively easy to sell to the generation or two that had access to direct memories of World War II. After all, a war that killed over 50 million people—that is, an average of 25,000 people every day for six years—was bound to leave deep scars about the costs of great-power war. Those generations largely understood that nuclear weapons helped make great-power war more unlikely, mainly by inducing greater caution among decision-makers.

But to many young people today, nuclear deterrence looks like a hangover from an earlier era of mass war—with a large downside and little upside. Hence the new nuclear weapons ban treaty, written by governments with no attachment to nuclear deterrence at the prompting of social groups with no belief in it. With the treaty text safely in the locker, the ban’s proponents have embarked on a bottom–up strategy of persuading individual politicians to embrace the cause. ICAN Australia’s Twitter feed shows an adroit application of the lobbying principles displayed in Miss Sloane: individual politicians are often photographed holding signs declaring their support for the ban treaty, making it much harder for them to reverse those positions at a later date.

Meanwhile, no individual cabinet minister has volunteered any sustained defence of nuclear deterrence. At a time when many US allies around the world are attempting to strengthen US extended nuclear assurances, Canberra’s been largely silent on the topic. As North Korea’s ballistic missiles have become more and more capable, the dominant theme in public discussion hasn’t been extended nuclear deterrence; it’s been a sudden, touching—and misleading—faith in ballistic missile defence. The 2016 Defence White Paper, the most recent articulation of Australian declaratory policy, had little to say on the issue of extended nuclear deterrence—and that at a time of rising risks from nuclear proliferation and Russian and Chinese modernisation. In response to ICAN’s current targeting of individual members of parliament, there seems to be no comparable effort from either major political party to solidify political support behind our existing defence strategy.

In short, in Australia as across much of the West, nuclear deterrence is in danger of death by neglect. Elsewhere, the reverse is happening. The Russians have moved into a tighter embrace of nuclear weapons, eager to find ‘a “nuclear scalpel” capable of “surgically” destroying local military targets’. China has embarked on a substantial modernisation of its arsenal, keen to improve survivability and targeting options. In South Asia, Pakistan has moved to declare ‘full-spectrum deterrence’ as it seeks to offset India’s growing conventional capabilities. India, too, is making its own modernisation effort, in part to stay within reach of China. And North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs make daily headlines. Across the broader Asian nuclear order, the principle of voluntary restraint is weakening.

Perhaps opponents of the nuclear ban treaty are hoping that it will quietly die from its own historical irrelevance—that it will fade gradually into obscurity as nuclear warhead numbers remain largely constant, and as the US strategic modernisation program unfolds. But we shouldn’t assume that anti-establishment narratives will automatically succumb to strategic good sense. There’s no law of politics that says good sense triumphs.

In short, it’s long past time that the Australian government re-engaged the public on the meaning and purpose of nuclear deterrence. Extended nuclear deterrence—the doctrine under which the US agrees to run nuclear risks on its allies’ behalf—has traditionally enjoyed a degree of bipartisan support in Australia. (Labor’s 2009 Defence White Paper defended the concept with greater vigour than either of its successors.) If that’s still an accurate reflection of the prevailing orthodoxy, it would be nice to hear some voices raised to support it. Public re-engagement, of course, is only the first step on a longer and more difficult journey. Like other US allies, Australia should be looking for ways to strengthen nuclear deterrence, not merely to explain and defend it. But that’s a topic for another day.