Time for new thinking on arms control and disarmament

Australia has made many important contributions to the non-proliferation regime over the years, helping draw attention to the dangers inherent in the spread of nuclear weapons. At the international and regional levels, it’s provided diplomatic and technical support to states and organisations involved in preventing and monitoring the spread of sensitive nuclear materials and technologies. At the national level, it’s taken precautionary steps to ensure that it doesn’t assist sensitive transfers to third parties. Canberra has been consistent in these efforts, with the notable exceptions of the decision to negotiate on selling Australian uranium to India and the work on proliferation-sensitive laser enrichment technology that Australian-owned Silex Systems has sold to GE-Hitachi. Commercial interests in both cases (along with strategic aspirations in the former) appear to have trumped other considerations. Despite these failings, Australia is internationally respected for its non-proliferation record and is regarded as a staunch advocate of non-proliferation norms.

The same can’t be said for Australia’s disarmament diplomacy, which fundamentally conflicts with its defence posture. On one hand, Canberra claims to uphold disarmament norms by ruling out the indigenous development of nuclear weapons, but on the other it relies on US nuclear weapons for its defence and security. This inevitably poses difficulties for Australia on the diplomatic circuit, especially in the context of UN disarmament negotiations, when the wide gap between what Australia’s diplomats preach and what its defence officials practice becomes all too evident.

Today, this conflict is more apparent than ever, despite the carefully crafted language and what appears to be a subtle doctrinal shift in the 2013 Defence White Paper (PDF).  This is because Australia, in coalition with nine other states (Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) is being much more vocal about nuclear dangers than it has in the past, shining a light on the appalling consequences of nuclear use, and calling for a reduced role for nuclear weapons in strategic doctrines. It doesn’t help that most of the other members of the coalition—known as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI)—also rely on US extended nuclear assurance or on nuclear-sharing arrangements, making their joint statements on disarmament appear insincere to many non-nuclear weapon states. These perceptions were heightened recently when the coalition failed to sign up to the Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons at last month’s NPT PrepCom—a disarmament initiative that attracted support from 78 countries seeking to highlight the uniquely destructive nature of nuclear weapons.

The rationale for the NPDI’s disarmament agenda comes from years of navigating the difficult NPT review process, and from the realisation that non-proliferation and disarmament are linked—progress in one won’t occur without progress in the other, and any attempt to separate them entrenches divisions between the nuclear haves and the have-nots. Awareness of these sensitivities drove the NPDI to try to devise an approach that would attempt to bridge NPT divisions, in an effort to find common ground, however slim, and promote progress in non-proliferation.

But NPDI aren’t well-suited to play a bridging role, and they won’t be taken seriously unless key members alter their nuclear status or the coalition refocuses its diplomatic agenda. In the absence of member decisions to abandon nuclear assurance or nuclear sharing (currently an extremely unlikely scenario) few such steps are available, and those that do exist (such as an unambiguous sole purpose or no first use declaration), face resistance from defence officials in most of the countries concerned.

The alternative for the coalition is to change its diplomatic agenda so that it’s more consistent with the nuclear status of the majority of its members. NPDI could make a unique and genuine contribution to the non-proliferation regime if it encouraged deterrence and disarmament advocates to engage in high level debate about the strategic challenges associated with disarmament, focusing on the difficult question of how to maintain stability and prevent war in disarming and disarmed worlds. Very little energy is devoted to discussing these questions in official circles and, as a result, arguments surrounding nuclear deterrence are rarely challenged, and arguments in favour of disarmament appear unrealistic and are too easily dismissed.

This post summarises some of the main points in the latest ASPI Policy Analysis paper Australia and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative: difficult times for disarmament diplomacy.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI.