Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 17:10 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 17:10 | SYDNEY

Long and bumpy road to N abolition


Rory Medcalf


16 December 2009 15:46

It's out, all 294 pages of it: the report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, sponsored by Australia and Japan, is in the public domain.

The report provides a menu of informed ideas for improving international cooperation at next year's NPT Review Conference and beyond. While some may find the rather wordy style distracting, it amounts to an impressive exercise in consensus-building among policy thinkers from countries such as the US, Japan, China and India. It's also a valuable reality check in identifying the many serious impediments to nuclear abolition.

This blueprint for reducing nuclear dangers has both strengths and flaws. Here are a few initial observations.

Cutting numbers

Sensibly, the report does not pretend nuclear weapons can be abolished overnight, or even in the space of a decade or two. With something like 23,000 nuclear weapons now in existence, even the nominal target of 2,000 by 2025 is at the boundary of the credible.

Suggesting a figure like this was a clever way for the Commission to get headlines. But it places too much of the onus on the US and Russia: the implication is that they would be expected to cut to 500 warheads each by 2025, while other nuclear-armed countries might get away with merely agreeing not to expand their arsenals. 

Yet can we realistically expect a world where the US, with all its global strategic and alliance commitments, might accept having 500 weapons while, say, France would stick with its current 300 or so? Admittedly, the report implies that any expansion of the Chinese arsenal would mean that we could not expect the US to trim all the way down to 500. But some starker expectations on Beijing would have been welcome. 

Some observers will no doubt say that a US arsenal of 500 weapons, rather than encouraging Chinese restraint, will tempt Beijing to build more bombs – to 'race to parity'.

Changing doctrine

The report looks closely at the pros and cons of 'No First Use' declarations by nuclear-armed states, and concludes that they are worth pursuing, carefully. It suggests a part-way step of announcing a 'sole purpose' doctrine: that is, that the only role of nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. 

Proponents of 'nuclear ambiguity' might argue that the atomic bomb was not invented to deter the atomic bomb, but rather as a multi-purpose strategic tool. That is beside the point. The question at hand is, 'what is a credible and sustainable role for nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence into the future?' This report should add weight to the arguments of those in the US – including, it would seem, President Obama – who want to limit the purpose of the US nuclear arsenal, partly as way of helping the US mobilise other countries to support its non-proliferation efforts.

That limit might not need to be an explicit No First Use declaration, but might at least amount to a statement that the purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter existential threats to America or its allies. (Incidentally, one argument for a US No First Use declaration is that it would neatly deprive China of one of its few bits of high moral ground on nuclear arms control – Beijing would then find it harder to divert pressure on other issues, like its lack of transparency.)

Iran and North Korea

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the report does not offer a breathtaking solution to these most thorny of contemporary proliferation problems. Indeed, the document's consideration of these cases seems to amount to an endorsement of the consensus that Washington has worked at assembling this year: new ways need to be found for ensuring NPT compliance yet the only solutions are diplomatic. At the same time, the report recognises that many longer-term disarmament aspirations can only be achieved if the North Korea and Iran problems are solved first.

Nuclear energy 

The report is already being criticised by some NGOs for its supposedly 'brazen' embrace of nuclear energy. Yet it would have been absurdly unrealistic to promote a case for nuclear disarmament to most governments in the world without acknowledging the legitimacy of their plans for nuclear power. The peaceful use of nuclear energy is after all a pillar of the NPT, and matters even more today given the need to reduce carbon emissions.

A closer reading of the report reveals a fairly balanced attitude to atomic energy: for example, an emphasis on new ways to reduce proliferation risks, including multilateral fuel cycle cooperation, greater industry support for non-proliferation, and the development of proliferation-resistant technology. 

Tough choices for governments

The challenge facing Canberra and Tokyo now is whether they put their diplomatic weight behind promoting the recommendations in the report. If they do, this could entail changes in policy – for example in Australian and Japanese attitudes to the role of the US deterrent, or in Australian attitudes to nuclear energy. The words of the two prime ministers in launching the report this week proved less than illuminating in this regard.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I was an occasional research consultant for the Commission, but cannot claim a direct hand in the drafting of the report. The Lowy Institute was an associated research centre for the Commission, and my colleague Martine Letts was on its advisory board. None of this means that the Institute is aligned with all of the Commission's conclusions, as attested by the breadth of views we have published lately on nuclear issues – from this to this.