Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:09 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:09 | SYDNEY

A nuclear weapons-free world: Australia can lead


Martine Letts

17 January 2008 14:08

Almost exactly a year after their first op-ed, 'A World Free of Nuclear Weapons', appeared in the Wall street Journal, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, former Senator Sam Nunn and other leading security experts have published a second op-ed, again in the Wall Street Journal, entitled 'Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons'. It identifies some concrete steps for making progress in that direction. The second op-ed lists an impressive array of 14 former Secretaries of State, Defense, and National Security Advisors, as well as a number of new 'endorsers'.

Since the publication of the first op-ed, interest and momentum to address seriously the global nuclear weapons threat seems to be growing, including through a strong positive response from governments. One may critique the WSJ piece for being a little stuck in the 70s, and not acknowledging sufficiently the new, more complex, more dangerous and less contained nuclear world in which we live. That should not detract from the basic message that the global threat of nuclear weapons is pressing, that a concerted international effort is required to meet that challenge, and that US leadership is important to help make it happen. 

In a previous blog entry I commented that US leadership is an essential but not sufficient condition to effectively tackle the nuclear agenda, and that there are opportunities for countries like Australia, with a strong record for responsible uranium supply policies and practices and internationally acknowledged activism for realistic steps towards disarmament, to exercise regional and global leadership on the nuclear agenda. 

Why Australia? Apart from the direct security interests we have in limiting and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, we have shown the world that Aussie activism on these matters actually works. In the 1980s and 90s Australia, a strong ally of the US with a commitment to disarmament, played a major role in advancing the successful conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a verifiable ban on an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. This commenced in 1989 when Canberra convened an international conference of government and industry representatives against chemical weapons. This was the first time representative of industry and government had met to discuss how they would jointly act to rid the world of these terrible weapons. Subsequently, Australia concluded an energetic and successful international campaign to bring the negotiations on the text of the treaty to conclusion in 1993. The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons was the second major Australian international disarmament initiative. To this day it is recognised as a positive and realistic assessment of the steps needed towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Most of the work currently being done on this question takes place on the second track diplomatic circuit, steered by and through various think tanks and academic institutions. This is important, ground laying work, but it is time to take the challenge to the world’s political leadership.

The Rudd Government now has an opportunity to revive Australian activism on this matter and to help lift the current activities from the important, but nevertheless politically limited second track forum to the intergovernmental level. A new international consensus needs to be formed to deal with our more complex and dangerous nuclear world. This must be a process which involves all relevant players, within and outside the NPT, and not just the usual suspects.