Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:06 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:06 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The folly of aiming for zero


Sam Roggeveen


27 October 2008 13:54

Professor Robyn Lim from the University of Queensland responds to Rory Medcalf's post on Prime Minister Rudd's nuclear commission, in particular Rory's reference to a Foreign Affairs article that describes how the US could safely reduce its arsenal to zero (my response follows):

Nothing could be more dangerous to our security than to advocate that the US abandon its nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons did much to keep the Cold war cold. The Soviets did not fear conventional war. But they did fear nuclear war because it would have destroyed their political system.

The French and British are not going to give up their nuclear weapons, whatever they may say to the contrary. That is mostly because they are never again going to risk the mass casualties of the two world wars. Abolishing nuclear weapons, they think, would make conventional war more, not less, likely. Currently, China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Russia, because of the diminution in its conventional forces, is placing more emphasis on its nuclear arsenal, as shown by its abandonment of the 'no first use' policy.

How could the US provide nuclear security for Japan without nuclear weapons? The Japanese would not be content to rely on US conventional capabilities, when China has a vast population, authoritarian government and demonstrated willingness to endure mass casualties.

It seems poorly understood that Australia also needs nuclear protection, even though we are not subject to nuclear attack. Nuclear weapons deter against all kinds of threats, including conventional, chemical and biological. Can we be sure that none of our neighbours would ever be hostile towards us, and inclined to arm itself with such weapons?

That does not mean we should give up efforts to retard the spread of nuclear weapons (eg. through the PSI etc.), but to encourage Obama to think the US should give up its nuclear arsenal is sheer lunacy.

Robyn Lim argues that, without a nuclear umbella, Japan would have no reason to trust US security guarantees, since China would be more willing to fight a conventional war. But if the US is so squeemish, what reason does Japan now have to trust America's nuclear guarantee? To put it another way, if the US is not prepared to suffer casualties in a conventional war with China to protect Japan, what makes Robyn think the US would be prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles for the defence of Tokyo?

As for Australia, it is true that, without the US nuclear umbrella, we cannot 'be sure' other countries would not attack us. But no weapons system offers total security, and searching for total security could itself be our downfall. Robyn is right that the 'zero option' carries risks. But she says nothing of the risks associated with the status quo. Nuclear deterrence remains an unprecedented gamble with the life of the planet, and just because the gamble has worked up to now, doesn't mean it has been a good one. We only have to lose once.