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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 32, November 1998

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: Speech by Paul Keating

'Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: A Survival Guide for the Twenty First Century,' Lecture by the Hon. P. J. Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, currently Visiting Professor of New South Wales, Sydney, 25 November 1998

"In some ways, I suppose, I am an unexpected campaigner for nuclear disarmament. I am a realist about international affairs and I don't have great faith in the inherent good will of the nation State. I have never seen much point in the politics of symbolism. During the Cold War I thought ideas of unilateral disarmament were naive and dangerous. And yet this issue of nuclear weapons worries me more than any other when I think about the sort of world young Australians will inherit. ...

No image in the twentieth century has seared our collective consciousness like that of the mushroom cloud. And in our minds that image of the Bomb defined the Cold War. So although nuclear weapons had been conceived for a different conflict, we assumed that because the Cold War was over, the weapons that defined it had miraculously disappeared as well.

For most Australians, the realisation that this was not so came with the announcement by President Chirac, on 13 June 1995, that France would conduct a series of eight underground nuclear tests at Muroroa atoll in French Polynesia. ...

In response to the tests, the Australian Government took a series of measures including recalling the Ambassador to France, curtailing defense contracts, and coordinating protest action in the United Nations and other international bodies, including the South Pacific Forum, which Australia was chairing that year. This did not much diminish the public clamour. The Government was being urged to break diplomatic relations with France, cut off all trade, and dispatch Australian warships to stop the tests. Sections of the media...were running a campaign that became more anti-French than anti-nuclear. It seemed at times as if the smoke of the Battle of Agincourt had only just cleared. ...

The selfishness and cynicism of the Chirac decision appalled me and I was deeply concerned by the provocation it provided to some of the threshold nuclear States. ... The more I thought about the...tests, the more I came to feel that the understandable public outrage was in a sense directed at a symptom rather than a cause of the problem.

The French had reminded everyone of what we all wanted to forget, the unique, sickening sense of insecurity which comes from knowing that weapons exist in the arsenals of governments which have the capacity to destroy humankind. The problem, in other words, was the continued existence of nuclear weapons in the world.

As I reflected on this, I thought we had an unprecedented and possible unrepeatable opportunity to begin to move to a new strategic environment which offered not just a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, but their elimination. The Gulf War had shown that new, accurate, conventional weapons could accomplish the military purposes for which nuclear weapons had once been intended, but without such appalling, indiscriminate consequences. The Cold War had ended, all the declared nuclear powers were at least on speaking terms, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons had for the time being been reasonably contained. There was no prospect, however, that this situation would continue into the indefinite future.

The goal of a nuclear weapons-free world was not new. It had been a long-term aim of Labor Party policy and a goal that had been articulated forcefully by others. But as long as the Cold War raged, the ambition was unachievable. Now, however, we had an opportunity to develop a concrete program to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world.

The successful negotiation of the chemical weapons convention in which Australia had played an important diplomatic role, had shown that it was possible to put the genie back in the bottle; that a whole class of weapons of mass destruction could be abolished. And Article VI of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which had only recently been indefinitely extended, committed the nuclear-weapons States to 'pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.'

But of course the task of ridding the world of nuclear weapons was not something Australia could accomplish unilaterally. We had none of our own to eliminate and we were committed not to get them. We were well respected internationally for our arms control expertise. But we were now entering a domain where the deepest national security interests of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France were involved.

Every country was directly affected by the nuclear threat, but nothing could happen without the five nuclear powers. We decided, therefore, that the most useful thing we could do was to try to shape the international debate. Anti-nuclear groups had written many reports about the problems of nuclear weapons but, until that time, no government had ever put its name behind a report committed to their elimination. I wanted to put the authority of a sovereign government behind the push to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

So in October 1995 we announced the formation of a commission comprising a group of eminent scientists, disarmament experts, military strategists and statesmen and asked them to develop 'concrete and realistic steps for achieving a nuclear weapons-free world.' ...

We were very lucky to get together an outstanding group of commissioners. Gareth Evans's international reputation and energy were critical to our success in this, as in so much else. The members included Joseph Rotblat, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Pugwash Foundation, General Lee Butler, who had been responsible until 1994 for all United States strategic nuclear forces, Field Marshal Lord Carver, the former chief of the British Defence Staff, Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence and President of the World Bank, and a number of internationally-regarded disarmament experts. The distinguished Australian strategic thinker, Professor Robert O'Neill was a member, as was Richard Butler, then the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, now the UN's Chief Weapons Inspector. I believed the group should also include someone with direct political experience, so I invited Michel Rocard, the former French Prime Minister to participate. ...

The commission reported to the coalition government in August 1996. The recommendations were based on the fundamental assumption that 'the proposition that large numbers of nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used - accidentally or by decision - defies credibility. The only complete defence is the elimination of nuclear weapons and the assurance that they will never be produced again.'

The report recommended a number of immediate steps to reduce the dangers of nuclear war as well as longer-term moves towards the larger goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons. The immediate steps proposed included taking nuclear forces off alert; removing warheads from delivery vehicles; ending the deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons; ending nuclear testing; initiating another round of negotiations between the US and Russia to reduce their arsenals; and a joint agreement by nuclear-weapons States not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

The commissioners also recommended a series of reinforcing steps to build on these foundations. These included measures to prevent further horizontal proliferation, not only by countries but by terrorist groups, the development of verification arrangements for a nuclear weapons-free world, and the cessation of the production of fissile materials for nuclear explosive purposes.

As we hoped, the recommendations were realistic and practical. The commissioners did not ask for unilateral disarmament or suggest any measure that might threaten security during the process. However, they did make the fundamentally important point that, in the end, the decisions that need to be taken are not technical decisions but political ones.

It was a good start. But many excellent reports lie languishing on shelves in Ministries around the world. The next step was the diplomatic one of trying to persuade others to embrace the ideas and adopt the policies.

One of my regrets about losing the 1996 election - and I have several - is the opportunity I lost to pursue the report's recommendations as Prime Minister. I would have taken the report to the United Nations General Assembly to launch it myself. It would have been high on my agenda for discussions with President Clinton and the leaders of the other nuclear States.

But beyond receiving the report in August and lodging it at the United Nations, the present Australian government did not endorse its recommendations or try to sell them more widely. The Canberra Commission was associated with the government I led, and it had been labelled a 'stunt' by the current foreign minister [Alexander Downer] in the political atmosphere of the time. So the political momentum - at least on Australia's part - was allowed to lapse.

I believe this is a great pity, and not just for Australia. But other governments, I am glad to say, have taken up the cause. In June this year the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden, formed a new international coalition - called the New Agenda Coalition - to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons. They explicitly drew inspiration from the Canberra Commission.

In August, in another parallel with the Canberra Commission, Japan convened the Tokyo Forum, a meeting of eighteen prominent diplomatic and strategic experts from sixteen countries to discuss the impact of nuclear testing and issues of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Three years after we convened the Canberra Commission report, what is the international environment for such initiatives? I want to turn now to the current situation and the prospects for the future.

On the positive side, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was finally adopted in 1996 and some progress has been made in opening the way for negotiations on a treaty to limit the production of fissile material for weapons.

But almost all other news on the nuclear front has been bad. Twenty thousand nuclear warheads still have the capacity to destroy the world many times. Two of the States on the nuclear threshold, India and Pakistan, have now stepped over it. Another regime with a known nuclear program, North Korea, tested a medium range ballistic missile in August. Meanwhile, Russia's capacity to control and store its existing nuclear arsenal is atrophying. And the strategic arms negotiations between the major nuclear powers are not going anywhere. Russia has still not ratified START II. Russia, China and the United States have still not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Across the board, in other words, the impetus for change has stalled. ...

After the Indian nuclear tests, President Clinton said forcefully and accurately that 'to think that you have to manifest your greatness by behaviour that recalls the worst events of the twentieth century on the edge of the twenty-first, when everybody else is trying to leave the nuclear age behind, is just wrong.'

But the problem, of course, is that no one else does seem to be trying to leave the nuclear age behind, or not at least with any noticeable degree of urgency. ...

The essential issue here is that you can't have non-proliferation without de-proliferation. It is not just States that we need to worry about as a source of new nuclear threats, but terrorists and other groups as well.

Nuclear weapons are not hard to make. You can get instructions for a workable device off the internet. ... The only difficulty is access to fissile material. That is why we need to address much more comprehensively the problems of 'nuclear overhang' - essentially the security of stored nuclear weapons and excess fissile material in Russia. This is a second area that has become more dangerous since the Canberra Commission report.

At more than 90 sites across Russia, 715 tons of nuclear material are stored. This is enough to fuel 40,000 weapons. Guarding this deadly treasure are military officers and soldiers whose morale is low and who have sometimes not been paid for months. In 1996 the then Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, told the US Congress that of the tons of weapons-useable nuclear material distributed to various centres around Russia over the past 40 years, none had what would be regarded in the United States as sufficient accountability.

Last July, thousands of scientists at the nuclear city of Arzamas-16 went on strike after months without pay. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy, MINATOM, has told its personnel that they can no longer rely on government funds to support them and that they need to market their goods and services.

The dangers are real. In November 1993, a Russian naval officer walked out of a shipyard in Murmansk with about 10 pounds of highly enriched uranium and went looking for a buyer while it was stored in his garage. In August 1994, almost a pound of weapons-useable plutonium was seized by German police in Munich. It is not just in Russia: the reported theft of approximately 130 barrels of enriched uranium waste from storage in South Africa was reported in the press in August 1994.

Through the Soviet Threat Reduction program of 1991 - named the Nunn-Lugar program after the senators who co-sponsored the bill - the United States provides about $400 million a year to help secure poorly guarded Russian nuclear facilities under current arms control negotiations and to help destroy weapons earmarked for destruction. But this accounts for only one-sixth of one percent of the US defence budget. The Nunn-Lugar program is a solid investment, producing lasting security dividends. It could easily be doubled or tripled. And if the build-down is to continue, it will have to be.

Some people willingly concede the dangers that nuclear material could be diverted to rogue States or terrorists. But that just proves we need nuclear weapons, they say: in order to protect ourselves against these very prospects.

But the argument is circular. It is the argument that we need nuclear weapons because we have nuclear weapons. It is not an argument we think persuasive when applied to biological or chemical weapons.

In an outstanding article in a new collection of essays called The Force of Reason to be published shortly in honour of Joseph Rotblat, a leading member of the Canberra Commission, Professor John Holdren of Harvard University says that such criminal threats 'could well be the dominant nuclear threat in the next century.' He argues that the threat is not only 'greatly aggravated by the continued existence of national nuclear arsenals, but nuclear deterrence is likely to be useless against it (because terrorists and other criminals may not be locatable, or if locatable, could not responsibly be attacked with nuclear weapons).'

The state of the Russian nuclear arsenal has other dangerous consequences. Thousands of Russian nuclear systems are on hair trigger alert, ready to launch at the United States in fifteen minutes. The deteriorating condition of Russian early warning systems and the erosion of military command and control heightens the danger of an accidental or unauthorised launch. It increases the incentive for the Russians to adopt a 'use them or lose them' strategy for their strategic arsenal. We reportedly came very close to such a situation in 1995 when a Norwegian research rocket was mistaken for a United States missile attack and the whole Russian system went on alert.

The economic collapse and the decline in conventional military capabilities tempts Russia to place extra weight on its nuclear forces to compensate. This is the reason Moscow has abandoned its long-standing declaratory policy of 'No First Use' of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the strategic nuclear negotiations are stalled. ... Russian hardliners are pointing to the expansion of NATO to the borders of the old Soviet Union as a reason for Russia to maintain its nuclear capabilities. ... Russia cannot afford to modernise and replace ageing and decaying nuclear forces and it is slipping inexorably further behind United States numbers and capabilities. It simply cannot afford its vast nuclear arsenal and is seeking much larger cuts.

In the United States political pressure is growing for a National Missile Defence System to respond to a perceived evolving ballistic missile threat. This would certainly mean abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and would cause the Russians to walk away from START I and II, fearing that the United States could quickly upgrade a missile defence system into a shield behind which it could launch a first strike.

In this depressing landscape - a period in arms control negotiations that some have called 'the great frustration' - the agenda for action set out in the Canberra Commission report remains highly relevant.

First we need to urge the steps recommended by the Canberra Commission to de-alert the nuclear arsenals - to lengthen the fuse by extending real launch preparation time. This means removing vital parts of the systems. An agreement between the Russians and the Americans in 1994 to de-target missiles was essentially meaningless. Original targets can be fed back into the computer in seconds. But de-alerting - in other words, standing the missiles down - will require an effective and intrusive inspection system.

Second, we need to press speedily ahead with negotiation of the fission material cut-off treaty...

Third, we need to urge Russia and the United States to move as quickly as possible to leap-frog START II with a new and radical START III which rectifies the emerging numerical inequality in favour of the United States and gets nuclear numbers down so low that the other nuclear-weapons States are brought into the negotiations.

For my part, however, I do not think such measures will be enough. I don't believe that any objective short of zero will be able to generate the political consensus necessary to stop an eventual break out. Even if only a handful of weapons are held by Washington and Moscow and Beijing, even if they are held in 'strategic escrow' under some form of international supervision as General Stansfield Turner and others have suggested, I find it impossible to imagine why a future South American government, or some future African leader, convinced that Africa has been abused and marginalised, will not understand the disproportionate strategic advantages that accrue to States with even crude nuclear weapons and will not ask: Why not us?

And there is no defensible answer to that question. That is why I believe only a full commitment to, and an active program to secure, the elimination of nuclear weapons will ever be sufficient to secure our safety.

Even so, the goal of elimination can't be accomplished by the arms control route alone. It is also - even essentially - a debate about global power and influence and I believe it will only be resolved in that context. We have come to see nuclear weapons as the ultimate global status symbol. Membership of the United Nations Security Council remains co-terminous with the possession of nuclear weapons. And United Nations reform, so high on everyone's agenda when the Cold War ended, has faltered.

The senior adviser to the Indian Prime Minister on security issues defended India's decision to declare itself a nuclear State by writing that his country was '...assigned a particular place in the world order and not treated as a subject responding to our own interests.' That frustration lies at the heart of India's decision to test. I'm not arguing that countries should be rewarded for flouting international norms. But I do not think we can create an adequate architecture for the world without finding a place in it for the democratic government that speaks for the one billion people of India. ...

I believe the government should seriously consider suggestions that have been made to reconvene the Canberra Commission, probably with a different membership, to re-examine in current circumstances its practical and realistic program for moving to a world without nuclear weapons. As a firm ally of the United States, with a high reputation in international arms control negotiations, Australia has a better chance than any other country to refocus international debate on the final goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. The government would have my enthusiastic support for such an initiative.

But this is not just a matter for governments. Increasingly, the international agenda can be shaped from outside. We have seen this with the success of the international campaign against landmines.

We face a long struggle to get rid of nuclear weapons and we might not succeed. But you can be absolutely sure that if the pressure is not kept on governments, if the issues and alternatives are not debated, if the voice of public opinion is not raised, then the line of least resistance will be taken.

And that line will always be to let things slide - to hope that in the next hundred years some new, more ruthless or more able Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-Il won't emerge, that somehow the skills of Russian nuclear scientists now on the market will not be made available to some terrorist group, and that we will get through it all unscathed.

I want to end this lecture by quoting not a politician or an anti-nuclear activist but a man from the heart of the nuclear establishment. General Lee Butler was the former head of United States Strategic Nuclear Command, and a key member of the Canberra Commission panel. Accepting the prestigious Henry L. Stimson award for distinguished public service last year, General Butler said he was dismayed that 'even among more serious commentators, the lessons of fifty years at the nuclear brink can be so grievously misread, that the assertions and assumptions underpinning an era of desperate threats and risks prevail unchallenged, that a handful of nations cling to the impossible notion that the power of nuclear weapons is so immense their use can be threatened with impunity, yet their proliferation contained. Albert Einstein recognised this hazardous but very human tendency many years ago, when he warned that "the power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."'

I hope that is wrong. But drifting is the right word to describe what all of us - nuclear and non-nuclear powers alike - have been doing over the past few years. ...

And however unlikely nuclear catastrophe may seem to us now, here in Sydney on this peaceful November evening, if our judgements are wrong, the consequences will be terrible and ineradicable. Our challenge - as always, in everything - is one of imagination."

Editor's note: the full text of the speech can be viewed on Mr. Keating's website, at http://www.keating.org.au/newspeechframe.html The Editor is grateful to Carl Ungerer, a Ph.D student at the University of Queensland, for drawing his attention to this speech.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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