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Why Do We Still Have Nuclear Weapons?

30 Mar 2023
By Associate Professor Tilman Ruff AO

The danger of nuclear war is growing. With the aid of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a chorus of voices delegitimising nuclear weapons may be helping.

Two months ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation, which by accident, intention, or miscalculation could spin out of anyone’s control. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. Knocking at Doomsday’s door is an alarming place to be, no less than 38 years after Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, at their Geneva summit in 1985, agreed that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

It is not hard to see why the Clock stands closer to humanity’s darkest hour. All nine nuclear-armed states are not only failing in their obligations to disarm, all are investing massively for the long-term in more accurate, flexible, stealthy, and faster – in short more ‘usable’ and dangerous – nuclear weapons.  The hard-won treaties from previous decades that have successfully constrained Russian/US nuclear weapon types and numbers have progressively been abrogated.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty are dead. In each case, the US plunged the knife first. New START, the last remaining treaty constraint on the arsenals of Russia and the US, was extended by President Joe Biden two days after he came to office, and three days before it would have otherwise expired, and has now been “suspended” by Russia. Negotiations on a successor treaty before it expires in February 2026 seems a rather distant prospect.

The one significant positive development which bucks this bleak landscape is the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted by the vote of 122 nations in 2017. It entered into legal force in January 2021 and now has 92 signatures and 68 ratifications. It is the first treaty to categorically and comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, and the first to enshrine obligations to assist victims and remediate environments harmed by nuclear use and testing. It is also the only international instrument to codify a framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons through an agreed, time-bound, verified process.

The declaration of the highly productive first Meeting of States parties to the Treaty in Vienna last June stated: “We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” It also stated that: “Far from preserving peace and security, nuclear weapons are used as instruments of policy, linked to coercion, intimidation and heightening of tensions.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and repeated nuclear threats have been a wake-up call. In other words, the risk of nuclear war is not some Cold War relic that can safely be ignored, but a real, present, and growing danger. This, together with the Vienna Declaration, seems to have triggered a global outpouring of statements delegitimising nuclear weapons.

At the nuclear non-proliferation treaty five-yearly review conference on 22 August 2022, 147 nations delivered a Joint Humanitarian Statement asserting that: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” The following month, on 27 September, Jens Stoltenberg made a statement no previous serving NATO secretary-general has made, that: “any use of nuclear weapons is absolutely unacceptable.” On 7 October, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated in Prague: “We need to give a clear answer to nuclear threats: They’re dangerous for the world, and the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable.”

Many, including the US State Department and Chancellor Scholz have argued that this flurry of statements de-legitimising nuclear weapon threats (and the civil society advocacy accompanying them) led Putin to walk back his nuclear threats in late October 2022.

On 4 November in Beijing, Scholz joined with Chinese President Xi Jinping to say: “President Xi and I agree: nuclear threats are irresponsible and incendiary… By using nuclear weapons, Russia would be crossing a line that the community of states has drawn together.” Xi agreed that both leaders: “jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

The Bali Leaders Declaration of the G20, which includes six nuclear-armed states, included the clear statement that “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.” In early December, President Narendra Modi was reported to have skipped the annual Indian – Russian leaders summit over Russia’s nuclear threats regarding Ukraine.

On 21 March, the following emerged during the state visit of President Xi to Moscow: “Underlining the importance of the joint statement by the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states on the prevention of nuclear war and the prevention of an arms race, [both] sides reiterate that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be unleashed.”

The truth behind these statements is that far from providing security, nuclear weapons existentially jeopardise the security of all peoples. One could perhaps be forgiven for experiencing a rush of hope that this flurry of high-level statements delegitimising nuclear weapons might finally puncture the cognitive dissonance that surrounds the issue: If nuclear weapons must never be used, then why are we not finally getting rid of them? Unfortunately, no nuclear-armed state leadership is pursuing the obvious next step: a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Where is Australia?

With steps away from the nuclear precipice, and towards the elimination of nuclear weapons more urgent than ever, states like Australia could play a decisive role. For decades under governments both Coalition and Labor, Australia has coasted on its claimed credentials as a champion of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, advocating measures that other states should take. With the possible exception of the Gough Whitlam years, our governments have however assiduously avoided talking about or acting on the measures we ourselves could take towards a world freed from nuclear weapons. These are renouncing any role or justification for the use of nuclear weapons in the defence of Australians, and ending the role that facilities we host, like Pine Gap, play in assisting the possible use of US nuclear weapons, through targeting, command and control.

Australia is increasingly becoming a forward American base and “deputy sheriff” in its plans to contain and confront China. This position includes the permanent rotation of US troops in Darwin, the stationing and construction of dedicated facilities for US B-52 bombers at Tindall, increased joint military exercising, announced forward basing of US and UK nuclear-powered attack submarines in Perth, planned acquisition of stupendously expensive submarines powered by weapons-grade, highly-enriched uranium, 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the defence minister’s goal of “interchangeability” between Australian and US forces.

It is vital that Australia now demonstrates that these developments are not the thin end of the wedge for the stationing of foreign nuclear weapons, or Australia delivering or acquiring nuclear weapons. The best way to do this and show our clear commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation is to join the TPNW, as the ALP national policy platform has committed to since 2018, a policy introduced by Anthony Albanese and seconded by Richard Marles.

As New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand have already proven, joining the TPNW is entirely compatible with non-nuclear military cooperation with nuclear-armed allies. It’s time to get on the right side of history, walk the talk, and make us all the more, rather than less, secure.

Tilman Ruff AO is Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize 1985); and co-founder and founding international and Australian Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the first to an entity born in Australia. A public health and infectious diseases physician, he is Hon Senior Fellow in the School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.