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Who's dinkum about No First Use?

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30 October 2009 13:19

Is anyone serious about nuclear abolition? Maybe we can devise a test to find out. In his John Gee Memorial Lecture this week (sponsored jointly each year by Lowy and ANU), Malcolm Fraser made some intriguing suggestions about how the movement to abolish nuclear weapons could gain real political and policy momentum. One idea he threw out especially caught my attention, because it seemed to offer the scrap of litmus paper we need to tell posturing from policy.

I have been sceptical that Obama is seriously committed to nuclear abolition because he has not yet confronted his own electorate on the issue in detail, as he must if he is to move beyond pious platitudes. Fraser noted that Obama has a golden opportunity to do just this through the Nuclear Posture Review, now being prepared. In particular, he could use the Nuclear Posture Review to commit the US to a 'No First Use' (NFU) policy.

American arguments about NFU go back almost as far as nuclear weapons themselves, and are very much on the table again today (the latest issue of Survival has a good forum on the issue, though it's for subscribers only). But I hadn't reflected before on how powerful an NFU declaration by the President would be in moving off first base on the road to abolition, and what leaders' willingness to take this first essential step can tell us about their real intentions.

US nuclear policy has always been an arm-wrestle between those who see nuclear weapons purely as a deterrent to nuclear attack by others, and those who think they have more uses than that. In the Cold War the more expansive view prevailed, because the US needed the option to use nuclear forces against a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. 

As a result, the US has hitherto always refused to give an NFU declaration. But the US faces no comparable contingencies today, and it is hard to see where it would in future (in particular, I don’t think China will ever pose a comparable situation – but that's another story). So an NFU declaration now seems much more sensible.

Nonetheless, opposition to NFU, and an expansive view of the value of nuclear weapons, remains a touchstone of fealty to the orthodox tenets of US nuclear doctrine. Under Bush's Nuclear Posture Review, indeed, the range of uses envisaged for nuclear weapons seemed actually to expand.

Hence for Obama to adopt NFU would be a potent political gesture, defying the nuclear orthodoxy and providing the focus for the debate Americans have to have about their own willingness to surrender the nuclear arsenal which is so central to their place as a global power. Conversely, if Obama is not prepared to take on the strategic orthodoxy by challenging NFU, it will be a sure sign he is not serious about it, at least not yet.

This also raises an intriguing opportunity for the Rudd Government to show it is serious about abolition. Fraser noted in his speech the tension between Rudd's abolitionist rhetoric and the forthright affirmation of Australia's support for the nuclear status quo in the Defence White Paper. So there is a question to answer: Is Rudd dinkum about this or not?

One way he could show he is serious would be actively and publically to urge Obama to adopt NFU as a decisive step to limit the role of nuclear weapons, and hence a modest step towards their abolition. Just as it is hard to see how Obama can be credible on this issue if he does not adopt NFU, it is hard to see how Rudd can be serious if he does not urge Obama to do so. And the beauty of it is that the US extended nuclear deterrence on which Australian security does arguably depend would not be affected by an NFU declaration.

One last twist: Rudd should also press the Japanese to do the same thing. This would have much more impact in Washington, of course, but it would also provide a neat test of the new Japanese Government's bona fides on the nuclear abolition issue. 

So here is my suggestion: if Kevin Rudd is serious about nuclear abolition, he should actively and publically campaign for the Japanese Government (and other US allies) to join Australia in pressing Obama to embody a No First Use declaration in the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review. What does he have to lose?

Photo by Flickr user alifaan, used under a Creative Commons license.

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