US alliance and the movement to ban nuclear weapons: Labor’s role?

Ban the bombA forum entitled ‘Banning Nuclear Weapons: Labor’s Role’ was held on February 14 during the NSW Labor Conference in the Sydney. The forum was part of the conference’s Fringe Program and its purpose was to explore “how a future federal Labor government could lead the way” on banning nuclear weapons. However, the inconsistency between Labor’s current policy on banning nuclear weapons and its ongoing support for the US “nuclear umbrella” was strongly criticised.

Speakers at the event included Robert Tickner, former Labor Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (April 1990 to March 1996), Dr Mike Kelly, former Labor Minister for Defence Materiel (April to September 2013) and Sue Wareham, member of the Management Committee for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW). Gem Romuld, ICAN’s Outreach Co-ordinator, facilitated the forum.

Nuclear weapons and the threat to humanity

The ICAN representatives referred to the twin catastrophic dangers of climate change and nuclear weapons facing the world today and the need for all governments to effectively address them.

It was noted that nine countries possess nuclear weapons that threaten the planet with mass destruction. Australia is not one of them but it is an accomplice of US policies. The total number of nuclear weapons possessed by these countries is approximately 15,700. Of these, the US and the Russians have about 1,800 nuclear weapons on high alert.

Of major concern is the fact that since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, there have been at least 13 near-accidents when nuclear weapons were nearly employed, many of them resulting from technical or communications near-accidents in either the US or Russia.1 As ICAN correctly pointed out, our luck is going to run out one day. As a species, we have been extraordinarily lucky that one of these near-accidents did not result in a catastrophic nuclear exchange. This predicament should propel all governments, the Australian government included, to place the banning of nuclear weapons at the top of their political agendas.

In reviewing initiatives to eliminate nuclear weapons, ICAN recognised the work of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons which was set up by the Keating government in 1995. The Commission handed down its report in 1996. According to ICAN “the enormous potential of this report was more or less buried by the new Howard government”.

In addition, ICAN referred to the creation of the Humanitarian Pledge which calls for “effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” i.e. a treaty to ban these weapons of mass destruction. This was initiated by the Austrian government at the third global conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons held in Vienna in December last year.2 The Humanitarian Pledge has already been endorsed by 123 nations. Australia is not among them. Indeed, as ICAN pointed out, Australian diplomats have actively tried to sabotage this inter-governmental initiative, all in the name of preserving the “nuclear umbrella” provided by the US.3

The “nuclear umbrella” and insecurity

The phrase “nuclear umbrella” warrants examination. It refers to a guarantee by a nuclear weapons state to defend a non-nuclear allied state. With respect to Australia’s reliance upon America’s nuclear umbrella, serious concerns arise. Foremost among these is the following contradiction. In the event of hostilities, the effectiveness of “extended nuclear deterrence” only exists if the threat to use nuclear weapons is genuine. However the very use of nuclear weapons would result in a global humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Basing a nation’s security upon a nuclear umbrella which, if acted on, threatens the survival not only of the nation, but of the human species as well, is tantamount to guaranteeing extreme insecurity.

It is truly astonishing that successive Australian governments, both Liberal/National and Labor, have endorsed a defence policy that threatens instant destruction by nuclear weapons and that this reality has not ranked high among the concerns of the nation’s defence planners.

Nuclear weapons and the ANZUS treaty

ICAN welcomed the Labor Party’s new policy to ban nuclear weapons which was endorsed at its National Conference in July 2015.4 However, of all the speakers, ICAN most clearly pointed to the glaring inconsistency between calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, while at the same time being committed to the nuclear umbrella provided by the US.

According to ICAN, Labor must abandon the myth of nuclear deterrence and vigorously advocate removing it from the nation’s defence and security policies. ICAN also asserted that “an attack on nuclear deterrence is not an attack on the ANZUS treaty or our alliance with the US. Rather it is simply a refusal to legitimise these most horrific of all weapons.” According to ICAN, “(t)here is nothing in the ANZUS treaty that compels us to accept weapons of mass destruction.” In support of this claim, reference was made to New Zealand. The ANZUS alliance originally included Australia, New Zealand and the US. However the US removed New Zealand from its nuclear umbrella after New Zealand’s nuclear-free zone was proclaimed in 1984.

The legitimacy of the US alliance

While both Robert Tickner and Mike Kelly have made important contributions to the movement to ban nuclear weapons, it was encouraging to see Robert Tickner call for the Labor Party to re-examine the legitimacy of the US alliance. In doing so, he alluded to the arguments used against sustaining this military alliance by Malcolm Fraser in his book Dangerous Allies. As pointed out by Tickner, this book argues for Australia to adopt a much greater degree of independence in foreign policy, and that we should no longer eagerly engage in US-led wars which have no direct interest to Australia or Australia’s security. On the contrary, Dangerous Allies calls for an end to strategic dependence and for the establishment of a truly independent Australia.5

Malcolm Fraser is but one recent critic of the US alliance. Critics have previously identified at least four reasons why ANZUS is detrimental to Australia: (a) alliances tend to make wars more rather than less likely (b) Australia actually does not receive benefits ANZUS promised to deliver (c) the US is a bad alliance partner, prone to go to war and liable to use methods illegal under international law and even its own constitution and (d) US policies promote conflict rather than peace around the world.6

Despite the destructive consequences of America’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 which has now torn the Middle East apart, Labor’s leadership remains steadfast in its refusal to subject the US alliance to any scrutiny.

Unanswered questions

By the end of the forum, two crucial questions remained unanswered.

First, how committed is the current Labor leadership under Bill Shorten to really contributing to the international movement to ban nuclear weapons in keeping with the Labor Party’s new policy?

In support of such a commitment, Labor could promote a range of actions such as: (a) be vocal in its support for the global security initiative to negotiate a treaty to ban the bomb during the upcoming federal election campaign (b) call for Australia to host one of the negotiating conferences to seal the landmark agreement and (c) argue for the Future Fund to withdraw its investment in nuclear weapons companies, complementing the Fund’s agreement to divest from tobacco, cluster munitions and landmines companies.

Second, to what extent will Labor acknowledge the threat posed by the US alliance to Australia’s security and sovereignty and, as a result, change course and pursue a truly independent Australia?

Unfortunately, judging by the lack of discussion on both a nuclear weapons ban treaty and the US alliance among delegates at the conference, the likelihood of Labor actively affirming the above questions and initiatives appears to be very low.7

A written version of ICAN’s presentation to the forum can be read here.

More information on the Humanitarian Pledge and ICAN’s campaign to eliminate and ban nuclear weapons can be accessed here and here.

1. This figure was cited by ICAN. For a comprehensive account of these near-accidents involving nuclear weapons, refer to Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The occurrence of near-accidents has probably been even greater on the Russian side.
2. A report on the Vienna Conference and the text of the Humanitarian Pledge document can be found here.
3. Refer to Tim Wright’s article, ‘Australia’s opposition to a ban on nuclear weapons’, Blue Peter NAPSNet, Nautilus Institute, December 1, 2015.
4. Refer to the report by ICAN, ‘Australian opposition party declares support for global treaty banning nuclear weapons’, dated August 13, 2015.
5. Malcolm Fraser with Cain Roberts, Dangerous Allies, MUP, 2014. Refer also to Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Submission to the 2015 Defence White Paper’, dated October 2014.
6. Peter Stanley refers to Michael McKinley’s criticism of the US alliance in ‘Armed neutrality for Australia reconsidered’, On Line Opinion, Jun 8, 2012.
7. Labor politicians should be regularly reminded that polls have shown that 75% of Australians “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that “global nuclear disarmament should be a top priority for the Australian government”. Refer, for example, to the 2009 Lowy Institute poll, cited in David Donaldson’s article ‘Australia’s Nuclear Disarmament Hypocrisy’, Right Now, July 5, 2013.

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