Report

Australia and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative: difficult times for disarmament diplomacy

27 May 2013
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Australia recognises the critical role that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons plays in preventing uncontrolled proliferation and promoting disarmament, and upholding the treaty has long been a core foreign policy goal. However Australia's disarmament diplomacy has hit a difficult patch. This paper proposes a way forward, focusing primarily on the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative.

Nuclear issues have been grabbing the international headlines in recent months, amid renewed concern over the nuclear defiance of North Korea and Iran and the international community’s inability to mount an effective response. Onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that the nonproliferation regime is moribund where difficult cases are concerned: it has responded too little and too late to repeated provocations, diplomatic initiatives have so far failed, and ideas for implementing new, more effective punitive measures have petered out. In these circumstances, one can justifiably question why so much time and resources are committed to upholding the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The answer is that even though it’s deeply flawed and the product of a bygone era, the NPT continues to play a crucial stabilising role in the international system. Most states believe a weak NPT’s better than none at all because, although the treaty hasn’t stopped the spread of nuclear weapons, it has significantly hindered proliferation. Moreover, it’s facilitated disarmament between states that were once engaged in dangerous nuclear arms races, and it continues to provide political momentum for nuclear reductions. Whatever their views on the ethics of nuclear possession, even the most ardent supporters of nuclear deterrence accept that preventing the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons is a common good. That position is based on the logic that the more nuclear weapons there are, the more likely it is that they’ll be used again, whether by accident or intent.

Australia recognises the critical role that the NPT plays in preventing uncontrolled proliferation and promoting disarmament, and upholding the treaty has long been a core foreign policy goal. As Gary Quinlan, Australia’s permanent representative to the UN, stated recently, ‘Australia is always willing to do its share of the work to elevate the game and make the world more stable and secure, in order to save ourselves from ourselves.’ But, while the record of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on this front is impressive, its disarmament diplomacy has hit a difficult patch and there’s a strong possibility that its current agenda will fail unless it’s adapted.

This paper examines Australia’s difficulties in this area, and proposes a way forward for the next government. It focuses primarily on the goals and activities of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), which was launched at the United Nations in September 2010. This diplomatic initiative has brought together the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a campaign to bolster the NPT by promoting progress in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation at a time when international tensions are rising, proliferation pressures are growing, and momentum for nuclear arms reductions is dissipating. In many ways, these developments make the role of the coalition more crucial than ever. But in order to have impact, the NPDI needs a realistic agenda that draws on the experience of its members, who in turn need to be seen to be sincerely committed to the goals they’re advocating. At the moment, it’s questionable whether that’s the case. The coalition needs to rethink its short‑term goals and strategy.

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Published year only: 
2013
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