The Enduring Threat of the Security of Nuclear Weapons

130 non-nuclear states are presently assembled at the United Nations to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. 

The nuclear ban treaty negotiations have highlighted deep division between the nuclear states (and the 30-odd umbrella states who purport to benefit from the protection of extended nuclear deterrence, Australia included) and the vast majority of non-nuclear states who support a ban on nuclear weapons.

Next Monday, a longform story I have contributed to Kill Your Darlings about tensions within Australia concerning the role the country should play in nuclear disarmament, will appear online, as the ban treaty negotiations near completion.

Professor Joseph M. Siracusa, has authored and co-authored numerous books on nuclear history, including  Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction ,  A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics  and  A History of US Nuclear Testing and Its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963.

Professor Joseph M. Siracusa, has authored and co-authored numerous books on nuclear history, including Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction, A Global History of the Nuclear Arms Race: Weapons, Strategy and Politics and A History of US Nuclear Testing and Its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963.

Joseph M. Siracusa, Professor of Human Security and International Diplomacy at RMIT University, is one of the experts I interviewed for the story.

A seasoned media commentator, Professor Siracusa gave an energetic and frenetic interview but I only used a relatively small proportion of the conversation in my story. 

Below is a Q&A featuring a large proportion of the interview that didn’t appear in the story.

Professor Siracusa talks about the threat of nuclear weapons, nuclear diplomacy, the roadblocks to disarmament and Australia's conflicted position on a nuclear ban.

It’s worth noting that the questions asked were in the context of researching the Kill Your Darlings story, so they don't begin and end as they would if this interview were purposed for this blog. This ought not prove, erm, deterrence, however.

ME: What are some of the quintessential ways alarmists depict the nuclear threat?

PROFESSOR SIRACUSA: I think the alarmists are on the side of reality really. I mean, the President has 12 minutes to launch his strategic nuclear weapons if the United States is under attack, so that time to respond is getting smaller and smaller and everybody else’s nuclear weapons are on 15 minute alerts.

In the Able Archer exercise in 1983, we nearly had a nuclear launch because the Soviets thought that there were incoming nuclear missiles, and there have been a number of occasions during the Cuban Missile Crisis where we thought we were on the brink – and we were just probably minutes away from a nuclear war.

And nuclear weapons, of course, are the holy grail or terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and ISIS....
— Professor Joseph Siracusa

The North Korean thing is very serious, because we’re only one miscalculation away. And what’s more alarmist than when President Obama said in Prague (2009) that the number one threat today in the world is nuclear terrorism?

And nuclear weapons, of course, are the holy grail of terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and ISIS and the rest of them, and if they can get their hands on one of these, or steal one or buy one and the rest of it….

I try to be very moderate about this; I’ve written about 10 books on nuclear weapons – some very popular books – and I try to take a very measured approach but, at the same time, when the “alarmists” talk about how close we are, I think there’s something to be said for that actually.

Why haven’t we had a nuclear exchange since 1945? Well, people like Gareth Evans say that it’s just dumb luck that this hasn’t happened. Other people argue that maybe the spread of nuclear weapons makes the world safer, instead of more dangerous; that’s another argument.

The most alarming thing for me is that, in the entire history of arms negotiations (this has included banning weapons at the bottom of the sea and on the moon and the rest of it), we have never, once, counted tactical nuclear weapons.

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

There are thousands of these in the world today with 10 times the explosive power of Hiroshima. We’ve never had a negotiation on tactical nuclear weapons. Everything you see – the large numbers – are strategic nuclear weapons. But the United States has about 400, I think, tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. I know that Putin was bragging about his several thousand.

These things are all over the place ad nobody has any real idea of how many there are or where they are or what we can do about them. So, yeah, I think the “alarmists” have something to be alarmed about.

What’s your view on the role the nuclear ban treaty could and should play in addressing the security considerations of nuclear states?

I think 130 nations are signed on to the debate that’s going to come up and none of them have nuclear weapons. They also understand that none of the nuclear weapons states are going to show up for this.

So, I think the significance of this debate is to raise the awareness about the seriousness of these weapons – which is a constant vigilant problem.

Credit:   James Lerager

Credit:  James Lerager

Anything that raises awareness in the international community is a good thing. Are they going to succeed very much? Well, probably not…. 

Noone’s going to be able to get rid of these nuclear weapons, except one way. I’m not looking for a magic formula here. I think in 1928 or so, we had a treaty to end all wars: the Kellogg-Brian Pact. Well, how long did that last? About 10 years or less, and so, what we have to hope for one day is that we’re going to wake up one morning and we’re going to find out that these nuclear weapons are anachronisms, the way canons replaced the longbow.

I mean, they’re going to be replaced by laser-energy weapons and there’s going to be no reason on God’s earth to maintain or supply nuclear weapons to anybody, so they’re going to be turning to other things in order to inflict potential violence on each other.

I think we have to kind of hold our breath and hold our nerve until these weapons no longer make any sense.

In what ways can nuclear deterrence be considered successful in the event of any future nuclear catastrophes?

I held a big nuclear conference here in Melbourne about 18 months ago and invited all the Harvard and MIT people and some Brits and others and we talked about how to do what you’re talking about right here.

The room tended to divide into two groups. Team Deterrence, which believes that nuclear diplomacy has been successful; we resolved all the major issues during the Cold War. And the other side of the room are the abolitionists, who are all gravitating towards the nuclear ban. They want to get rid of nuclear weapons but they don’t have a clue in the world about how to do this really.

And then I always say to them, "Is it possible that maybe the existence of nuclear weapons has prevented World War III?" I don’t know; maybe it has or maybe it hasn’t. But I think there are a number of successful nuclear negotiations that have put a lid on things (the Cuban Missile Crisis, as example)….

One of Professor Siracusa's books of weapons of mass destruction.

One of Professor Siracusa's books of weapons of mass destruction.

We have all these wonderful negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s by people no less than Richard Nixon with the ABM Treaty (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) with the Soviet Union, the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties and then a number of successful treaties under President Reagan – whom I didn’t hold much prospect for in the beginning.

I think diplomacy not only has a major role but I think it’s the only role in the nuclear world.

If there was a nuclear catastrophe in the next 20 years, at that point, is it then still possible to say that deterrence has been successful?

It’s held up since 1945. But if there is a breakdown – and the breakdown could come in South Asia between Pakistan and India tomorrow or it could happen in North East Asia, in 20 minutes from now – it would be a breakdown in negotiations and the role diplomacy.

Then we’d go back to the drawing board.

A nuclear exchange between the non-superpowers would not be the end of the world.  What it would be is a demonstration to the world about the evil and ugliness of these kinds of weapons. There’d be a rebuild but a nuclear exchange would become a wakeup call to the next generation of citizens to get these things off the table.

Mind you, even when you get them off the table, you still have human nature. I understand from my friends at the UN that, in 48 hours in Rwanda, 400,000 people were killed with machetes. So you don’t need nuclear weapons to wreak havoc in a place.

You’ve got to control this lust that we have. Human beings have this incredible inclination to want to kill each other. I think it’s extraordinary. We’re the only animals in the kingdom that just do it for that kind of a reason and that kind of aggressiveness. And it’s not like we’re eating each other. We don’t have to do that.

So I think if there were a nuclear exchange it would be a wakeup to call to the next generation. Would that force the nuclear states to give up their weapons? On the contrary, people would say we need them more now than ever, because we can’t give up ours in these perilous times.

In 2017, what is a centrist approach to nuclear disarmament and where does Australia sit on the spectrum?

…. During the 1980s, I was in a number of debates and, in those days, the peace movement argued that nuclear weapons made Australia a nuclear target.

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

Credit: Ralf Schlesener

That’s absolutely correct, and the war on terrorism also makes Australia a nuclear target by its relationship with the United States. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the Australian people adhere to the ANZUS Treaty, so there’s kind of that built-in schizophrenia in the Australian character. They want the protection of a superpower; if it wasn’t the United States, it was Britain before that; they want a great and powerful friend but at the same time they want to go to conferences around the world and talk about the necessity of getting rid of nuclear weapons.

If you want to get rid of nuclear weapons, you just check out of the ANZUS Treaty, so you’re not invested in American nuclear deterrence any more, and then they become a serious player.