Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Malcolm Fraser, Nuclear Winters, Pronouncements and Power Politics

Not many people remember that Malcolm Fraser was appointed Minister for the Army in 1966, at the time that conscripting men to serve in Vietnam was all the go, or that in 1968, he became Minister for Defence, at the height of the Vietnam war.

He didn't resign the gig under some high minded protest about the folly of fighting in, and decimating, a foreign country that had done nothing to us (as Muhammad Ali put it), but instead he stood down in the usual way of internal turf wars, thereby bringing down John Gorton and bequeathing us Billy McMahon, until in the most furtive and deceitful way, Fraser could himself become PM.

Now I don't say any of this to maintain the rage, but instead to wonder at the hearts of darkness in men, and the way in their youth, the testosterone pumping, they fight to become head prefect, with nothing allowed to stand in their way.

It's the way of pit bulls in politics, and it seems to be a corollary that when the bulls are put out to pasture, they develop a sense of guilt compounded by a sense of irrelevance, and then they start making 'Pronouncements'.

Malcolm Fraser is now very fond of regular pronouncements, and has gathered together an eclectic set of odd bods - Gustav Nossal, Barry Jones, Peter Gration, John Sandrson and Tilman Ruff - to make a very important pronouncement regarding "nuclear weapons" entitled Imagine there's no bomb.

According to this sextet:

There has never been a better time to achieve total nuclear disarmament; this is necessary, urgent and feasible. We are at the crossroads of a nuclear crisis. On the one hand, we are at an alarming tipping point on proliferation of nuclear weapons, with a growing risk of nuclear terrorism and use of still massively bloated arsenals of the worst weapons on terror. On the other, we have perhaps the best opportunity to abolish nuclear weapons.

Dearie me, the infectiously optimistic nature of that Obama lad is catching, but pardon me if I suddenly become a right wing loon and cough cynically.

In this particular pronouncement, the fervent anti-nuke campaigners manage to make themselves sound like idealistic nutters, by linking the anti-nuke argument to rampant climate change. It seems even a limited nuclear war would produce climate change of the worst kind, which means not only people under the bombs' paths would cop it, we'd all suffer.

Lordy, I hadn't thought about a nuclear winter since the days when the Liberal Party told me the reds were coming to get me, and all our lads had to trot off to Vietnam to do their duty. (If you want the full bleak vision of a nuke bomb fest, trot off to nuclear winter in Wikipedia). That was back in the days when Stanley Kubrick was crafting his masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (see above: Slim Pickens proving nuclear weapons make damn fine rodeo beasts).

Okay, let's agree that a nuclear war is a bad thing, not least for those who get nuked. Let's agree that they can't be used for any legitimate military purpose, and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a mistake (though you might not have felt that way if you'd fought the Japanese on Guadalcanal). Let's forget about the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, which didn't involve nukes but achieved much the same.

Let's forget all the hysterical blather, and get down to brass tacks (a peculiar phrase, origin likely Texas, see brass tacks Wikipedia).

What do the assembled worthies propose? Well more negotiations, a comprehensive, irreversible, binding, verifiable treaty, an international collaboration of lawyers, physicians and scientists, incremental steps, 13 practical steps, a comprehensive road map, a vision of the final jigsaw puzzle, a path to get there, unequivocal abolition, intellectual, moral and political weight, and so on, yadda yadda.

Being out of power, indeed nowhere near power, these worthies can see endless joy in endless chin wags and pow wows as solemn dignitaries carve a road to nuke freedom.

Meantime, try telling that to Iran, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, India, the perfidious French, who kept testing nukes long after it was fashionable or necessary, the British, the Russians, and random loony Islamic terrorists ...

Oh wait, Israel doesn't have nuclear weapons, so that's one problematic militaristic country off the list.

So what can Australia do, how can we walk the talk as the worthies demand?

Why we could do what NZ did and ban any operational US forces armed with nuclear weapons from our shore, instead of our current policy setting of don't tell us, don't say anything and we won't get agitated. We could do that right now. Too hard?

We could refuse to ship uranium to any country with nuclear weapons. We could do that right here, right now. Too hard?

We could leave all uranium in the ground. Too expensive? And what about the poor people, forced to use our coal instead? Talk about climate change.

We could kick the Americans out of Pine Gap. Right here, right now. Too hard? But it facilitates the possible use of nuclear weapons.

We could withdraw from Afghanistan, saying that we thought the war was counter-productive, and we were opposed to military solutions to intractable political issues. You know, instead of imagine there's no bomb, imagine there's no war. Too hard? Too John Lennon?

Well let's hold a conference. Too easy.

You see, deep down, we cling to the US and what its nuclear deterrent offers us in terms of security. 

The day Australia turns into NZ is the day the blather will be taken seriously, and I'll be pushing up daisies a long time before that happens. What do our worthies offer? Pious blather:

Australia should prepare for a world free of nuclear weapons by "walking the talk". We should reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own security policies, as we call on nuclear weapon states to do. To ensure that we are part of the solution and not the problem also means that the international safeguards on which we depend to ensure that our uranium does not now or in the future contribute to proliferation, need substantial strengthening and universal application. Our reliance on the "extended nuclear deterrence" provided by the US should be reviewed so that Australian facilities and personnel could not contribute to possible use of nuclear weapons, and we anticipate and promote by our actions a world freed from nuclear weapons. Canada championed the treaty banning landmines, or Ottawa Treaty; Norway led the way on the cluster munitions with the Oslo Convention. Why should the Nuclear Weapons Convention the world needs and deserves not be championed and led by Australia and become known as the Canberra (or Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane) Convention?

Well yes, but who are amongst the thirty seven countries that didn't agree to the land mine treaty? China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United Nations. So much for the Canadians. And which country has a regular habit of using cluster munitions, as in Lebanon? Israel. And which country supplies them? The United States. And lordy which counties refused to sign the December 2008 treaty? Israel and the United States, along with dozens of others. So much for the Norwegians.

And which are the two biggest suppliers of uranium to the world? Canada and Australia.

Suddenly the Canberra convention is going to overturn nuclear weapons, and assault our precious export trade in uranium? You've got to be dreaming. At that point, every conservative loon in the land will start talking about climate change and the importance of nuclear energy. Cue Peter Costello, stage right.

And we're going to waive the nuclear shield provided by Uncle Sam that allows us to be pious and hypocritical in one breath, shipping off uranium and piously hoping it will be used for peaceful purposes (as well as making us rich courtesy of a mineral boom)? While on the other hand getting very agitated about banning nuclear weapons, when it's the Canadians who pump out 23% of world supplies, while Australia offers up 21% and holds the world's largest known reserves (24%).

You see here's how it currently works - we get righteous about selling uranium to India, after that naughty John Howard tried to go lax about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but decide we can ship it off to China, because they're solid and newly kosher (and anyway the Canadians would sell it to them).

Actually, to return to that question of Israel, which as we all know doesn't have nuclear weapons, it's worth pausing to think about what might be required to get them to give up the nuclear weapons they don't have so that others in the Middle East might also aspire to not have the nuclear weapons they don't in any case have.

Yep, we will have to sort out the Middle East, guarantee Israel's existence, and make the Palestinians appreciate that life is better than death by suicide bombing (which is to say that life has to be appreciably worth living as opposed to being crowded into a ghetto and driven into the ground). We also need to sort out Kashmir, and explain to India and especially to Pakistan, that it's not a good idea to have nukes hanging around - especially when you cede swathes of your territory to fundie Taliban loons, as Pakistan has just done.

We also need to move away from 'my dick is the biggest dick' and 'my dick is bigger than your dick' concerns in foreign policy. Yes I know, male bashing again. 

The chances of any of this happening because Malcolm Fraser and his gang of peaceniks make a 'pronouncement' in response to an Obama speech, which conveniently distracted from the real problems he faces, but acted as a nice dog whistle to his constituency? Nil, nada, zip.

I guess it's the lot of politicians who once had a chance to do something, but then for reasons of pragmatism, or cabinet politics, or a lack of guts, or whatever - "the climate of the times" - never got around to it in their day, and now settle for pronouncements (or worse still, write loony blogs hectoring loony people).

I suppose to be fair to Malcolm, he did develop a new safeguards regime for the export of Australian uranium back in 1977, though a lot of good that did, with his predecessor William McMahon responsible for Australia signing up to the NPT, and Gough Whitlam ratifying it, as well as committing Australia to the IAEA safeguards regime.

But he could have done a lot more, and at a time when things were still a little more strait laced in the nuclear game, as opposed to the current wildcat situation the world now faces. But back then the Liberal party was seriously divided, with a large sub-set of the party - Gorton included - thinking it would be quite the thing to have a few of our own nukes to test at Maralinga, and show the British a thing or two.

The reality is that in terms of dirty bombs, and portable nuclear bomb technology, the genie is out of the bottle, and the ideas Malcolm and his merry men have for shoving it back in, won't work in the parts of the world where it really counts. And that's the real problem, and treaties won't sort it out (nor will invading Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that don't exist). 

Because in essence all that's required is that the three major powers renounce nuclear weapons - the USA, China and Russia - but they won't give them up until everybody else has given them up (in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king), and they won't go first because then they'd be the odd superpower out.

What Obama is proposing is just another way of turning up the heat on the wild cat states out there, while probably de-commissioning a few older weapons long past their use by date, knowing he'll be long gone before anybody gets around to disarming the USA.

When a Pakistani scientist can sell secrets to the Iranians, all bets are off, and the chances of a treaty stopping some wildcat explosion somewhere down the track are slim indeed. 

We have to worry about loons caring a toss about humanity, and I'm afraid I'm very cynical about that possibility.

Here's how it works - I get so irritated by Malcolm Fraser's good intentioned, well meaning pronouncements about the way forward, that I want to nuke him.

Put it another way. Suddenly I'm confronted with an acid flashback - an image from my youth - of young conscripted men marching off to die in a totally futile war, when Malcolm Fraser was the biggest dick of all. And I still want to nuke him. 

So it goes in a world addicted to war, where nuclear weaponry is actually conspicuous by its general absence in the field of combat ... but where the killing somehow never manages to stop, and the USA, the biggest military industrial complex in the world, is somehow always at the heart of the killing. 

And confronted with that reality, it's notable that these worthies have not one immediately implementable, specific example of a way Australia could stand up to the USA, right here, right now, and set an example NZ style on nuclear matters, instead of mouthing pious platitudes about future directions.

Just as the independent path they propose Australia walks down seems very poorly sign posted and policy bereft, and seem to mainly involve safeguards so we can keep shipping off uranium to willy and nilly. 

The one discernible policy? Telling everybody else they can't join the nuclear club because everybody's decided that they don't want to be a member of a club that allows members to have nuclear weapons? Meanwhile, how much uranium do you want in your next shipment sir?

They've got to be dreaming. 

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