In late 2016, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt a historic resolution to launch negotiations this year for a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons and leads towards their elimination. Beginning on 27 March, the negotiations mark the most substantial initiative in nuclear disarmament. After decades of paralysis in multilateral disarmament fora and empty rhetoric from nuclear weapons states, those without nuclear weapons have decided to take control of the process.
Despite the catastrophic humanitarian consequences, nuclear weapons remain the only weapons of mass destruction not comprehensively banned by an international treaty. While biological weapons, chemical weapons, cluster munitions and landmines have been comprehensively banned under international law, the absence of a prohibition on the most destructive weapons of all remains a legal anomaly. Closing this legal gap is a vital step towards achieving a world free of nuclear weapons through the establishment of a clear norm: that weapons with humanitarian consequences are unacceptable under any circumstances.
When negotiations begin, however, Australia will not have a seat at the table; the Australian government recently announced it would boycott the negotiations.
Sadly, while this marks the first time Australia has boycotted a UN conference, it shouldn’t come as shock. In recent years, Australia has attempted to disrupt and derail the ban treaty process. Last year, the Australian delegation to the UN’s working group on disarmament drew the ire of many states by forcing a last minute vote on a report recommending negotiations begin in 2017 that had been expected to pass unanimously. Moreover, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is on record praising the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
Attempts to derail the process stem from Australia’s status as an ‘umbrella state’ under the protection of the United States’ nuclear weapons. This seemingly unquestioned notion that the doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence keeps Australia safe from harm has prevented it from participating in the disarmament process in good faith. At a time of global instability and uncertainty, Australia’s position has consequences for its place in the Asia-Pacific region, brings it closer to the US’ foreign policy and raises questions about its commitment to multilateralism.
Australia’s position is out-of-step with its neighbours in Asia-Pacific. States including Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are all supportive of the negotiations. Most importantly, Indonesia, one of Australia’s most important regional relationships, was a co-sponsor of the resolution that established the negotiations, and has been one of the regional leaders of a nuclear ban treaty.
While this decision appears to isolate Australia from the region, it also draws it closer to the US and the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Trump has made alarming statements on nuclear weapons, including advocating an arms race. He’s also currently presiding over the modernisation and buildup of the nuclear arsenal. His election victory in 2016 caused the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes and 30 seconds before midnight—the closest to midnight it’s been in 64 years.
With Trump’s attitude towards nuclear weapons, Australia has the perfect opportunity to carve out a responsible policy around nuclear weapons that considers the security of the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, it has continued with its antipathy towards the ban treaty process. Worrying as it may be, Australia’s boycott of the negotiations and its continued support for the doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence can only suggest that Australia is comfortable with Trump’s attitude towards nuclear weapons and, ultimately, the use of a nuclear weapon by the US.
Furthermore, serious questions must be asked of Australia’s commitment to multilateralism and the UN. As a middle power, much of Australia’s clout on the international stage derives from its reputation as a responsible participant in the international community. Boycotting an international conference of the United Nations is an unprecedented step for Australia. It suggests that less attention is being paid to its reputation on the world stage and how this could impact its longer-term foreign policy goals.
There is no doubt that Australia is being left out in the cold with its continued opposition to the ban treaty talks. Rather than being seen as a responsible member of the Asia-Pacific community and a middle power committed to the multilateral ideals of the UN, Australia risks becoming more closely associated with the dangerous foreign policy of the Trump administration. Nonetheless, as the ban treaty process continues, Australia will have a choice to make between participating in an invigorated disarmament process or clinging to the perceived security of the US nuclear arsenal.
Mat Kelly holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne. He has completed an internship at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.