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The think tank that didn't

By Jim Green - posted Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Lowy Institute has been under fire for its role in encouraging the Labor Party to reverse its policy of banning uranium sales to India, a nuclear-armed country that has steadfastly refused to ratify either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The first person to publicly raise concerns about the Institute's role was N.A.J. Taylor, a PhD student at Queensland University, in a number of articles published in Al Jazeera, Crikey and elsewhere. Taylor's broad complaint is that "well-funded and resourced lobby groups successfully denied Australians of a debate, and a complacent and shameful standard of media proliferated falsehoods and empty rhetoric".

Strong words − perhaps a little too strong. The Institute didn't deny Australians a debate, but it did seriously debase the debate.


Sam Roggeveen, a 'Fellow' at the Institute and editor of its publication 'The Interpreter', wrote a rebuttal to Taylor, claiming that the Institute staged an open debate and provided a platform (primarily its blog) for the expression of numerous perspectives from numerous people. And so it did.

The problem was that by far the most prominent voice was that of Lowy staffer Rory Medcalf, and his contribution to the debate was, to put it politely, deeply problematic.

Medcalf is much concerned with the "hypocrisy" and "discrimination" of allowing nuclear trade with some nuclear weapons states (those that have ratified the NPT) but not others (those that haven't, in particular India). He wrote: "India's pacifist traditions held it back from an all-out effort to build the bomb. Delhi's eventual decisions to test in 1974 and 1998 thus came too late to allow it a recognised nuclear-armed status under the treaty."

But by that 'logic', we ought to congratulate Pyongyang and reward it with uranium sales − after all, its pacifist traditions run so deep that it didn't test a nuclear weapon until 2006. By Medcalf's logic, Australia (or any other country) could give expression to its pacifism by building and testing nuclear weapons.

Medcalf's mantra about the "hypocrisy" and "discrimination" of refusing to allow uranium sales to non-NPT states misses the point that discrimination in favour of NPT states, and against non-NPT states, is precisely the purpose of the Treaty. If that's "hypocrisy" and "discrimination", if that's "nuclear apartheid", then bring it on.

Medcalf complained about Labor's "refusal even to talk about uranium with India". So the government is expected to negotiate uranium sales with non-NPT states even when it has a long-standing principled policy position of not negotiating uranium sales with non-NPT states? Go figure.


Let's get to the main problem: Medcalf dimisses weapons proliferation-based objections to nuclear trade with India as "false" and "fallacious". Nothing could be further from the truth.

The opening up of nuclear trade with India − which began with the 2008 US-India agreement − is problematic on several levels. For starters, Medcalf wants us to believe that we can play a more effective role in promoting non-proliferation and disarmament in India by first permitting uranium sales. The US, Australia and some other suppliers have conspicuously failed to use their bargaining chip (the opening up of nuclear trade) to leverage outcomes such as Indian ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. According to Medcalf's 'logic', we'll be in a better bargaining position after we've given up our bargaining chip (for nothing) than before.

Nuclear trade with India also alters the proliferation equation for other countries. Ron Walker, a former Australian diplomat and former Chair of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said: "Yes, India is a democracy and yes we want to be in their good books, but that is no reason to drop our principles and our interests. To make an exception for them would be crass cronyism. If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?"

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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