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Why nuclear disarmament is not enough to abolish nuclear danger

By Marko Beljac - posted Monday, 16 June 2008

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has announced the formation of an international commission on the abolition of nuclear weapons. Essentially, this commission will revive the work of the "Canberra Commission" on nuclear disarmament set up by former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

It was fitting that the Prime Minister should have chosen Hiroshima as the place to make his announcement both because of the devastation that the use of the bomb had on that city and the mythology that has surrounded its use. To achieve nuclear disarmament it will require us to understand, and come to terms with, the mythology.

The setting up of the commission follows a number of high level calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons, for instance by Henry Kissinger and others. Kevin Rudd’s international commission will add further momentum to the global push for nuclear disarmament.


Of course, if the preferences of the public had any role on the structure of world order then nuclear disarmament would be non-problematical. Opinion polls demonstrate that large majorities throughout the world, including in the nuclear weapon states, favour the abolition of nuclear weapons and the wider demilitarisation of world order.

The high level calls by existing and former officials for nuclear disarmament subtly differ from public opinion. There is a very good reason for this and it is intimately tied to the mythology on the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. This is important because, more likely than not, the Rudd commission will be dominated by former senior state officials.

In the 1960s the revisionist US historian, Gar Alperovitz, published an important and careful study based on the then declassified record that tended to demonstrate that the use of the bomb during World War II was not primarily concerned with ending the war. Rather, the bomb was used to impress Stalin in order to buttress the US negotiating position on the terms of a reconstructed global order.

Recently, there has been a revival of historical scholarship on Hiroshima and the evidence strongly supports the Alperovitz thesis, which would not surprise those versed in the realist "power politics" conception of international relations. This scholarship has even appeared in leading US journals such as International Security.

Essentially, nuclear weapons served as a "shield" behind which the US was able to reconstitute a liberal internationalist world order based on US preponderant power. Hence usage of the phrase "atomic diplomacy".

One important function that the "shield" provided was the casting of a "shadow" of power behind which the US was able to employ conventional firepower for military interventions. Despite the end of the Cold War this function continues as stated in the Clinton era Strategic Command study known as Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence.


But the development of precision guided munitions and network-centric warfare, alters this equation for some. One very important reason why former senior officials such as Henry Kissinger support the abolition of nuclear weapons is because they perceive that the employment of US firepower would be easier in a world free of nuclear weapons because this would enhance the leverage gained by conventional superiority. It was on these grounds that the leading theorist of the technology driven "revolution in military affairs", Colonel Andrew Krepinevich, stated that for the US nuclear weapons are obsolete.

There exist good grounds to infer that the role played by military power in US foreign policy will remain high. One of the most important features of contemporary international relations is decoupling. That is, there exists no strong correlation between the US business cycle and global economic growth as previously. The developing economies increasingly are the dynamos of the global economy and for the most part domestic consumption and emerging economy trade integration are driving aggregate demand.

US economic power is in decline because the world is no longer dependent upon the US economy (95 per cent of Chinese economic growth is due to domestic consumption for example) and this means that, given the bi-partisan consensus on the maintenance of US global power, Washington will increasingly shift the burden of statecraft toward the threat and use of military power. However, the prospect of US military intervention serves as a very important motivating factor behind the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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