"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Rethinking Australia’s Middle-Power Nuclear Paradox
Share this

May 2019
By Aiden Warren

Australia has often championed itself as a good global citizen and middle power committed to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. For years, its top leaders have consistently advocated for irreversible reductions to nuclear arsenals of all nuclear-armed states. They have also regularly emphasized Australia’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of global peace and security and to pursuing practical, realistic measures for nuclear disarmament.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visits the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in 2008. Two years later, Australia and Japan led the creation of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)Nevertheless, Canberra has undermined these worthy positions with a veiled, paradoxical approach in which its leaders do not challenge the purposes and value of nuclear weapons, question the legality and legitimacy of such weapons, or even the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence. The nation leaves consideration of such issues entirely in the hands of the possessor states, compliantly accepting that they can safely manage nuclear risks through what they deem appropriate adjustments to warhead numbers, nuclear doctrines, and force postures.

Australia has seemingly become a laggard, a hedging player, and in real terms a middle power where nuclear disarmament appears to be of lower priority than bolstering and indefinitely sustaining the legitimacy and credibility of nuclear weapons.

To change course, Australia could strengthen its standing by undertaking bolder collaborative efforts with like-minded states through the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), which aims to promote nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Further, if Australia really wants back up its nuclear high-road positions, then it needs to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

A Cautious Start

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, various groups within the Australian government considered the prospect of attaining nuclear weapons. During the earlier part of the 1960s, such considerations included the possibility of acquiring ready-made weapons from the United Kingdom. It is unclear how seriously varying factions pursued such options, but the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons was ultimately quashed in 1973 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government ratified the NPT, three years after a previous government had reluctantly signed the pact despite intending to keep a nuclear weapons option.1 In subsequent decades, Australia settled into its cozy position under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and focused its defense strategy on improving its conventional capabilities at home. As such, Australia’s nuclear strategy has remained comfortably static over the last 50 years, endorsing and providing some constructive contributions for disarmament, yet remaining closely nestled to the United States and its nuclear arsenal.2 Over this time, the Australian government has maintained the belief that the collective commitment to the NPT has mostly worked well to prevent a global nuclear arms race, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and enable the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology. Australian foreign policymakers have also been quick to highlight Australia’s role in strengthening norms against using nuclear weapons and for nuclear nonproliferation.

More specifically, Australian governments have emphasized their engagement with like-minded states that endorse and support a practical “building blocks” approach to disarmament, steps that include promoting the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), discussions on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and efforts to strengthen nuclear disarmament verification, transparency, and confidence building. Such rhetoric has been welcomed by the disarmament community, but the approach has often been cautious, where the message has been about “sustained, practical and incremental steps” but reliant on the actions of “all states with nuclear weapons.”3

Australia’s position has been earnest and constructive, but has lacked the imagination and necessary rigor to make a difference commensurate with its middle-power status.

Australian Strengths

Australia has played a serviceable role in promoting the three pillars of the NPT: working toward disarmament, nonproliferation, and spreading the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. It contributed to launching the 12-nation NPDI that discusses disarmament and nonproliferation issues and plays a prominent role in defining peaceful-use issues through its role within the Vienna Group of 10. Additionally, it has supported international efforts to slow or mitigate the proliferation of nuclear weapons, through its participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Zangger Committee export control regimes and its role as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors.4

The United Kingdom conducted its first atomic weapon test in Western Australia's Monte Bello Islands in 1952. Decades later, Australia was a leading nation promoting the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)Other contributions are evident when looking at Australia’s role in supporting the CTBT by co-chairing with Japan the “Friends of the CTBT” foreign ministers’ meeting, which includes Canada, Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, as well as being a lead sponsor of the annual UN General Assembly resolution on the CTBT. Canberra has demonstrated a concrete commitment to the CTBT by installing 21 of the treaty’s 300 monitoring facilities around the globe, the third-largest number of any state. Also, it has played a role in developing on-site inspection measures that could be used to assess possible nuclear tests.5

Additional constructive contributions encompassed in Australia’s approach to nuclear disarmament are evident in its advocacy of an FMCT. Canberra has participated in the High-Level FMCT Expert Preparatory Group that builds on a 2015 UN experts group report and considers the applicable factors should an FMCT be realized someday. Similarly, Australia has joined an informal 25-state grouping called the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, working to devise technical solutions for monitoring and verification across the nuclear weapons cycle.

Further positive Australian efforts are apparent in its support of nuclear-weapon-free zones. Australia joined the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, which entered into force in 1986. Australia meets its commitments under the treaty through the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty Act 1986, which forbids the manufacture, production, or procurement of nuclear explosive devices; prohibits the possession of or control over such devices; prohibits research and development pertaining to their production; prohibits the positioning of nuclear explosive devices in Australia; and prohibits the testing of nuclear explosive devices.6 Some have questioned Canberra’s commitment to the zone or whether its related policies conflicted with other nations in the region.7

Improving Australia’s Contribution

Despite Australia’s seemingly robust history and record of constructively supporting nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation mechanisms, it has almost mastered the role of positioning itself into a comfortable caveat. Canberra rests in the shadow of U.S. security strategy, saying and doing the right things in terms of meeting its NPT obligations, but lacking rigor and policy muscle commensurate with its middle-power status. Simply put, Australia has become a paradoxical player in which it adheres to its U.S. alliance obligations while clinging to the waning vestiges of its position as a good global citizen. In other words, Australia has become a middle-power hedger that needs to pick up its game if it really wants to adhere meaningfully to nonproliferation and disarmament goals. As the 12th largest economy in the world, it needs to play a more active political role in bolstering the NPT and broader regime it portends to support.

An August 2018 newspaper commentary by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas succinctly described what a middle power such as Australia needs to do, particularly in light of the currently inconsistent approach of U.S. leaders and questions surrounding the Trump administration. “It is not enough just to complain about the destruction of the multilateral order. We have to fight for it,” Maas wrote.8 If U.S. President Donald Trump is “letting go” of the liberal international order as Maas suggests, then Australia and other middle-power states must step up their efforts rather than sinking further back into inaction and complacency.

Although Australian policymakers have recognized the NPT’s important role in preventing uncontrolled proliferation and promoting disarmament and have long upheld the treaty as a core Australian foreign policy goal, Australian diplomacy in these areas needs new energy. In the words of one expert, “Disarmament diplomacy has hit a difficult patch and there’s a strong possibility that its current agenda will fail unless it’s adapted.”9 To shift out of its foreign policy inertia, Australia should consider two options: strengthening its role in the NPDI and signing the TPNW.

Bolstering the NPDI

In July 2010, Australia and Japan jointly established the NPDI “to take forward the consensus outcomes of the 2010 NPT Review Conference and jointly to advance the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation agendas as mutually reinforcing processes.”10 Today, the NPDI consists of a cross-regional group of 12 countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The NPDI pursues a range of goals with a broad focus on advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda and greater transparency in the way nuclear-weapon states fulfill their disarmament commitments. More specifically, the NPDI’s priorities consist of encouraging greater transparency surrounding nuclear disarmament efforts, increasing support for and the conclusion of key legal instruments that safeguard and govern nuclear activities, and strengthening the NPT regime.11

At a time when international tensions are rising, proliferation pressures are growing, and momentum for nuclear arms reductions is dissipating, the role the coalition can play is more crucial than ever. To have a more decisive impact, however, the NPDI needs a realistic agenda; and its members, particularly states such as Australia, need to be sincerely committed to the goals they are advocating. Presently, it is debatable as to whether that is the case.

NPDI activities and declarations are perceived by many as lacking genuineness. Such views are based mainly on the configuration of the group. It is diverse in some respects, but it is predominantly comprised of U.S. allies that depend on U.S. extended deterrence (Australia, Canada, and Japan) or NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements (Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Turkey). These deterrence provisions clearly put these seven states in an unclear position regarding nonproliferation and disarmament norms, spurring questions about the integrity of their stated goals and their capacity to undertake the NPDI’s bridge-building agenda.12

Notwithstanding these criticisms and the group’s cautious approach, there is an opportunity for Australia to push the NPDI toward a more definitive role in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. First, NPDI states should be clearer about how nuclear cooperation and extended nuclear deterrence are positioned in their respective security policies. Second, the partnership needs to refine its mission to consider recent developments and changing strategic realities, concentrating principally on endorsing frank and well-informed debate on nuclear weapons and disarmament dynamics in an atmosphere of rising tensions and growing uncertainties. This would be a significant shift in direction and could potentially upset the three NPDI states that enjoy the more robust non-nuclear credentials (Chile, Mexico, and the UAE). Nevertheless, if a diplomatic plan can be attained to maintain group coherency through this transition, then the NPDI could potentially realize the critical and underappreciated role of illuminating the strategic challenges related to disarmament.

To facilitate this process, as indicated, NPDI members should work at convening their defense and foreign policy officials to discuss disarmament challenges from strategic and political standpoints in the context of their varying deterrence relationships. As part of this initiative, Australia could actively engage and promote a platform in academic and think tank communities to stimulate broader debates about the connection between stability and disarmament, particularly in the current context where an increase in power shifts and cross-domain threats are clearly intensifying global security. This dialogue could focus on developments in and relationships between precision-guided conventional weapons, missile defense, space weaponization, and cyberwarfare, as well as strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

To support these efforts, Australia could foster forums on these issues on the periphery of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. This exercise may appear to be abstract, but it would bring together practitioners and experts who very often work in distinct silos, enabling them to appreciate the interconnectedness of deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament and the broader spectrum of political and strategic dilemmas. In this regard, Australia should encourage those articulating various degrees of resistance to nuclear disarmament to contemplate the strategic role that the NPT has played in the past, the duress it is under in the contemporary context, and the impact that national security policy decisions are having on the treaty’s future survival.

Here, an Australian-led initiative on this level should proceed with a series of Track 1.5 negotiations, bringing together a wide array of nonproliferation and disarmament practitioners and analysts from the Asia-Pacific region. The meetings could create two substantive recommendations. The first could be presented to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade in late 2019, mapping out a more definitive set of new ideas for Australia’s nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy, where Australia should look to embolden its role in the region. The second could be presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, emphasizing a revised set of core issues and proposals for Australia and its NPDI partners to debate at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and in the UN General Assembly First Committee, as well as a series of forward-looking proposals around which the NPDI could advance a new and more assertive agenda beyond 2020.

Indeed, at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, members of the NPDI submitted a working paper that focused on the significance of transparency, transparency in the context of strengthening the NPT review process, enhanced reporting of NPT implementation, and NPDI proposals to enhance transparency by improving reporting.13 For Australia to go to the next level in its middle-power status, it needs to be a leader in driving forthright dialogue in the lead-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. Following the national election in May 2019, an opportunity will arise for Australia to lead a new nonproliferation and disarmament dialogue that could help strengthen the NPDI agenda and the NPT. Canberra’s geostrategic position, record of constructive NPT advocacy, and capacity to shift regional security challenges toward opportunities for closer cooperation put it in a unique position to provide the requisite leadership and make a real difference if it chooses to act with greater assertion.

The Prohibition Treaty

Although the NPDI option calls on Australia to play a more emboldened role within the current orthodox framework, there is another, more radical option that would most certainly propel Australia out of its incremental and cautionary approach: Australia should sign and ratify the TPNW.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, here speaking in May 2018, has said the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons undermines the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime (Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)In late 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution containing a decision to convene a UN conference to negotiate a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons that would ultimately lead toward their total elimination. Reflecting the views of the conservative Liberal party, the Australian government did not embrace the core premise that merely banning nuclear weapons would lead to their elimination or would alter “the current, real, security concerns of states with nuclear weapons or those states, like Australia, that rely on extended nuclear deterrence as part of their security doctrine.” In this regard, the government argued, “disarmament efforts must engage all the nuclear-armed states and must focus on practical measures that recognize both the humanitarian and security dimensions of this issue.”14

To further illustrate its position, the Australian government did not take part in the ban treaty negotiations because it believed such a move did not offer a practical path to effective disarmament or enhanced security, nor did the negotiation include key states that possess nuclear weapons. Additionally, Australian leaders contended that a ban treaty risked undermining the NPT, which Australia rightly regards as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explained in 2018,

The argument “to ban the bomb” may be emotionally appealing, but the reality is that disarmament cannot be imposed this way. Just pushing for a ban would divert attention from the sustained, practical steps needed for effective disarmament. The global community needs to engage those countries that have chosen to acquire nuclear weapons and address the security drivers behind their choices. They are the only ones that can take the necessary action to disarm.15

Bishop is wrong. The TPNW evolved principally from the sheer frustration felt by many nations that NPT nuclear-weapon states are shunning their treaty obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith toward total nuclear disarmament. Notwithstanding the large U.S. and Russian reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, it is evident that nuclear-weapon states have not held up their end of the NPT bargain.

Additionally, disarmament proponents have highlighted nuclear-weapon states’ plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals, clearly illustrating that those nations are planning to retain their nuclear arsenals for the long term. For ban treaty proponents, the accumulative effect of such modernization plans, in conjunction with the divisions within the NPT community, illustrate that the NPT has distinct limitations.

From an Australian perspective, despite the NPT’s good faith obligations, there is a legal gap that must be addressed: nuclear weapons, like chemical and biological weapons, need to be banned.16

Bishop’s view is hardly surprising and sits perfectly alongside the pedestrian approach of many Australian policymakers, past and present. Aside from the concerns Bishop raised, there has been a strong chorus of ban treaty critics who have focused their attention on the impact Australia’s signing would have on the U.S.-Australian alliance. According to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, “[T]he difficulty for Australia in terms of signing or ratifying the ban treaty is that, to do so, we would effectively be tearing up our U.S. alliance commitment.”17 Similarly, Shadow Defense Minister Richard Marles contends that the ban treaty “raises the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defense relationship” with the United States and “might undermine” the NPT and the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty.18

Such views, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the ban treaty in Australian foreign policy circles. Australian ban treaty membership could advance its goal of promoting nuclear disarmament without threatening military relations with the United States, just as Australian adherence to treaties on landmines and cluster munitions have not undermined the U.S.-Australian defense relationship. Simply put, the alliance relationship does not bind Australia to include weapons of mass destruction in its defense policies.

Indeed, a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state can be compatible with the TPNW, as long as forbidden activities pertaining to nuclear weapons are excluded. According to a Swiss government assessment, the ban treaty “does not in principle place any legal restrictions on military cooperation with nuclear weapon states or nuclear umbrella states, provided such cooperation is not aimed at developing, modernizing, acquiring or using nuclear weapons.”19 Several U.S. allies are among the TPNW’s strongest supporters and earliest signatories, such as New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand, and they demonstrate that support for the ban treaty can work alongside non-nuclear military collaboration with the United States.20

These sentiments came clearly into play at an Australian Labor Party meeting in December 2018, when a key leader, Anthony Albanese, announced that Australia would sign and ratify the TPNW if Labor wins power in elections this May. Albanese also supported a more assertive posture for Australia to promote the ban treaty and nuclear disarmament. “One way in which you secure universality of support, in terms of a step towards that, is by Australia playing a role. And Australia, of course, played no role at the UN processes where this treaty was finalized,” he said.21

Labor would have political support for joining the treaty and increasing Australia’s role in promoting nuclear disarmament. With 78 percent of the federal caucus signed up to support the ban, 83 percent of Labor voters in support, and two dozen unions adding their voice, the Australian Labor Party has a clear mandate, particularly given that recent polls suggest that a federal victory is in the cards.22

Need for Urgent Action

The threat posed by nuclear weapons is real and urgent. More than ever, Australia’s security depends on an effective, rules-based international order and robust multilateral institutions. Australian policymakers have regularly championed the perception that Australia punches above its weight in terms of its contributions to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but they have rarely challenged or questioned the purposes and value of nuclear weapons, the legality and legitimacy of such weapons, or the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence.

Australia has constructively partaken in a plethora of initiatives complimenting the NPT and the broader regime, but particularly in recent times has become an overly cautious, complacent, and in many ways hedging player on the international stage. With tensions between the United States and Russia at a low point, nuclear-weapon states busily modernizing their stockpiles, and divisions within the NPT, new and reinvigorated approaches from middle-power states are needed more than ever. Australia needs to heed the advice of Maas and lift its game by pushing back against actions that threaten future steps on arms control and by advancing policy options that prevent further fracturing of the NPT and promote moves toward disarmament. Moreover, rather than sitting indolently and lamenting what this new era and the U.S. administration may present, Australia needs to shift out of its foreign policy inertia by stepping up its role and actions in the NPDI and boldly signing the TPNW.



1. Jacques Hymans, “Isotopes and Identity, Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 5.

2. Joey Watson, “Does Australia Need a Nuclear Arsenal? And What Would Be the Cost?” ABC News, October 23, 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-24/should-australia-have-a-nuclear-weapons-program/10407610.

3. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Policy,” 2018, https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/security/non-proliferation-disarmament-arms-control/nuclear-issues/Pages/australias-nuclear-non-proliferation-and-disarmament-policy.aspx.

4. Ibid.

5. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World,” 2018, https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/security/non-proliferation-disarmament-arms-control/nuclear-issues/Pages/steps-towards-a-nuclear-weapons-free-world.aspx.

6. Ibid.

7. Tim Wright, “Documents Reveal Australia Is ‘Worried’ About ‘Growing Momentum’ Towards Nuclear Weapon Ban,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, September 15, 2015, http://www.icanw.org/campaign-news/foi-documents-reveal-australia-is-worried-about-growing-momentum-towards-nuclear-ban/.

8. Heiko Maas, “Making plans for a new world order,” Handelsblatt Today, August 22, 2018, https://www.handelsblatt.com/today/opinion/heiko-maas-making-plans-for-a-new-world-order/23583082.html.

9. Tanya Ogilvie-White, “Australia and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative: Difficult Times for Disarmament Diplomacy,” Australia Strategic Policy Institute Policy Analysis, No. 110 (May 27, 2013), https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/Policy_Analysis110_NPDI.pdf?Qk8fTm44rrEEhlhyToOGcJeTVoBZGAJL.

10. “Joint Statement by Foreign Ministers: On nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation,” September 22, 2010, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/npt1009.html.

11. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI),” March 31, 2019, https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/non-proliferation-and-disarmament-initiative-npdi/.

12. Ibid.

13. Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, 9th Ministerial Meeting, September 21, 2017, https://new-york-un.diplo.de/un-en/news-corner/20170921-npdi-minmtg/923918.

14. DFAT, “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World.”

15. Ibid.

16. Shanelle Van, “Revisiting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Lawfare, November 27, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/revisiting-treaty-prohibition-nuclear-weapons.

17. Paul Karp, “Labor Set for Nuclear Showdown as Gareth Evans Warns of Risk to US Alliance,” The Guardian, December 17, 2018.

18. Richard Lennane, “Shadow Ministers’ Move on Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, October 25, 2018, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/shadow-ministers-move-on-nuclear-ban-treaty/.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Anthony Albanese, “Speech to the 48th National Conference of the Australian Labor Party – Moving Support for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty,” December 18, 2018, http://anthonyalbanese.com.au/speech-moving-support-for-the-nuclear-weapon-ban-treaty-tuesday-18-december-2018.

22. Gem Romuld, “Labor Sets the Right Course on Nuclear Disarmament,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 27, 2018.


Aiden Warren is an associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, focusing on international security. He recently completed a six-month Fulbright scholarship in the United States.