They are issues on which the world has spent some decades "sleep-walking," as prominent Australian nuclear expert and former Foreign minister Gareth Evans has called it. President Obama has taken advantage of America's turn in the rotating Security Council chair to try to reinvigorate the debate, following up on his calls for a world without nuclear weapons.
Presenter: Linda Mottram
Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister; Gareth Evans, co-chair, International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; Rory Medcalf, director, International Security Program, Lowy Institute for International Policy
MOTTRAM: Twenty years after the Cold War, there are still 23,000 nuclear weapons in existence, over 2,000 of them on hair triggers. And in recent decades, the international system of non-proliferation and disarmament has faltered. The election in Australia of Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd nearly two years ago saw the beginnings of efforts to breathe new life into the system. Jointly with Japan, Australia established the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. In his address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Kevin Rudd included the issue among the major challenges facing the world.
RUDD: The only path to safety is through the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
MOTTRAM: Mr Rudd's appointee as joint head of the International Commission, former Australian Foreign minister Gareth Evans, put it even more strongly in a speech last week in Melbourne.
EVANS: What we are facing today is a global problem which, despite the evident complacency with which it has largely been greeted since the end of the Cold War, is equivalent in gravity to that of climate change; a problem which simply defies such complacency; and which must be tackled with much more conviction and effectiveness than we have managed so far.
MOTTRAM: It was the election of Barack Obama in the United States that gave the issue serious momentum though. His celebrated Prague speech last April called for a world without nuclear weapons. He then opened talks with fellow nuclear giant, Russia, with both sides working towards new cuts to their stockpiles. Early next year the Non-Proliferation Treaty is due for review and the US is reviewing its strategic nuclear posture, with prospects for a change from current ambiguity on when nuclear weapons would be used. There's movement on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and agreement to work towards banning the production of fissile material.
In all this, President Obama's ambition is immense. He's seeking to win the authority of the leaders of the Security Council across the widest range of nuclear issues, on the back of concessions in particular aimed at reassuring Russia and China, such as the recent announcement that he's abandoning missile defence. Among the goals, President Obama is calculating that he can win support in the struggle over Iran's controversial nuclear program.
There is acknowledgement though that process of reinvigorating nuclear disarmament carries risks.
Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, travelled to North Asia earlier this year, against the backdrop of North Korea's newly energised missile activities, taking the temperature of the issue. He's now published a paper on the issues, following an earlier seminar in Sydney.
MEDCALF: If you're Japanese or South Korean, long protected by American extended nuclear deterrence and living within range of large numbers of North Korean missiles, it must be strange comfort to you at this time to be hearing President Obama talking of a world without nuclear weapons, possibly starting with US force reductions.
MOTTRAM: Australia's Gareth Evans agrees.
EVANS: Such allies will need to be very strongly reassured that they won't be exposed to unacceptable risk if the United States changes its posture towards a sole purpose declaration in the way that I've described.
MOTTRAM: But with mistrust between Japan, China and the US in particular still sharp, and with power balances in the region shifting, Rory Medcalf says for example that moves by the US towards what might satisfy China, but without removing the threat from North Korea could change strategic thinking in Japan.
MEDCALF: Japan's acquisition of conventional strike capabilities like cruise missiles would be one response to a growing lack of faith in US protection. And that itself could provoke all sorts of risky arms race dynamics in North Asia. And another option is Japan looking to nuclear weapons.
MOTTRAM: That's least likely its widely agreed, but Japan does have the technology and the plutonium its believed to develop a substantial nuclear arsenal in a few years.