Inside Story

How Labor finished Bush’s uranium script

The debate over uranium exports to India has ignored the most important argument of all, writes Andy Butfoy

Andy Butfoy 23 November 2011 2069 words

Kevin Rudd at the UN conference on disarmament in Geneva earlier this year. Pierre Virot/UN Photo

THE biggest threat facing humanity is the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons. Because it is the custodian of the world’s largest reserves of uranium, Australia has a special responsibility to help protect the global rules containing this danger. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Julia Gillard’s announcement backing the sale of uranium to India, or from listening to the subsequent comments from the opposition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop. Both were remarkably inward-looking.

Before we look at the shrinking horizons of our politicians, some background is necessary. The system designed to stop the spread of the bomb is anchored in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which says that those countries that already had the bomb – the United States, the then Soviet Union, Britain, France and China – could keep it, at least for the time being. All other signatories agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons – on the condition that they could develop civil nuclear energy programs.

The NPT-based system is arguably the most successful arms control regime in history. It has an enormous membership (over 180 states), nearly all of whom are acting in good faith. The treaty is one reason why most countries that could build the bomb have opted not to do so.

But some states refused to sign up, most notably Israel, Pakistan and India. For decades it was understood that these states should be kept on the outer as far as nuclear trade was concerned. This arrangement was institutionalised by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was established after India’s cynically labelled “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974. In the Group’s words, the 1974 explosion “demonstrated that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused.” Under the guise of a civil nuclear program, India had gate-crashed its way into the nuclear weapons club.

In response, the Group laid down strict conditions for the sale of nuclear material and technology. Customers had to accept comprehensive safeguards as required by the NPT. Apart from containing proliferation, this system was intended to underline the advantages of treaty membership and highlight the disadvantages of staying outside. Making access to nuclear trade conditional on NPT rules was part of the glue holding the system together.

Over the past decade or so this system has been weakened by key players who are keen to get closer to India. The story starts when President George W. Bush, sensing the growing commercial opportunities, redrew US policy and signed a nuclear trade deal with Delhi. Some advocates of the change in policy also claimed to be concerned about global warming. Washington also wanted to draw India nearer as a de-facto ally while reinforcing it as a counter to growing Chinese power. Then there was a legal point: because India had never signed the NPT, it could not be considered in breach of it – this, and the fact that Delhi was not implicated in selling nuclear weapons capabilities, put India in a different light from, for instance, NPT renegades like North Korea.

Nevertheless, arms control experts were apprehensive about Bush’s stance for three overlapping reasons. First, they saw the development as part of a broader story of Bush’s generally contemptuous attitude towards multilateralism. The context here was alarming. It included Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq on the basis of a disturbingly elastic definition of self-defence, and his scuttling of a verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. Anxious critics fretted that the Bush administration was sending out signals that Washington was ready to break with the post–second world war rules-based approach to world order.

Second, Washington was damaging the consensus that underpinned the NPT. Bush’s neoconservative supporters sometimes talked as though the treaty was obsolete debris from a bygone age (a view partly fed by worries that the treaty could not manage rogue states). As part of its lurch toward unilateralism Washington said it wouldn’t be bound by previous agreements it made at NPT meetings. This was brought home when, almost alone, it voted against a UN call for a ban on nuclear testing and was the only country to vote against tighter restrictions on the first-use of nuclear weapons.

Third, although the US–Indian nuclear deal was limited to civilian products, critics argued this would free up other Indian sources of supply for military uses and facilitate an expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal. This could then fuel an arms race between India and Pakistan, and between India and China.

Bush brushed aside these concerns. As part of the understanding with Delhi, the United States went further still, agreeing to urge its allies to back the idea of nuclear trade with India. This urging (reports suggest “pressure” is a more accurate description) worked. Soon, John Howard’s Coalition government made an in-principle decision to sell uranium to India. Then, in 2008, the recently elected Rudd Labor government sided with the Americans and voted to rewrite the Nuclear Suppliers Group rule book on India’s behalf.

But this left Labor in an awkward, and apparently contradictory, place. On the one hand, it agreed India should be granted open access to global nuclear trade despite not being a member of the NPT. On the other hand, Labor ministers remained adamant that, because it had not signed this treaty, India could not buy Australian uranium. Presumably it hoped that this formula would simultaneously satisfy Washington, appease India, and preserve what was left of Labor’s purity.

In reality, however, the drift of events had opened up a hole into core Labor policy. Predictably, the Indian government and the Australian opposition inserted a painful political lever into the gap. Labor was tied up in knots. Without firm and clear advocacy, Labor’s position would be become an increasingly unsustainable muddle.

Where was this leadership? Well, at about the same time as he acquiesced in the administrative erosion of a key pillar of Canberra’s NPT policy, Prime Minister Rudd was publicly big-noting his firm commitment to the treaty. For example, with much fanfare he set up the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, led by former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans. This was billed as a body to advise the world’s governments on why and how they should strengthen the NPT and then move towards getting rid of all their nuclear arms.

In the context of recent developments, though, Evans’s well-intentioned mission may go into the history books as part of Rudd’s grandiose window dressing. The real action was being played out behind the scenes in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Rudd’s aim may have been to deftly balance principle and pragmatism, but Labor ended up looking like it was stranded in a mushy no man’s land in which both principle and pragmatism appeared elusive.

THE stage was set for Gillard’s part in the drama. Her role was to finish the script begun by Bush; she was to do this by advocating Australian uranium sales to India. Conservatives can be excused their smirking at the irony. From where they stood here was a left-wing Australian politician delivering on a policy devised by American neo-conservatives whom the Left had previously portrayed as simple-minded rednecks intent on wrecking global rules.

As Gillard worked on her lines, she appeared uninterested in the wider narrative. (Her brazen and domestically oriented refusal to inform her own foreign minister – who seems to know vastly more about the subject than her – about her decision deepened a perception she wasn’t interested in the broader picture.) Her call for uranium exports to India was dominated by economic considerations. There was one sentence to the effect that Australian uranium wouldn’t end up in Indian bombs, but that was the end of the matter as far as arms control was concerned. No mention of the NPT; no engagement with the underlying logic of the global non-proliferation regime.

Within hours Gillard’s announcement was followed by a statement from Julie Bishop. She reaffirmed Coalition support for the exports and then, with tiresome predictability, engaged in political point-scoring. On a day potentially marking a new direction in Australia’s place on the world stage, the messages from our leaders had a distinctly parochial character.

When Bishop did touch on arms control her analysis was underwhelming. She recycled Delhi’s slogan that India’s record on non-proliferation has been “exemplary.” Along with other advocates of uranium sales, Bishop apparently believes that if this slogan is chanted enough times it will be accepted as true. In the background, armchair strategists mutter that given the rise of the so-called Asian century, we mustn’t cause any offence to India; if anything, we ought to help puff up Delhi’s rather high opinion of itself.

But Bishop’s mantra about India’s exemplary behaviour is historically illiterate. Apart from refusing to sign the NPT in the 1970s, India duped its overseas suppliers of “civil” nuclear technology, lying its way to nuclear weapons capability. Indian policy also encouraged counter-proliferation from Pakistan. The tale continued into the 1990s when India not only obstructed agreement on a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) but also engaged in a series of inflammatory test explosions. This was despite the fact that successive Australian governments declared the test ban vital to our national interests and global security.

Bishop should brush off some old speeches on the topic from former Liberal foreign minister Alexander Downer (or at least those he made before Washington’s switch in policy on India). Perhaps she could then try to explain why Downer’s criticisms of Delhi’s nuclear behaviour in the late 1990s no longer carry weight; after all, India has still not signed up to the CTBT, although over 190 other states have.

The NPT is not perfect. But the world is a better place with it than without it. The treaty needs to be kept in sound repair, which requires hard work and good faith. Some people sincerely argue that the best way to keep it in shape is to modernise it by formally recognising that India now has a legitimate place as a responsible nuclear weapons state: best to have India inside the tent.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for this. But the idea of integrating a nuclear armed India into the non-proliferation regime needs serious reflection and a significant rejigging of the system, not a dash to sign contracts. The purpose and integrity of this regime are under enough strain without adding to the problem. One way to develop the modernisation and integration themes would be to make Indian entry into the tent conditional on its ratifying the CTBT. After all, a prudent revamp of global non-proliferation rules should raise, not lower, the bar on nuclear-related sales.

Unfortunately, however, the argument about updating the non-proliferation regime by including India is often simply cover for more narrowly motivated policy. Key players in the saga seem not to care much about either the NPT or the CTBT. They are content to look the other way while both treaties die the death of a thousand cuts. Their interests and vision lie elsewhere. For them the stuff of politics has a more immediate form, one readily summed up in soundbites and more easily grasped by the punters than imagining what the non-proliferation regime might look like to future generations.

For the moment, the leaders of both main Australian political parties seem content to shrug their shoulders and help Delhi push the NPT and CTBT out of the way. Not much room here for what used to be called good international citizenship, especially if it gets in the way of jobs, investment, profits and taxes.

A focus on the economy is certainly required of politicians. But good leadership sets this into a bigger picture and provides a sense of the sort of world we would like to help build in the coming decades. This has been lacking. Let’s not kid ourselves that the latest effort to cash in on uranium is shaped by lofty ideals about what Australia’s main political parties stand for.