Disarmament: Part I. NZ’s challenge: setting the scene

The Honourable Philip Twyford: NZ Minister of Disarmament

Blog No: 201.

New Zealand’s new, Labour government has no shortage of domestic policy questions requiring urgent attention. However, while dealing to these pressing matters it has also to be taking note of matters overseas.  There are multiple problems besetting the international community. These, in their turn, will beset NZ. Such problems, originating in other jurisdictions, might be outside its government’s control, but are within a field in which, had it the will, New Zealand could exert significant diplomatic influence.

Among the problems are at least three that could threaten New Zealand’s continued existence. These, in order of potential imminence, are nuclear war, future pandemics and climate change.  The full effects of a nuclear war may be felt next week. The next, possibly more virulent pandemic, may arrive sometime in the next decade or so. If one excludes the wars it is likely to induce, the very worst of climate change, can be expected sometime within the next century. Despite the uneven intervals, all three need to be tackled simultaneously and immediately.  A recent blog Nuclear Threat details the reasons why NZ needs to pay urgent attention to the nuclear peril – the most imminent of the threats facing us.  

Nanaia Mahuta, as Foreign Minister, has an overall responsibility for foreign policy with defence and intelligence being held in separate portfolios. However, within this context, there are three ministers most directly responsible for policy in these crucial areas.  Andrew Little, has responsibility for health, James Shaw, for the environment and Phil Twyford for disarmament. It does not bode well, and is perhaps an indication of a lack of governmental willingness to contribute as fully to questions of global governance as it might, that the two most pressing, existential portfolios are held by ministers outside cabinet.

This blog deals with and is addressed to Phil Twyford with his daunting responsibility of reducing the global threat of nuclear war.  He obviously cannot achieve much without the fullest cooperation from his colleagues responsible for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Intelligence. If this government is serious in its anti-nuclear stance, this cooperation will be instantly forthcoming and Phil Twyford could indeed achieve much.  

Twyford’s task is eased by several favourable contributing factors. New Zealand is already internationally viewed and respected as a responsible and unthreatening member of the international community. It is seen as respectful of international law and multilateral institutions. Its anti-nuclear stand in the 1980s won it global popular acclaim (despite causing resentment among the governments of the western nuclear powers and those choosing to shelter under their umbrellas.) Twyford already has a firm starting point of international goodwill from which to embark on his anti-nuclear campaign. Most significantly, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which NZ has ratified, has just acquired the fiftieth ratification, allowing it to come into effect on the 22nd January 2021.

From then on, the ownership or deployment of nuclear weapons will be banned in fifty relatively minor, non-nuclear states. Before humanity can celebrate and the threat of nuclear weapons can finally be relegated to the asylum of history, one hundred and forty-three states have yet to ratify. Those already possessed of nuclear weapons and those mainly wealthy states, sheltering under the umbrella of a nuclear armed ally, have yet to be persuaded to join the Treaty. Phil Twyford had best roll up his sleeves! Perhaps a realistic intermediate goal would be to have a majority (even by the thinnest of margins) of members of the UN ratify the treaty. To achieve this hugely significant psychological tipping point, another fifty nations have to be persuaded to accede to the treaty.

Despite all the advantages listed above, the minister and New Zealand are burdened with a fast decomposing albatross around their neck. This putrefying presence is there by virtue of New Zealand’s claim to membership of the colonialism-tainted, white, Anglo-Saxon alliance. New Zealand’s natural allies are the multiple meek and unaggressive members of the international community who are dependent on the rule of international law and are vulnerable to those powers that feel strong enough to ignore it.  Unsurprisingly, such nations are not attracted by the odour of NZ’s alliance to an America, which among multiple other aggressive pursuits is vehemently opposing nuclear prohibition. Having written to signatory nations asking them to withdraw their ratification, the possibility that the US might issue sanctions against them has to be taken into their calculations if they persist in their wisdom of trying to prohibit nuclear weapons.

This alliance is best symbolised by the grip the USA,  as global sheriff, and its loyal Australian deputy, exert over NZ foreign policy through the Five Eyes implant. As an illustration of NZ’s constitutional inadequacy, this encumbrance was accepted without even a debate in David Lange’s cabinet, let alone any public scrutiny. Debate about the implications and consequences of Five Eye membership, is kept well out of NZ’s US-compromised mainstream media. That the seemingly endless creep into full-fledged membership of the aggressive western alliance should become a matter for informed public discussion in NZ, would be unwelcome to the  western allies,  doing their best to drag NZ into a ruinous confrontation with China.

Other than several true statements by the Prime Minister that NZ ‘prides itself on its independent stance,’ this elephant in Phil Twyford’s ointment was kept well out of all electoral debate and the opportunity missed for the Prime Minister to justify her ‘pride’ to the public. The pride exists, but the justification for it doesn’t. In the eyes of others, NZ’s foreign policy remains, if not subservient to the USA, seriously compromised by the association.

Having, under the Key government, downsized its once highly experienced and professional diplomatic service, NZ now depends for its global intelligence on what tit-bits from the Five Eyes system the USA’s processing centre wishes it to hear. All must be done to avoid annoying the source of this fabulous (more fable than fact) information on which NZ has allowed itself to become dependent. NZ pays tribute not only by supporting the five Eyes listening stations but by participating in America’s illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in its naval exercises targeted at China and ensuring that its military purchases and training are designed with joint operations with Australian and US forces in mind.

An article in a recent issue of the NZ International Review, (Vol 45, No.5)with a mainly military and diplomatic readership, described “… a significant development in the Quadrilateral Initiative – the United States, Japan, India and Australia … recently the Quad has been extended to include South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand as Quad-Plus.” This is an Indian academic writing from an Australian university and, though an example of wishful thinking from a belligerent cold-war warrior, gives an indication of the difficulties NZ will face in presenting itself as a disinterested mediator, independent of an ally’s nuclear weapons. (The quadrilateral initiative is a doomed attempt by the USA to contain China within an informal ring of hostile nations.)

Recently a peace activist wrote to the minister expressing her anxiety about the consequences of New Zealand allowing a US company to launch military satellites from New Zealand soil. In his response Phil Twyford stated that the government had a “…very firm and bipartisan nuclear-free policy” and that “the government would not approve any payload which was judged to contribute to a nuclear weapons policy or capability.”

Given, New Zealand’s ‘’very firm and bipartisan nuclear-free policy,’ and its stated determination not to ‘contribute to a nuclear weapons policy or capability,’ logic would have it that any satellite launches designed to increase the war-waging capability of the USA, would run counter to this ‘very firm’ policy.

The USA, with a current inventory of approx. 6,000 nuclear warheads) is a (the only) country, which has already used nuclear weapons. Now, it is developing a sub-continental nuclear missile capability. Furthermore, to go with its new missiles, it is developing both the warheads, the faked arguments of Russian and Chinese aggressive intent and the military deployment doctrines required to authorise their first use in an aggressive, tactical capacity – in the questionable belief that such use would not be answered with a strategic riposte that would end life on Earth.

At the apex of the USA’s military posture are its nuclear forces. Their effectiveness depends on the totality of the technical support offered by the US military machine.

Arguments that launching satellites sponsored by the US military do not contribute to US nuclear capability are without merit. (But no less so than operating electronic eves-dropping facilities on behalf of the US intelligence community, or providing a fig-leaf of international respectability to the USA’s military interventions.) Whatever NZ ministers are told, or choose to believe is the purpose of these satellites, they must in some way contribute to the strengthening of the US military machine which supports the USA’s nuclear forces. To claim that in enabling the US military in this way, NZ in no way compromises its nuclear-free virtue, is laughable. Possessing and deploying NZ’s own nuclear bombs would be every bit as ‘innocent’ as aiding a proxy to do so – irrespective of whether or not NZ chose to shelter under their umbrella.

If NZ takes this position, why should other nations sheltering under nuclear umbrellas change their policy? If NZ’s representatives are not to be seen as hypocrites and if others are to believe that NZ takes the need for nuclear disarmament seriously, the NZ government will need a coherent plan to help those nations currently cowering under others’ nuclear umbrellas, to abandon their dangerous addiction. The first step in achieving nuclear disarmament is to rupture the bonds binding nuclear powers to non-nuclear powers. To induce those currently cowering under other powers’ nuclear umbrellas to dessert their make-believe shelter and ratify the Prohibition treaty. Governments such as these have to be stigmatised in the eyes of their own and publics throughout the world. The second part of this blog will discuss the practicalities involved.

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