On Friday at the United Nations in Geneva, Australian diplomats called a vote they knew they would lose, split their already modest support base in half, and enraged more than 100 other countries that had been ready to agree to a painstakingly negotiated compromise. For its trouble, Australia gained precisely nothing, and seriously damaged its credibility and influence. If it sounds like a diplomatic train wreck, it was. What on earth was going on?

The drama unfolded on the final day of the UN Open-ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. This group has met intermittently throughout 2016; the principal goal for Australia and around 28 other countries in nuclear alliances (also known as ‘umbrella states’ or, more colourfully, ‘nuclear weasel states’) was to ensure that the group did not recommend the negotiation of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons (Tim Wright covered the ban treaty proposal and the associated dilemmas for Australia in The Interpreter in June).

Australia’s manoeuvres on Friday were merely the latest in a series of ill-conceived efforts to try to stop the ban treaty, but which have only fuelled support for it. As the international movement to consider the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons gathered pace in 2014, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote that ‘the horrendous humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are precisely why deterrence has worked’. This line, now mercifully retired, ensured a sceptical reception for subsequent Australian assurances that recognition of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was driving its efforts on nuclear disarmament.

Australia then led the efforts of nuclear alliance states in the UN working group to push their preferred ‘progressive approach’ (i.e. disarmament measures that have been tried unsuccessfully for twenty years) and to argue against a ban. These arguments were never very plausible, but their main flaw was their obvious insincerity. The real reason for Australia’s opposition to a ban treaty (that a ban will make it more difficult for Australia to continue its reliance on extended nuclear deterrence) was never mentioned. The transparent dishonesty in Australia’s rhetoric only increased scepticism of Australia’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Undaunted, at the final session of the working group Australia raised yet another dubious argument: negotiations on a new treaty would burden small countries. This patronising contention again demonstrated Australian officials’ tin ear for the humanitarian concerns driving support for the ban. In a pointed riposte, Palau said that for Pacific island nations the burden of participating in treaty negotiations would be nothing compared with the burden of dealing with the consequences of more than 300 nuclear test explosions in their region.

Compounding Australia’s credibility problem has been the lack of any coherent strategy for dealing with the ban treaty proposal beyond knee-jerk reactions. It should have been obvious by the May session of the working group that support for starting negotiations on a ban was sufficient to pass a resolution at the UN General Assembly. This would have been the time to start positioning Australia to engage in the ban process, in order to steer it in the direction most compatible with Australia’s national interest.

Instead, the denial continued, culminating in a damaging tactical blunder when Australia’s representative questioned whether there really was a majority that supported starting negotiations on a ban treaty in 2017. The question was technically sound (until then, only a small number of delegations had specifically called for negotiations in 2017) but it didn’t take a diplomatic Nostradamus to predict what would happen. Within days, the Africa Group, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, ASEAN, and several European countries had all explicitly called for negotiations to start in 2017, putting majority support beyond doubt.

The working group report needed to reflect both the majority support for recommending the start of negotiations on a ban treaty, and the dissenting view of the nuclear alliance states, in a text that could be adopted by consensus. After days of back-room negotiations, a delicate compromise was reached which avoided using the term ‘majority’, and made clear the dissent of the ‘progressive approach’ camp. It was a typical multilateral solution: a deal that none liked, but that all could live with.

But when the group convened to adopt the report, Australia took the floor on behalf of 14 umbrella states to declare that the text was not acceptable. When the chair went ahead to try to adopt it, Australia intervened in its national capacity to block consensus and call for a vote.

Other delegations reacted angrily: Australia had acted in bad faith by using the prospect of a consensus report to extract concessions and negotiate a weaker text, and then when others thought all was agreed, pulling the rug from under them and calling for a vote. Evidently, a good number of nuclear alliance states (including Canada, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway) were ready to join consensus on the report, and prudently refused to join Australia’s group of 14. They presumably saw no point in needlessly antagonising the majority, and trashing their chances of influencing developments at the General Assembly later this year.

The outcome of the vote was never in doubt. Mexico’s ambassador described the adoption of the report as ‘the most significant contribution to nuclear disarmament in over two decades’. Two decades ago, Australia, in a daring and creative move, rescued the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty from the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament and took it to the General Assembly for adoption. Now it is reduced to waging a petty and futile rear-guard action that can achieve nothing beyond dividing its allies and depriving itself of any role and influence in the process ahead (and perhaps demonstrating to the US that it fought its corner to the bitter end).

If Australia is to be anything more than an impotent spectator of what lies ahead, surely it is time for a thorough re-evaluation of strategy. 

Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Violaine Martin