Faced with pandemics, global warming, species extinction and a possible war with China, there is understandable anxiety about the future. Perhaps the hardest question is whether it’s futile to push for new peace initiatives. By Brian Toohey.

Australia’s deteriorating role in global peace

An Australian Army recruit fits his chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence suit during a training course.
An Australian Army recruit fits his chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence suit during a training course.
Credit: Defence

Sue Wareham says there are grounds for optimism. The president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War tells The Saturday Paper that many groups within society are speaking out against government priorities, including militarism. “Tragically, there’s some optimism also in the recent evidence,” she says. “Wars have repeatedly failed to make us safer, Afghanistan being top of mind at present.”

Wareham says going from Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan “straight to war with China would be catastrophic”. To avoid a war with China, she argues we need to expose and rein in the vested interests leading us in that direction: “They include the weapons industries that need wars and instability to survive, and receive huge government largesse. Australia spends vastly more on preparing for war than on working for peace.”

Margaret Beavis, co-chair of the Australian branch of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says she “sees reason for optimism in the face of so much cynicism, incompetence and undue influence”. She says polling by market research company Ipsos in 2018 and again in 2020 found 72 to 79 per cent of Australians support signing the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Less than 10 per cent disagree.

“Relentless civil society campaigning has given the use of nuclear weapons a richly deserved taboo,” she says. “But there’s been over a dozen near misses due to technical and human error, and the risk of accidental use or use by an unstable or tyrannical leader remains significant.”

Beavis also warns that recent detailed modelling finds the instantaneous climate change resulting from a nuclear war using less than 1 per cent of global stockpiles would create a decade-long nuclear winter and famine, putting two billion lives at risk.

On a more encouraging note, she says divestment from the 25 or so companies that make nuclear weapons is very significant in Europe and Japan, and accelerating globally.

Kellie Tranter, chair of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Inquiry, says: “For too long the Australian public has been sidelined from the debate relating to Australia’s Defence and foreign policy decisions, particularly in relation to the US alliance. While this persists, there is little hope of avoiding war.”

She insists change can happen. Along with other campaigners, such as the former head of the Department of Defence, Paul Barratt, she says any decision to go to war “must be decided in parliament, with evidence being tabled and the purpose, costs, benefits and consequences of military action openly debated. Ordinary Australians need to be heard and need a government that takes responsibility for Australia’s own foreign and Defence policies independently of the United States.”


In the past, campaigners succeeded in banning atmospheric nuclear testing that caused deadly radioactive fallout. Landmines and most cluster munitions have been banned after killing many children. Ultimately, campaigners have to persuade political parties and governments to follow through on disarmament initiatives. For example, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty banning underground detonations is on hold because eight countries, including the US, refuse to ratify it.

The nuclear weapons states have not met their obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to take meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament. Australia is willing to sell uranium to nuclear-armed India, which doesn’t accept the treaty. Little progress has been made on curbing cyberwarfare, which can cause enormous destruction.

At the same time, Australia’s government is committed to becoming one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. Critics object to Australian sales to countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which conduct air strikes in Yemen, helping create what Human Rights Watch calls the “largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. In contrast, Australian Coalition governments from 1950 until 1972 refused to sell arms to any country in the Middle East, including Israel.

John Langmore, a former UN official, is now working on an initiative at Melbourne University to establish a non-government peace centre. He says G20 member states had an average of 196 diplomatic posts in 2019, whereas Australia had the second lowest, with 118. He also notes budget estimates show the proportion of government spending allocated to diplomacy in 2023-24 is expected to be less than half its level in 1995-96.

The Scientia professor of artificial intelligence at UNSW Sydney, Toby Walsh, has organised an open letter to the UN signed by some prestigious figures advocating controls over the development of “killer robots”. Writing in The Conversation on August 12, Walsh said, “The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting ... The endpoint of such a technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. It needs to be seen as morally unacceptable for machines to decide who lives and who dies.”

Diplomacy is not always confined to promoting peace, however. In a speech in Delhi in January 2019, the foreign minister, Marise Payne, claimed Australia and India both firmly believe that “might is not right”. But Australia helped invade Iraq in an act of aggression. India used military force to take control of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and end its special constitutional status.

In contrast, some military figures offer sage advice about wars. In 2008, the top US military officer, Mike Mullen, warned congress, “We can’t kill our way to victory.” He was talking about Afghanistan, and he was right.

Civilian experts are not always as wise as Mullen. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, the fiercely anti-Soviet Zbigniew Brzeziński, has been widely condemned for helping create the religious turmoil engulfing Afghanistan for the past 40 years. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up a socialist government that supported land reforms, universal education and equal rights for women, Brzeziński’s priority was to hurt the Soviets rather than help the Afghans. He used the CIA and Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services to train, fund and arm a mixed group of Islamic extremists called the mujahideen to wage a “holy war” against the Soviets, with logistics help from Osama bin Laden. This led to the Taliban group emerging in 1996 as the new government in Kabul that predictably repressed women and gave sanctuary to bin Laden’s terrorists.

The Soviet Union and the US achieved two great diplomatic outcomes during the Cold War by not listening to zealots like Brzeziński. The first was the 1961 Antarctic Treaty initiated by presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev. It has kept the Antarctic a demilitarised wilderness in which no pre-existing, or new, territorial claims have been accepted. The other was the 1972 agreement between the presidents Nixon and Brezhnev to reduce their stockpiles of more than 30,000 strategic nuclear warheads each. The 1972 agreement was reinforced by the anti-ballistic missile treaty designed to stop either side being able to launch a nuclear first strike without fear of retaliation.

In a blow to arms control, George W. Bush gave notice in 2001 that the US would withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Russia was angry, but said it would honour the latest version of the 1972 agreement, allowing each side a total of 1550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

In 1987, presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to outlaw shorter range nuclear-armed missiles. In 2019, the US withdrew from this treaty accusing Russia of violating its terms, despite doing so itself. The era of big strides in arms control was over – until wiser heads prevail.


Today, Russia and the US are developing new missiles and nuclear warheads, as is China. China is starting from a low base of 250-350 warheads and about 100 missiles. Despite alarming examples of accidental launches that came frighteningly close to occurring, no side has agreed to equip its missiles with self-destruct devices to abort a mistaken launch. The US has even developed a new variable-yield warhead for air-launched missiles, despite acknowledging it will lower the threshold for starting a nuclear war.

In responding to calls for Australia to get nuclear weapons, a senior analyst with The Australia Institute, Allan Behm, wrote in the Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament in May, “Whether contemplating nuclear war – a war that ultimately cannot be won – and building the systems to conduct such a war is a morally defensible way to maintain the peace is a core strategic question because it contemplates annihilation as preferable to defeat ... Winning the peace is the task that the global community now confronts in more urgent terms than ever before, and a more active and focused diplomacy is the task that governments must now sign up to more than ever before”.

Although the contemporary Labor Party soft pedals peace initiatives, its foreign ministers from 1983 to 1996, Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans, took a prominent role in working for peace, often with support from senior Coalition figures. Hayden pushed successfully to outlaw chemical weapons, but the US refused to ratify the biological weapons convention. Evans later publicly savaged the US for refusing. Both tried to bring peace to Cambodia and opposed the US Star Wars program to deploy weapons in space to shoot down missiles. Evans said only “dumb luck” stopped nuclear weapons being used after 1945. Hayden started the ANU Peace Research Centre in 1984. The Howard government shut it down in 1997.

The 1951 ANZUS Treaty was intended to reinforce peace. Article 1 obliges signatories to refrain from the use of force in international relations, except with the approval of the UN Security Council. Many argue a majority vote in the general assembly would be preferable. Had Australia complied with article 1 it would not have taken part in the Vietnam War or helped invade Iraq.


Running parallel to the politics of the anti-armament movement is the story of Australia’s universities and their involvement in weapons development. The story is not one of peace but of war.

In 1947, the head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Macfarlane Burnet, prepared a top-secret report for the Defence Department advocating the use of biological or chemical warfare to destroy tropical food crops and starve Asian populations in a future war. The Defence Department and Burnet, a future Nobel laureate, ignored the UN charter. In 2002, after The Age revealed Burnet’s secret work for the Defence Department, the institute he once headed publicly stated it rejected “the concept or practice of any form of biological [or chemical] warfare”.

In the late 1950s, Melbourne University’s dean of medicine, Sydney Sunderland, became a secret member of the Defence Department’s research and development policy committee. Archival records show he strongly supported the use of chemical and biological weapons. Sunderland, who was dean for 18 years, wrote a top-secret report that then Defence minister Athol Townley used for a 1963 cabinet submission urging that Australia let the US test the most potent of the nerve agents, VX, on a large scale in Australia, where it would be released from low-flying jets in north Queensland. In a meeting involving Sunderland, the head of the US program, General Lloyd Fellenz, said the tests could not be conducted in the US “due to the dangers involved” and candidly acknowledged VX would be used for offensive purposes. If the tests succeeded, the intention was to kill large numbers of people in Vietnam.

Sunderland, whose speciality was nerve pain, was unperturbed by how VX causes people to die. Some members of the Menzies cabinet considered the tests repugnant. Despite intense pressure from the US, in 1965 the government refused to let the tests occur.

In May this year, I asked Melbourne University if it would publicly acknowledge that Sunderland’s advocacy of the development and testing of horrific chemical and biological weapons in his secret consulting work for the Defence Department ran contrary to the values of the university at that time and subsequently. Unlike the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Melbourne University refused.

The refusal reflects a growing trend among universities to accept money to do secret work on weapons research and development. This is in sharp contrast to opposition by the head of the US project to develop nuclear weapons, Robert Oppenheimer, in a speech to scientists in November 1945 following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer said, “Secrecy strikes at the very root of what science is, and what it is for ... It is not good to be a scientist, and it is not possible, unless you think that it is of the highest value to share your knowledge … [and] believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity.”

Australian university leaders used to share that view. Not anymore.

Melbourne University has welcomed its partnership with the world’s biggest arms manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, building a $13 million research centre focusing on hypersonics, robotics, artificial intelligence sensors and communications in one of the university’s research and development hubs.

ICAN, to no immediate effect, has criticised Lockheed Martin’s presence. That may change after the World Health Organization warned earlier this year that Lockheed Martin’s role as a nuclear weapons manufacturer could compromise its collaboration with the university. Guardian Australia said this could jeopardise co-operation with the university’s Doherty and Nossal institutes and the proposed location of the $150 million Australian Institute for Infectious Diseases and Global Health in Melbourne.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Working for peace".

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