Populist leaders and Nuclear Weapons: Disarmament remains the right approach

We come together to discuss the evolving dynamics of our international reality, where numerous shifts and hurdles feature prominently. The theme of this conference is “Populism and Global Politics”.

It's critical to note that Aotearoa New Zealand’s foreign policy does not align with the defining elements of populism. Populism often oversimplifies intricate problems, marginalizes varying viewpoints, and seeks to divide rather than unite, portraying issues in binary black-and-white terms of winners and losers.

In contrast to populism, New Zealand acknowledges the complexity of our global environment in which we must progress our interests, spanning from climate change to the burgeoning geopolitical rivalry in our region, from our ongoing battle against the global pandemic to the unprovoked, illegal and unjust war initiated by Russia. Our world is increasingly multifaceted and disputed, demanding a wider perspective and multifarious solutions.

We believe in a system that fosters a diverse range of interests, striving to achieve a more comprehensive and lasting resolution to our global dilemmas. For us, a solution can only prove successful if it genuinely accommodates and reflects the concerns of all.

Guided by our bicultural heritage, we focus our diplomatic efforts on a rules-based system that empowers all states, irrespective of their size or influence. Might should not determine what is right in fact and so the rules based system must be supported. Our diplomatic approach draws on our bi-cultural values:

  • Manaakitanga, emphasizing reciprocity and care extending to our shared humanity
  • Whanaungatanga, signifying interconnectedness and the importance of relationships
  • Mahi tahi and Kotahitanga, encouraging common objectives and seeking out ways to work together
  • Kaitiakitanga, advocating stewardship and intergenerational well-being.

These values light our path as we steer through numerous foreign policy challenges, including threats from populism.

Populist movements have posed significant challenges to the global order, potentially undermining cooperation on critical global issues. The emergence of populist governments has complicated nuclear disarmament, one of the most formidable challenges we face today, and the focus of my presentation tonight.

As kaitiaki, it is our duty to strive to prevent the disastrous humanitarian repercussions of any nuclear weapons use. This goal necessitates their total eradication.

Recognizing that the impact of nuclear weapons transcends national and generational boundaries, our pursuit of nuclear disarmament requires us to work with others who share the same goal. Any threat or use of nuclear weapons strikes at the core of our global humanity and should be collectively resisted.

In our efforts, we aspire to collaborate closely with disarmament champions from various regions, governments, international organisations, civil society, and affected individuals.

Our shared pursuit of nuclear disarmament frequently conflicts with populist agendas. Populist leaders have often undermined the taboo against nuclear weapon use, leveraging adversarial nuclear rhetoric for their own narrow interest. This approach complicates an already delicate nuclear risk calculus and can increase perceptions of threat amongst their strategic competitors.

Populist leaders have also demonstrated a disregard for arms control agreements, resulting in backsliding in arms control architecture across the board. They have further exacerbated the inherent dangers of nuclear weapons possession, regardless of who holds them.

Our unequivocal response to this is –that we must make urgent, irreversible progress towards nuclear disarmament. This approach is more realistic and sustainable than relying  on the rationality or predictability of every individual ever in control of a nuclear weapon.

A crucial distinction must be made between populism and popularity. Nuclear disarmament enjoys widespread support globally, irrespective of a nation's character or governance structure.

We have witnessed the manifestation of this through the commitment of 190 countries to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. This agreement seeks to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. A step further, 92 countries, including nine Pacific nations, have endorsed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the TPNW, rendering nuclear weapons illegal for those countries under international law.

Tonight, I aim to highlight the significance and continued relevance of Aotearoa New Zealand’s nuclear-free legacy, pledging our continued advocacy and leadership in nuclear disarmament.

Our region’s history of testing and the drivers of New Zealand policy

As we know, policy is not developed in a vacuum. Many of you will be familiar with the popular movement in Aotearoa that led to our unique nuclear-free legislation and our steadfast, bipartisan commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Our stance is a reflection of what we have seen and what our region has endured. Decades of nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific cast a long and destructive shadow over our collective home, the impacts of which are still evident today.

These tests not only wreaked havoc on the health and environments of the affected populations and countries, but they also pose ongoing threats to the wider region. For instance, climate change and its impact on the structural integrity of former test sites, which store nuclear materials, is a significant concern.

Our commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament grew from these distressing experiences. This year, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of our protest against French nuclear tests at Mururoa. A significant moment was when former Prime Minister Norman Kirk sent a naval vessel, with a government minister onboard, to exemplify New Zealand’s role at that moment as the "conscience of the world."

The year also marks the 50th anniversary of our appeal to the International Court of Justice, in collaboration with Australia and Fiji, to cease French atmospheric testing in our region. These actions laid the foundation of our enduring, independent foreign policy.

Our sense of independence was underscored in the 1980s, following the Rainbow Warrior incident and the enactment of the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act of 1987. These events led our traditional security allies to reconsider their connections with us.

By 1995, New Zealand returned to the International Court of Justice, once again opposing French nuclear testing in our region, this time, underground testing. Our stance received backing from Australia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

These episodes underscore our unyielding resolve to stand on principles for the greater good of our country and the Pacific– something our region had encapsulated in the 1985 passage of the Treaty of Rarotonga, which established the South Pacific as a nuclear-free zone.

This legacy continues to guide our current actions, for example, our leadership on the TPNW, and will continue to shape our future approach.

Our anti-nuclear position stems from the Pacific's harrowing experience of the humanitarian aftermath of nuclear weapons. We remain acutely aware of the catastrophic global consequences even a limited nuclear conflict would entail.

Our position also reflects our conviction that nuclear weapons do not enhance safety or security. Although some cite "nuclear deterrence" as the reason for the non-use of nuclear weapons for over 70 years, we must remember that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is an inherent risk that they will be used. Such risks are not only unacceptable but are also escalating.

Therefore, we remain unwavering in our pursuit of complete nuclear disarmament.

Our commitment to multilateralism: The NPT and the TPNW

A pivotal component of our pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world is our support for the widespread adoption and comprehensive implementation of existing disarmament treaties. These agreements, negotiated with the clear understanding that they would bind future governments, are crucial in restraining the potential excesses of populism, especially concerning nuclear weapons.

However, the recent collapse of several bilateral strategic arms control agreements serves as a stark reminder that we cannot take the robustness and efficacy of global nuclear disarmament treaties for granted.

In this context, I'd like to briefly focus on two crucial treaties: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Along with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, these treaties provide the legal framework for our nuclear-free policy.

The NPT serves as the cornerstone of the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. It is integral to our security and has been successful in curbing nuclear proliferation, thanks to the critical work of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the non-proliferation community.

Yet, the NPT's contribution to disarmament has been considerably less successful, and as a result, it faces serious challenges. Consecutive Review Conferences have either failed to agree on new commitments or to hold states accountable for not fulfilling existing obligations. This situation is endangering the Treaty, and the credibility gap is widening.

In light of Russia's illegal invasion and ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine, alongside growing threats of nuclear weapons use and a new nuclear arms race, full implementation of the NPT is critical yet elusive. If nuclear weapon states are sincere about their obligations under the Treaty, now is the time to demonstrate it.

The recent failure of the 2022 NPT Review Conference was deeply disappointing. Moving forward, our priority for the new review cycle is to urge for the swift implementation of the disarmament obligations outlined in Article VI of the Treaty and the commitments made by nuclear weapon states in previous NPT review cycles.

We are also pushing for enhanced transparency and accountability measures to better hold nuclear weapon states responsible. It is through our work on the NPT that we see the impact of another pillar of our foreign policy - our Relationships. This month, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the New Agenda Coalition, our longest-running disarmament grouping involving Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Together with our Coalition partners, and through constructive engagement with all NPT members, including the nuclear weapon states, we hope to make meaningful progress in the new NPT review cycle, however challenging this may seem at present.

On a more positive note, we draw encouragement from the progress made under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Next month marks the sixth anniversary of the adoption of the TPNW, the first treaty to globally prohibit nuclear weapons for those who join it. The TPNW forbids every aspect of nuclear weapons - their development, testing, possession, use, and the threat of use. It's the first time a global standard - a prohibition - has been set against nuclear weapons.

The TPNW also requires its state parties to adopt and maintain safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, thereby fortifying the nuclear non-proliferation regime established under the NPT.

Moreover, it includes important provisions to address the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons.

Aotearoa will continue its active role in the TPNW, including as the co-chair of the workstream on nuclear disarmament verification. We remain a strong supporter of the work the TPNW is embarking on for victim assistance and environmental remediation, reflecting our efforts to tackle nuclear legacy issues in the Pacific.

We understand that for many nuclear weapon states and their nuclear alliance partners, joining the TPNW seems unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. However, we urge them to keep an open mind regarding the TPNW and our objective: the total elimination of nuclear weapons. It's not just a goal but a legal obligation under the NPT, and it's one we all share.

The global and regional outlook…

As previously noted, the existence of treaties like the TPNW and NPT is not in itself sufficient. What we require is the actual and unconditional implementation by successive governments of the obligations and commitments these treaties contain.

Over the past decade or so, the global strategic landscape has grown increasingly uncertain, and progress on disarmament and arms control has slowed or even come to a halt. We are witnessing heightened strategic competition among several nuclear-armed states, and the trust deficit between these states has grown significantly.

Contrary to commitments to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines and to reject the development of new types of nuclear weapons, we are seeing the modernisation and expansion of nuclear arsenals, long-term funding programs, and destabilising rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons. For the first time in decades, nuclear stockpiles are on the rise.

Shifts in cross-domain dynamics – like cyber, space, artificial intelligence and new missiles – are also driving nuclear instability, raising the risk of nuclear weapon use, and fuelling strategic arms racing dynamics.

These developments have rendered strategic calculations more complex and have contributed to a heightened risk of conflict escalation, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. This is even before considering the risk presented by populist leaders who wield adversarial nuclear rhetoric for some misguided sense of advantage.

The explicit and implicit nuclear threats made by President Putin and his associates before and after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 have contributed to a deeper entrenchment of nuclear deterrence and the potential escalation of a new arms race. Russia's military actions have openly defied established disarmament and humanitarian law norms, as demonstrated by Russia's many attacks on civilian infrastructure.

We find ourselves in a negative security spiral, and it is the duty of all nations to halt this descent into a more dangerous and fractured world.

These are not just global challenges. These challenges have a palpable impact in our own region, which is home to six states that possess nuclear weapons, and between them hold the majority of the world's nuclear weapons.

Continuing to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons

The ongoing possession of nuclear weapons by some states serves as a motivator for nuclear proliferation among others, who fairly may  ask, if these weapons are necessary for the security of some, why shouldn't everyone have them? The perpetual possession of nuclear weapons for security is unsustainable, not merely from a disarmament perspective but from a non-proliferation standpoint as well.

We acknowledge that disarmament is complex and time-consuming. However, fifty years on from the adoption of the NPT, I believe we are entitled to expect more momentum and, quite frankly, some progress.

Some may argue that in this challenging environment, we must remain realistic and that pursuing disarmament right now is nothing short of naïve. However, the stark reality is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is always a risk they will be used, leading to catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

The perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand is that it is far more sustainable and realistic to actively pursue nuclear disarmament than to live in a state of suspended hope that there will be no negative consequences from an indefinite reliance on nuclear weapons for security and stability.

To be a realist in this matter means taking real action against the perpetual possession of these weapons. Success in this context cannot merely be measured by preventing conditions from worsening. Conditions must also improve.

Towards this end, we are strong supporters of interim disarmament measures such as nuclear risk reduction efforts, including those in the Indo-Pacific. But it is imperative that nuclear risk reduction measures are pursued with a view to achieving progress on nuclear disarmament, not merely with nuclear deterrence stability as the end goal. We seek long-term strategic stability in our region, and that can only be achieved through concrete reductions in nuclear weapons and their ultimate elimination.

Now, and for the future

The road to disarmament has never been easy. Indeed, an easy path towards disarmament simply does not exist.

We ought to draw inspiration from our past. When the world was last teetering on the brink of nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the key nuclear powers found a way to initiate dialogue. Out of these discussions flowed decades of progress on arms control and disarmament.

We must harness lessons from this history to forge new avenues for dialogue and substantive progress on nuclear disarmament. Once more, this issue must be pushed to the forefront of high-level political discussions, be they bilateral, regional, or international. Furthermore, it must be incorporated into solutions devised for regional and global instability.

This matter cannot be tossed to the "too hard" basket, as if some external factor will one day simplify the problem. Nor can it be deferred to future generations, as if the risks of inaction are not already staggeringly high.

Aotearoa New Zealand, along with our Pacific partners, know all too well the devastation nuclear weapons can wreak on our homes, oceans, lands, and people. We cannot rest secure in the shaky belief that those brandishing nuclear weapons will always act predictably and rationally.

The emergence of populist leaders and their approach to nuclear weapons should make this evident to all. It should underscore to everyone that the only rational, realistic approach to nuclear weapons is not to harbor the hope that they will never be used, but to strive for their total and immediate elimination.

This has been, and will continue to be, the approach of Aotearoa New Zealand for as long as it needs to be.

We may be small, but we are not alone, and we have agency to advocate for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and to build the coalition in support of urgent progress.

I will end with a saying from my tribal area which says; “ahakoa he iti, he rei kei roto” which translates as “Although I may be small my teeth are sharp”. In this way, Aotearoa New Zealand will continue to use its influence and voice to promote peace, stability and prosperity.

Tēnā koutou – Thank You.