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The man who sank the myth of controlled nuclear warfare

  • 18 October 2016


The late Professor Des Ball of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre came as close as any on being a public intellectual on nuclear strategy.

While some of his counterparts in the United States felt that using nuclear weapons was feasible and sound, Ball, who died last week, issued his pieces with mighty caveats and sensible qualifications.

Controlling the process of deploying weapons of mass extermination in an active theatre, far from being deemed obscene, was lauded by advocates. Human sense will always prevail, somehow.

Ball suggested otherwise. In Can Nuclear War be Controlled? (1981), he provided what one reviewer regarded as a 'tersely argued', 'spare' yet formidable case against credible controlled nuclear escalation. 'Controlling escalation', Ball ventured, 'requires both adversaries to exercise restraint, and current US policy is to offer a ... mixture of self-interest and coercion.'

Well it might be that 'carefully conducted attacks designed to demonstrate political resolve' could have a 'salutary effect', but to envisage cool control in cases 'beyond the detonation of several tens of nuclear weapons' was not tenable. The nuclear fraternity, in short, had lost the plot.

To that end, Ball exerted more than just a scribbler's influence. Former US president Jimmy Carter credited Ball for being a seminal figure in sinking the myth of controlled nuclear warfare, notably at a time when its normality generally went unquestioned in strategic circles. His 'counsel and cautionary advice, based on deep research, made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war'.

Ball was a difficult thinker to categorise, though he had been designated 'a realist, as deeply committed to liberal institutionalism as the inductive approach'. A book in his honour, published in 2012, described him as the 'insurgent intellectual', though it is also fair to say he was less insurgent than his reputation suggested. But in a country where the intellectual is often questioned, Ball proved a titan of sorts.

Ball's stance against the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the chronically draining conflict in Afghanistan was known, though he was hardly a pacifist. He made it clear that a defence force with teeth — preferably self-reliant teeth — was what Australia needed. This led to speculation on the part of former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans whether Ball was a hawk with dovish characteristics or a dovish hawk.


"There is a residual fear in Australia that we can't defend this huge territory and only the Americans can