A- A A+

The man who sank the myth of controlled nuclear warfare

Binoy Kampmark |  17 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.

Des BallWhile 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 really save us. We always have been a fearful country. We've always needed great and powerful friends." — Des Ball


A feature of his insistence on self-reliance was his developing critique of the US-Australian strategic alliance. In some ways, Ball's passing in the 15th year of the founding of the US Pine Gap facility is apposite. Along with Richard Tanter, he did more work on the subject of drumming up awareness of the secret base's role on Australian soil than most. A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia (1980) drove interest on how Australian territory had become an imperial domain for Washington's strategic push. His assertion that Australia reclaim sovereignty was deemed 'temper democratic, bias Australian'.

Australia, for Ball, seemed gripped by a near infantile fear about its security, a requirement almost Freudian in its search for a protective paternal power. 'There is a residual fear in Australia that we can't defend this huge territory and only the Americans can really save us. We always have been a fearful country. We've always needed great and powerful friends.'

Precisely to that end, concessions have been made, notably over the enormous latitude allowed US personnel at Pine Gap. The use of the facility to provide data for drone strikes particularly troubled Ball, just as the facility's use for US air operations over Vietnam and Cambodia troubled Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.

Comparison is often made with the British equivalent in the form of the RAF Menwith Hill facility, a base owned by the British Ministry of Defence but made available to the US Department of Defense. Between the two, Pine Gap might show 'a much more genuinely "joint" facility', though questions remain about its character and 'its strategic and political implications for Australia'.

In a tone similar to the late Malcolm Fraser with his resentment of Australia's 'star spangled manner', Ball felt that the base over time exemplified the worst in the US-Australian alliance. As he told the ABC in 2014, he had reached a point where he could 'no longer stand up and provide the verbal, conceptual justification for the facility that I was able to do in the past'. Not only was he an important public intellectual, but an urgently needed one.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Excellent and much needed review of Des Ball's intellectual importance by Binoy Kampmark in Eureka Street . Thank you.

Tony Kevin 19 October 2016

“We've always needed great and powerful friends“ No doubt we always will. No man is an island, sufficient unto itself. No nation, even island nations, are sufficient unto themselves. We are all dependent on each other, and increasingly becoming even more so. Let us hope we will not take as long as life on Earth to realise this. Analysis of ancient rocks shows that life on Earth began as single-celled organisms, within 600 million years after the earth was first formed. Then for the next 2.75 billion years, only free-living single-celled organisms - bacteria, algae, and amoeba-like protozoans populated the world. They were ‘Sovereign lives‘. Then about 750million years ago the first multicellular organisms appeared. Later some cells became mutually dependent on each other, by symbiosis. The human body consist of about 50 trillion such mutually-dependent cells that have evolved over many millions of years. This is a lesson we, the Human Race, all need to appreciate and embrace. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Robert Liddy 19 October 2016

Similar articles

Price of a plebiscite is too high for LGBTI young people

Neve Mahoney | 31 August 2016

xxxxxIf you're a cisgender straight person, the Irish vote 'no' poster, like 'Children need a mother and father', may not seem like a big deal. You may even agree with it. However, if you're a LGBTI young person who might be going through a process of denial and self-loathing about your sexual orientation or gender identity, it's just another reminder in your daily life that there are people who think you are wrong for being who you are. It's a sign that says you're not welcome or wanted here.

Chinese Australians are no political wallflowers

Tseen Khoo | 07 September 2016

Say no to Pauline posterThe Chinese Australian Forum witnessed the traction that One Nation had regained, and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson as senator. This spurred them to mobilise against the rising prevalence of racist hate-speech against Muslim communities. Informed by previous experiences of One Nation coming to prominence in the 1990s, the CFA launched a #saynotoPauline campaign. It is one example of inter-community collaboration that is crucial in building momentum for broader anti-racist activity.

Plebiscite debate is pure politics

John Warhurst | 31 August 2016

Australia with rainbow filter and question markIf the plebiscite bill is defeated in parliament Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon will bear responsibility for not taking the opportunity offered even if it is in their view a second-best option. The government is already labelling them as same sex marriage wreckers. Yet if before too long a parliamentary alternative, such as a free vote, is found to advance the cause of same sex marriage then the rejection of the plebiscite option will come to be applauded as a master stroke.

A common good argument for legalising same sex marriage

Alan Hogan | 31 August 2016

Wedding bandsWhen a traditional marriage breaks down, there is a substantial body of law that has been developed to deal with the consequences. A substantial number of people in the community have already entered into homosexual relationships, monogamous and intended to be permanent. Some will break down, and disputes will arise about matters such as property, maintenance, and access to children. Common law principles are inadequate for settling such disputes fairly and economically.

The case for pill testing at music festivals

Susie Garrard | 29 August 2016

Music festival crowdAs tickets go on sale for this year's round of music festivals - Falls, Defqon, Bluefest, Lost Paradise, to name a few - organisers still have no means to counteract unsafe drug use. Recent years have seen an increase in drug related injuries and fatalities at festivals. The debate as to how to counteract this worrying trend is ongoing, and tricky to navigate due its subjective nature. Yet when zero tolerance policies clearly haven't worked, it's time to turn to harm minimisation measures.