Prime Minister Rudd’s proposal in Japan to appoint an international commission to revitalise the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and put nuclear disarmament back on the international political agenda is courageous but timely.

The world has had little difficulty in condemning chemical and biological weapons unreservedly but has always been ambivalent about nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are deeply entrenched in the primary architecture of global stability. We have tried for half a century to have our cake and eat it too: allow a few states to possess nuclear weapons but dissuade or prevent others from getting them. It has become clear that this is not a sustainable approach. In addition, we now have to take much more seriously the risk that international terrorist groups will get hold of a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material to make a crude device themselves.

Mr Rudd has committed Australia to a big job.

A commission can be helpful (there have been several in the recent past, including the 1996 Canberra Commission) but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The real work will come on the diplomatic front in the form of a sustained effort to build coalitions in the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Conference on Disarmament and elsewhere in pursuit of an interdependent set of objectives designed to restore the status of nuclear disarmament as a long term but genuine political objective, not a piece of sophistry that no-one really believes in.

These objectives include re-thinking the roles of nuclear weapons and the size and readiness of the arsenals needed, at least on an interim basis; agreeing to end the production of new weapons-grade fissile material and working towards putting all fissile material production capacities under international control; making more intrusive IAEA inspection protocols mandatory and creating a predisposition to require all states to allow whatever transparency is required to alleviate suspicions.

Being high-minded and preachy will be fatal. What is needed is hard-headed realism, creativity and persistence. There is some faint evidence of new attitudes among the nuclear weapon states, including the United States. A new push might be swimming with the tide. Australia is better placed than most countries to play the role of a realistic and responsible agitator. We have the resources, we have a strong pedigree of past accomplishments in this field, and we are close to the United States, the key player.