Representatives from China, France, Russia, UK and US (the P5) just met in Washington DC to talk about nuclear weapons. They issued a statement from that meeting, describing what they believe they have done and what they plan to do to advance nuclear disarmament. They agreed to keep talking to one another, and occasionally also to other people, maybe, on their own terms.
Knowing the changes in the global discourse on nuclear weapons this is a bit of a difficult statement to read. While the majority of the world recognises the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, this group only sees them as “severe”. Perhaps they do recognise something has changed when they said they would “seek enhanced international understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in the overall international security environment.”
NPT and good faith….
Considering the majority of the world’s governments believe that nuclear weapons detract from international peace and security, an increase in P5 understanding could be useful. Maybe, they also seek to understand why the rest of the world has lost faith in their “consensus-based approach that has served for decades to strengthen the NPT regime”. Part of the problem is that strengthening the NPT regime is in fact code for strengthening their continued perception of special privilege as the only group that thinks its allowed to have nuclear weapons. Let’s not forget, the NPT regime was designed as a temporary fix for the nuclear weapons problem, and at the outset it was recognised that more would be needed- including a comprehensive prohibition on use and possession.
However, the stranglehold on nuclear disarmament negotiations that the NPT has afforded the P5 is changing. Now this minority are becoming the outliers. The discussion about nuclear weapons as a security asset are over. Strategic stability is no longer predicated on the ability to annihilate, instead, it is the ability to prevent harm. The P5 have failed to do this- they have failed the Syrians (estimated 450,000 dead in that bloody, ongoing, civil war). They have failed the Yemenis (and continue selling arms to the Saudi’s- directly fueling that conflict). They have failed to stop the advancement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal (instead they provide continual proliferation justification – to remain nuclear armed as long as nuclear arms exist). The P5 cannot be trusted to act in good faith to uphold their nuclear disarmament commitments, and they are no longer in charge of the nuclear weapons discourse.
Logically this is terrifying for them. A shift has taken place and there is a loss of control. Ordinarily, one would think that would result in a quick pledge to do more. To act in a way that could placate the majority who don’t believe the P5 will, themselves, create the conditions they desire for disarmament. But, no, instead it resulted in a pledge to continue talking about the glossary delivered in 2015, and a thinly veiled threat that consensus at future NPT meetings might not be so easy.
As if NPT consensus has historically been a given. Don’t forget that half of the review conferences have ended without a consensus outcome. Usually because this same P5 group has failed to deliver on promises made the last time around.
We need to talk…
The P5 did put forward a desire to talk with other States, but only on their own terms:
The P5 reiterated a call upon all members of the international community to engage in an open and constructive dialogue on nuclear disarmament, international security, and stability issues that is inclusive of all states and focused on practical measures leading to a world without nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
It seems that they are taking the ostrich approach to the Open Ended Working Group, failing to recognise that this is precisely what has just taken place. An open and inclusive dialogue on nuclear disarmament just concluded its work in Geneva, and the P5 chose not to participate. They could have, but they didn’t want to. Because it was open. Because it was inclusive. Because the voices of the majority of states- those that have chosen to reject nuclear violence- were raised.
Then again, it’s not all bad…
In all seriousness, the agreement to keep talking , especially at this time of increased tensions is a pretty good idea. Especially since the nuclear weapon modernisation programmes combined with the increased role for nuclear weapons in (at least) national rhetoric and the increase of nuclear war planning exercises is increasing the threat to everyone, destabilising and terrifying. Keeping up a “frank and constructive dialogue that takes into account all factors that could affect global strategic stability” could perhaps increase the understanding and begin dealing with issues around new missile technologies, missile defence capabilities, and actually lead to a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons (as agreed).
The majority have made it clear, 2017 is the year to negotiation the prohibition of nuclear weapons. This will greatly contribute to an increase in strategic stability; removing the distinction between some nuclear weapons possessors and others. A clear, unequivocal, legally binding prohibition on the use, development, deployment, possession and stockpiling of nuclear weapons will further change the strategic context, and create the space for the P5 talk to lead to actual nuclear disarmament action.