Multilateralizing Nuclear Disarmament

Top level officials from the five recognised NPT nuclear weapon states – United States, Russia, China, UK and France – meet on Thursday and Friday in Paris this week. This is the second dedicated meeting they have had to exchange information and to discuss as a group measures to facilitate transparency, reductions in numbers, and other disarmament measures (the first was in London, September 2009). The challenges to achieving agreement, both real and presumed, are sufficiently huge that expectations are low for any substantial breakthrough. Nevertheless, this P5 process could prove critical over the medium term to the hopes for global nuclear disarmament, and this meeting could lay the foundation stones for success – formalising this process, linking it into the NPT process by annual reporting to Preparatory Committees and Review Conferences, and establishing principles of operation and core objectives. BASIC will tomorrow be publishing a paper by Board member Andrew Cottey on the opportunities facing the five this week in multilateralizing the disarmament process.
As nuclear weapon states signatory to the NPT, the five have a unique obligation under Article VI to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. Last year’s NPT Review Conference Final Document committed them to reporting progress on disarmament to the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee. Now that the United States and Russia have both begun to implement the new START agreement (and indeed according to the US State Department, Russia is already near to its required reductions) attention is turning to the next steps. These will almost certainly retain focus on the bilateral relationship at least in any formal agreement (both countries still possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons), but will also be far more complex than agreements already concluded, as they will have to account for other strategic technologies, tactical nuclear weapons, and forms of particularly intrusive inspection.

But this is only a part of the complexity, as both states will seek to maintain strategic balance at lower numbers in an increasingly multi-polar world. The Russians will raise the role of other states with nuclear weapons. Both UK and French nuclear weapons contribute to NATO’s nuclear capacity, and whilst not actively targeted, their arsenals are predicated on Russia’s. Russia also has concerns about the growing Chinese nuclear and conventional capacity on its southern borders. These issues will undoubtedly be covered in the talks this week, and China, UK and France would do well to consider what they can offer at the negotiating table. In turn, this requires them to reconsider the flexibility of their current and future deployments and postures. All states need to be playing out scenarios that are not only worst case, but also best case, and plan ahead to build flexibility into their deployment plans to enable them to climb down the nuclear ladder together. They will need to consider how they can best contribute to creating the conditions for disarmament, both collectively and individually. This could include agreements, informal synchronised unilateral announcements, and demonstrations of reduced salience of nuclear weapons in their military postures.

These are the personal views of the author.

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