Can the P5 process deliver on disarmament?

The five NPT-recognised nuclear weapon states (NWS) meet in Beijing for the so-called (though misnamed) ‘P5 process’ this week, prior to the NPT Preparatory Committee in New York that starts at the end of the month. China is the last of the five to host the process, kicked off by the British in September 2009 after a speech at the Conference on Disarmament by the UK Defence Secretary, Des Browne, in February 2008.

To create some sort of safe space for officials and scientists, this process has largely been secretive from preying eyes, with little sense beyond the headlines of what has actually been discussed. This has had unfortunate side effects, giving the impression that the process has created a cosy club seeking internal unity against criticism from other countries and an anti-race to the minimum, a bare snail’s pace. One of the principal achievements of the process is the creation of a common glossary of terms that will help define the common standard by which arms control, transparency and eventually disarmament can be agreed. Wow! This may give you perhaps a sense of the limited scope for early agreement between the NWS.

The task of creating a safe process insulated from the outside has been difficult, one that is about to come under its biggest challenge yet in Beijing. Recent efforts to bridge the gap and continue discussions on nuclear arms control (all the more important if there are signs that we are moving into more turbulent strategic relationships) have in recent years been extremely challenging. Even before the recent Ukraine crisis Russia was making it all too plain that it was not willing to engage on a US-determined arms control agenda (talk tactical nuclear weapons but ignore missile defence and emerging cutting-edge conventional military technology in which the US have a clear lead).

The expansion of NATO into the far eastern reaches of Europe contrary to clear promises made after the end of the Cold War, the active promotion of political forces favourable to the United States and Western Europe was seen in Moscow as aggressive acts of an uncontrolled victor from the Cold War rather than a reset, or an effort to accommodate and develop positive relationships. Many Russians, supporters of Putin, see all this as an attempt to ride over opposition, to squash Russian identity. In all of this it is all too easy to walk away from arms control attempts, the most immediate casualties of the diplomatic relationship. Yet, as trust is low and both sides tempted to resort to assertive demonstrations of resolve, arms control and strategic stability are even more important that ever.

But if the anyone thinks that the crisis over Ukraine will be an adequate explanation for the glacial progress between the NWS, they ought to prepare for a rude reckoning. It is quite remarkable that this process only started 38 years after the three NPT depository states made a commitment to multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, and 16 years after China and France joined them. The five are formally committed (for the first time in the history of the NPT) to report on their progress towards disarmament to other members of the NPT, a promise they made at the last Review Conference as part of the Action Plan in 2010.

They have recently agreed a common reporting framework – categories and headings – that will give some form of standard on which to compare their individual reports, though we can expect some variance in their quality and detail. It would take an irrational optimist to hope for any significant announcements of progress on the part of any of the nuclear weapon states – all are engaged in modernising their arsenals in some form or another with the clear implication that nuclear weapons will form a part of their political and military posture for several decades to come.

The P5 process has lead to regular common statements at NPT meetings, an expressed intention on the part of its members to move forward and a limited degree of greater understanding between them. Of course this last can be a double-edged sword – re-enforcing attachments to nuclear deterrence and encouraging the NWS to pull together in unity against efforts to deepen debate over achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. It has been the effort to provide comfort to the sceptical through a unified, careful approach that prevented any nuclear weapon state engaging in the humanitarian dimensions conferences in Oslo and Nayarit. Dialogue is not always by definition a good thing! Nevertheless, it is a tautology that progress in coordinated multilateral disarmament can only be achieved in conversation between the nuclear weapon states (though not necessarily exclusively between them).

Des Browne’s naming his initiative the P5 process gives away a deep problem behind the challenge of nuclear disarmament through this tool – the widely-held but highly infectious and dangerous assumption that rather than a source of embarrassment, the possession of nuclear weapons not only brings security against nuclear attack or blackmail but also determines strategic power and status within the international community.

The permanent membership of the Security Council (P5) is a historical legacy from the victory in the Second World War and the emergent world order of 1945, fossilised by the inability of states to consider amendments to the Charter. The Security Council has proven itself unable to adapt to shifting global power, a failure that deeply undermines the relevance of the body as we stride further into the 21st century. Possession of nuclear weapons is just about as irrelevant to those power structures as the outcome of a war 70 years ago. But illusions have proven tough to shift.

So, what of the P5 process? Given political will, what could nuclear weapon states, individually and as a group, realistically do to positively affect change and inject hope into the NPT? Because hope it needs, otherwise the Treaty and its associated regime could easily slide into irrelevance. Anyone doubting this should take pause to consider the position of Saudi Arabia, reported to be in such a close nuclear relationship with Pakistan that it is far closer to nuclear weapon capability than Iran.

The NWS will not be able to go to the 2015 NPT Review Conference expecting to reaffirm the commitments they made in 2010, receive mild rebuke from the non-nuclear weapon states, and to see the NPT continue indefinitely. They need to consider more concrete targets for the P5 process over the next six years. They also need to consider unilateral moves to increase transparency, establish confidence, and demonstrate the already real moves away from a dependence upon nuclear weapons for security.

They will also need to consider how they might ensure that the process itself is even a little more transparent to non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), and how they might expand the involvement in the wider international community in the process itself (as the UK and Norway have already experimented with). Encouraging NNWS into a process as partners in the mission to strengthen non-proliferation tools alongside concrete disarmament steps would serve well the NPT bargain and could draw much of the sting out of the divisions within the NPT.

It is clear that up until now the NWS have prioritised their national security doctrine over the need for them to satisfy their obligations by moving more rapidly towards nuclear disarmament. Their mistake is to see the two as separate. And the longer they do so the more dangerous this is to international stability and security. The P5 process is currently one of the best hopes there is of progress in nuclear disarmament, but the process will need to adapt quickly, and its members will have to be prepared to act outside as well as inside its constraints, if there is a chance of the progress the world demands.

This article was originally featured on OpenSecurity, a section of

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