Multilateralism – is the end in sight?

The P5 process was a British attempt to spark multilateral nuclear disarmament. It should no longer be accepted as an excuse for inaction.

London is hosting the sixth meeting of the five recognized nuclear-weapon states (NWS) on 4th and 5th February in the so-called ‘P5 process’, a last ditch opportunity to inject hope into the nuclear non-proliferation regime with the odds stacked against them. They meet to discuss issues relevant to nuclear disarmament, transparency and non-proliferation when their mutual relations are poor, and their collective relationship with the non-nuclear members of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is under stronger strain than ever.

The meeting next week is perhaps the last chance the NWS have to bury their differences and agree on some concrete actions to stave off this challenge. But don’t hold your breath. The signs are not positive that all participants in this process are aware of the weight of responsibility on their collective shoulders. This originates from a powerful cocktail of weak resolve (disarmament can wait), hopelessness (it’s just not possible), small-mindedness (my arsenal is more important than global security), and recklessness (other states will create a lot of hot air but in the end they will yield). To remain relevant and retain the confidence and commitment of the international community, the NPT requires forward progress. But it is stuck…and a failure in 2015 will be a hard blow.

The gulf in expectations could hardly be wider. The five will discuss verification, a glossary of terms and some of the steps being pursued to restrict the development of nuclear weapons (such as a fissile material cut-off, a comprehensive test ban and further efforts to limit proliferation). They are acutely aware of the deeper technical and political challenges surrounding multilateral arms control and disarmament, even if the politics were conducive and relations positive. With few concrete ideas of how best to go about negotiations, the parties have rested on vague confidence-building measures, the agreement of terms, the development of verification technologies and systems, and discussion over posture and deterrence strategies. These are all important steps–though slow–but they avoid the intractable questions around how states will cooperate to achieve their commitments to disarm.

Meanwhile, the broader strategic relationships have been declining rather than improving, ensuring that those minor achievements within the P5 process amount to very little, in comparison to the steps backwards as states cling tighter to their nuclear arsenals and spend billions of dollars modernizing their forces.

The NPT depends more upon good faith and a sense of joint investment in a dynamic security architecture that benefits everyone than it does upon lawyers’ interpretations of commitments made in the 1960s. States are expected to abandon their nuclear arsenals, or ambitions for them, and move away from doctrines of power through the terror of nuclear weapons. But trust is low, not least because even after the end of the cold war, which gave birth to nuclear deterrence, those states with arsenals still appear unwilling to contemplate giving them up. Agreement was elusive at the last major NPT meeting in May 2010 until the last moment, and depended upon the NWS making a series of promises to progress the disarmament agenda. Independent audits judge that those promises have largely failed over the last five years.

It was clear at a major, private NPT-preparation meeting I attended in mid-December, which convened many of the principal diplomats involved in the negotiations, that patience from the majority world is wearing thin. Officials appeared emboldened by the Vienna Conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in early December 2014 encouraging non-nuclear weapon states to take a more active role in demanding disarmament and calling NWS to account. But there appears to be a complacency between the NWS about the impact their failure to achieve progress might have on the longer-term health of the regime, one that is dependent upon constant adaptation to changing circumstances because of the nature of the bargain at its heart.

The P5 process was initiated after a speech by then-UK Defence Secretary Des Browne (now Lord Browne, vice-president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington) to the Conference on Disarmament in January 2008. It followed a flurry of statements emerging after the publication of the first Wall Street Journal article from former cold war warriors in January 2007 calling for urgent, multilateral moves toward a world free of nuclear weapons. The P5 process was poorly termed–it has no direct relationship to those states’ position as permanent members of the Security Council, but rather to their status as NWS under the NPT. This confusion encourages an attitude that possession of nuclear weapons brings international status, when it actually brings grave responsibilities to the international community, including that of negotiating them away.

Browne described the purpose of the P5 process as bringing together officials and technicians to “solve some of the difficult technical issues” in the way of disarmament. It was inevitable that steps would be slow, not least because the approach would have to be controlled by and fit within the comfort zone of all states involved. Political relationships, and the level of commitment to disarmament, would inevitably affect the chances of progress. The process also locked participants into a sensitive dance of mutual assurance. Unfortunately, by 2012 this seemed to have turned the P5 members into a cabal of NWS maintaining external unity in the face of initiatives from the rest of the international community to find progress in parallel tracks. P5 ‘unity’ appeared to be a reason why the British and Americans refrained from joining the majority world at the Oslo and Nayarit meetings of the humanitarian initiative, though both states were represented in Vienna last month.

The P5 process was a British attempt to spark multilateral disarmament. With marginal progress on marginal dimensions, it is natural to ask whether, in fact, the systematic challenges surrounding this approach are simply too big to overcome. Moving beyond the bilateral processes that have characterized the negotiated reductions between the United States and Russia presents too many challenges. It demands a different approach. The P5 process can assist in developing dialogue and technological assistance, but its ultimate lesson is that real progress demands that states break from the cover of collective responsibility.

Translating this into the domestic context in Britain, with an imminent general election and the probability that coalition negotiations will include the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the mix, we have to face the truth that progress on disarmament requires further autonomous steps towards reducing our dependence on nuclear weapons. It is no longer possible to credibly hide behind the cloak of a multilateralism that was always systemically more challenging than politicians and officials were willing to admit. It should no longer be accepted as an excuse for inaction.

This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of


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