Report: Reducing Nuclear Risks: European perspectives from the 2019 PrepCom

This report arises from a roundtable on ‘Developing European Perspectives on Nuclear Risks’ on 7 May 2019, hosted at the Polish Mission to the UN in New York and under the sponsorship of the Dutch Foreign Ministry during the 2019 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee. Held under the Chatham House Rule, the discussion included representatives from European Governments, the European Union, NATO and think tanks, and was facilitated by Paul Ingram (Executive Director, BASIC).

This was a European discussion of nuclear risks in Europe and proposals to mitigate them. There is a shared belief that nuclear risks have recently increased. Nuclear arsenals worldwide are being modernised, and political relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated to perilously low levels. The INF Treaty is on the brink of collapse, and doubts hang over the extension of the last remaining arms control agreement – New START. Strategic stability is challenged by nuclear doctrines that arguably lower the threshold for nuclear use, and at a minimum raise the salience of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Renewed nuclear tension with Russia affects Europe uniquely and demands a collective approach in bringing the United States and Russia together. Europe has strength in the diversity of perspectives amongst its NATO and EU partners: two Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), a significant number of Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) that rely on extended deterrence, and non-aligned NNWS. Europe incorporates all shades of opinion across the wider multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation regime, and proposals that garner widespread support in Europe will have an increased likelihood of gaining traction internationally in the context of the NPT Review Cycle.

Risk reduction featured heavily at the 2019 NPT PrepCom. Its draft recommendation calling ‘for the elaboration of measures that can contribute to building confidence and to reduce the risk of the use of nuclear weapons, either intentionally, by miscalculation, or by accident, in the context of achieving nuclear disarmament’ received widespread support. There is significant interest in credible, practical and realistic proposals in this area.

Key Takeaways

  • The greatest nuclear risk in Europe is inadvertent nuclear use in an escalating crisis due to misperception and miscalculation.
  • Ambiguity in nuclear signalling can have both stabilising and destabilising effects and there is a need to further examine the role of ambiguity in nuclear doctrine to minimise risk and to build trust and confidence.
  • Pan-European discussions on risk reduction need to be inclusive of all stakeholders.

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