Worst case scenario: Are North Korea's nuclear weapons designed for actual use? Photo: iStock
A nuclear bomb detonation. Photo: iStock

This week the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which are also the five nuclear-weapons states (NWS) so recognized under the 1971 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – made history by issuing, for the first time, a joint statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought.”

These words first appeared in the 1985 Joint Statement emerging from the groundbreaking Geneva summit between Michael Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. This was followed by quick success of their summits in Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow and eventually resulted in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

Seen in the context of Reagan’s ambitious (read utopian) Star Wars program launched in a March 1983 speech, this period was seen as triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.  

It is also important to note the shift in global trends in disarmament efforts, and maybe the P5 can appreciate and strengthen those synergies. The end of the Cold War perhaps removed the specter of nuclear Armageddon, thus making states set a lower priority for disarmament initiatives.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was the last disarmament treaty to be negotiated by states in 1993. Since then major disarmament treaties have been the result of civil-society initiatives finally getting traction through the UN General Assembly where a large number of states have signed, ratified and adopted these new disarmament treaties. 

So far the P5 have stayed away from such novel practices and not signed or ratified these.  The 1997 Anti-Personnel Land Mines Ban Convention and the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions have not been signed by China, Russia, or the United States.

More recently, the January 2021 Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that “prohibits States Parties from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, acquiring, possessing, or stockpiling nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” has also not been ratified by the P5.

The P5 statement this week, however, goes even further to underline their commitment to “prevent unauthorized or unintended use of nuclear weapons,” and to “prevent an arms race” and pursue “disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Chinese media, which give Beijing the credit for this Joint Statement, have called it “a gift of peace to the whole world,” saying that even with the P5’s contradictions it promises that no nuclear war will be triggered. They also go on to interpret this as involving a P5 commitment not just on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons but also the spread of enriched weapons-grade uranium. 

Do these bold, pious sentiments promise to stand scrutiny of their past track record or likely future projections? As recently as November, the US Department of Defense 2021 China Military Power Report projected Beijing’s “accelerating pace,” estimating its nuclear weapons to exceed 700 by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030, thus exceeding America’s own projections for that year. 

No doubt, even a cursory look at the track record of the P5 nations makes it seem more ceremonial, aimed simply at earning some brownie points. Understandably nevertheless, it is not easy task to bring together mutually a contentious P5 to speak the same language. This perhaps calls for exploring possible reasons that can make it potentially both timely and highly reassuring.

First and foremost, of the nine nations – the P5 plus India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan that are known to possess nuclear arsenals – the P5 currently possess more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons of the P5 also remain the most widely deployed around the world and the most versatile and advanced, while the nuclear weapons of the other four remain relatively rudimentary and confined to defending their national assets.

Even within the P5, just Russia and the United States possess 11,857 of the group’s total 12,722 nuclear warheads, with the other four accounting for an estimated additional 460.  Just this week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in a globally published op-ed, warned of “worrying times” where the “nuclear landscape is a tinderbox” that one “accident or miscalculation could set it alight.” In this context, even lip service to disarmament promisees to be productive.

Second, the P5 statement also is part of their historic commitments that were written in black and while under the NPT, which constitutes the axis of the most powerful nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is the NPT that has ensured that in last 50 years only four additional nations could develop nuclear weapons, whereas more than a dozen declared and aspirant states were either denied or disarmed by the P5 using a combination of coercion and incentive strategies. 

The NPT was created as a social contract between the P5 NWSs and the rest of the world – which chose to become non-nuclear weapon states (NNWSs). This brilliant bargain was premised on the P5 ensuring non-proliferation of nuclear weapons by, first, facilitating the NNWSs’ easy access to all nuclear technologies for peaceful uses and, second, pursuing in good faith nuclear disarmament negotiations among themselves.

Though much delayed, this P5 statement reflects their consciousness about their historic commitment being alive, if not kicking.

The statement’s immediate geopolitical context can be seen as the third reason to see promise. This explains both its timing and perhaps its potential to be effective. 

The last two years have seen P5 leadership failing to host the 10th review conference to commemorate 50 years of the NPT. This was originally scheduled for April 2020 and has been postponed multiple times, including this week. Given these last two years of pandemic, it is now scheduled for August 2022. 

Ukraine crisis

Moreover, the last six months have seen Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin exchanging warnings around the escalating Ukrainian crisis. In face of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s three decades of continued eastward expansion and decade-long efforts at co-opting Ukraine, Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine from three sides.

Many year-end commentaries last week on the dangers for 2022 placed the Ukraine crisis at the top of their list. And now, starting this Sunday, the coming week will see Russian delegations interacting with the US and its allies in their Strategic Dialogue, Russia-NATO Council and OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) meetings respectively in Vienna, Geneva and Brussels.

In this context, this Joint Statement promises to create some positive synergy for these meetings to stay focused on resolving the Ukraine crisis.

But is this P5 Joint Statement likely to lead to any groundbreaking outcomes beyond creating short-term atmospherics to negotiate peace or, even less, just buy time to negotiate peace?

It is important to understand that the nuclear disarmament efforts of the last 70 years have not been an easy journey. Expecting the P5 to put the nuclear genie back into bottle is bound to be a futile exercise.

It is important to appreciate that the focus has to be on the two big nuclear sheriffs – the United States and Russia. They have managed bilaterally to reduce their nuclear arsenals from 70,000-plus in 1986 to 11,857 in 2021, with their actual deployed warheads being even fewer, at 3,810.

But it is also true that even these remain far too many, able to destroy our planet several times over. So while appreciating their efforts so far, this P5 Joint Statement reflects the need for one more reawakening, that eliminating nuclear weapons is the only real survival strategy for humankind.

The first Meeting of State Parties of TPNW will be taking place in Vienna next week.  Perhaps the P5, in order to be effective in eliminating nuclear weapons, should be listening to what they say.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.