Glossing things over: The London ‘P5’ joint statement


Despite a tense political and strategic environment, the ‘P5’ remains committed to joint efforts to strengthen the NPT—by means of a glossary.

By John Borrie

In one of the great ironies of nuclear diplomacy, the nuclear weapons that five states developed in the opening stages of the Cold War—in some cases to brandish at each other—are the grounds for them to belong to a self-identified club despite their strategic rivalries. On 6 February 2015, the United Kingdom, as host of the sixth meeting of the five nuclear weapon-states (the others being China, France, Russian Federation and the United States), duly issued the group’s latest joint statement after what one can easily imagine was a rather gloomy and even surreal gathering.

The ‘P5 process’ was an idea initially put forward by British Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, in February 2008 at the Conference on Disarmament. The first meeting took place in London in September 2009, and since then it has rotated annually between the five. In Browne’s own words, written in 2013,

“It is currently operating with a moderate level of ambition […] But the P-5 dialogue could still be much more ambitious.”

Browne’s observation is difficult to deny. ‘P5’ dialogue has not—to date—resulted in any breakthroughs in terms of either implementing the commitments made at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, or in achieving other, fresh new steps in nuclear disarmament. In fact, the reverse is true. All of the five have continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals. Russia-‘P3’ (Britain, France and the United States) nuclear deterrence rhetoric that was already pretty firm in tone hardened further as the Russia-Ukraine crisis has unfolded, and Washington alleges that Moscow is in non-compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. In a rapidly cooling atmosphere, Russia has ended some of the cooperative nuclear threat reduction measures it undertook in partnership with the United States since the 1990s, while ministers of NATO countries have signalled disquiet about what they see as alarming changes in Moscow’s nuclear posture.

Serious and alarming stuff one would think—precisely the sort of thing the ‘P5’ process could and should engage with, at the very least to reassure a concerned world. In fact, none of the issues mentioned above are talked about in the ‘P5’ joint statement. Now, one could say that of course that’s the way diplomacy works: conference communiqués aren’t always meant to lift the curtain and show a glimpse of what lies behind. Sometimes they are the curtain—large and dusty means of obscuring unseemly reality.

Based on a close reading of the latest ‘P5’ joint statement text, it would indeed appear to fit into the latter category. Yet it’s nevertheless a telling document, perhaps nowhere more so than in its final sentence where it states that the five NPT nuclear-weapon states

“looked forward to a consensual, balanced outcome to the 2015 Review Conference, which would do much to enhance the P5’s continuing efforts to strengthen the NPT.”

It’s interesting that the word “strengthen” is used here rather than “implement”. The prime frustration of much of the NPT’s membership is that so little progress has been made by the ‘P5’ in implementing the steps agreed in the 2010 NPT Action Plan on effective measures toward nuclear disarmament. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything that works better to consolidate a treaty regime than full implementation of its consensus agreements. Yet the joint statement confirms the impression that currently the ‘P5’ cupboard is largely bare on that score, whether in terms of the holding of a regional conference on a WMD zone in the Middle East, or fulfilment of the Action Plan’s nuclear disarmament-related steps.

The ‘P5’ joint statement did report progress on one matter. It was for a first draft of a jointly developed “Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms” it said they hoped to “release” for the 2015 NPT review meeting. That’s welcome, but defining terminology alone is not likely to satisfy the world’s expectations for effective measures for nuclear disarmament.

And it’s sure to be widely noted that the tone the language strikes is of a “leave it to us, the ‘P-5’” as if the NPT is a treaty they alone own or hold special claim to, and that other contributions are not welcome, thank you very much.

This was very much the case with the United Nations Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) to discuss how to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations. As some readers will recall, this body met in 2013 after being set up by a General Assembly resolution the ‘P5’ voted against and then refused to attend. And, in March 2013, the ‘P5’ jointly demarched Norway to explain why they had shunned the Oslo conference on humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, but in which 128 other countries (including nuclear-armed India and Pakistan) participated. The reason? Humanitarian-inspired initiatives undermined the NPT and the step-by-step approach, the ‘P5’ said (for the full-text, go to pp. 98-9 here).

In this respect, given the degree to which these two initiatives were squarely in the sights of the ‘P5’ their London joint statement mentions neither the OEWG, nor the humanitarian initiative—not even the Vienna conference in December 2014 that 158 countries (including the United States and the United Kingdom) attended. The closest the ‘P5’ came was to “reiterate their shared understanding about the severe consequences of nuclear weapon use and underlined their resolve to prevent such an occurrence from happening.” Well, that’s a relief, then in view of the general lack of transparency of the five about their recent nuclear weapon safety records—set against a continual drip feed of reports of nuclear weapons lapses, accidents, and close calls (at least, the ones the world knows about). These are also not matters addressed in the joint statement.

Writing in the lead-up to the ‘P5’ meeting, Paul Ingram of BASIC wrote that unfortunately, by 2012, the ‘P5’ process had turned its members into a “cabal” of nuclear-weapon states “maintaining external unity in the face of initiatives from the rest of the international community to find progress in parallel tracks”—the “British attempt to spark multilateral nuclear disarmament” that has run its course. If its latest joint statement is anything to go by, the P5 are in dire need of precisely the fresh thinking they have been resisting to date if they want—as I do, unequivocally—for the aims of the NPT to be fully achieved.

Or, maybe I do the ‘P5’ a disservice. Perhaps their delegations will come to the upcoming NPT Review Conference and pull the proverbial rabbit from the ‘P5’ hat on effective measures for nuclear disarmament? If they don’t, will someone else?

This entry was posted in NPT. Last updated May 31, 2017.