In a joint pledge to reduce the risk of such a conflict initiation, five of the world’s most powerful nations agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The pledge was signed by the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. They are referred to as the P5 or the N5.
When Russia, China, and the West are increasingly at odds, such a stance on a significant subject of global security has become increasingly rare. With Moscow threatening to invade Ukraine and China declaring its willingness to use military force against Taiwan, the unified statement signals a devotion to avoiding a nuclear disaster. Despite the high-tension situation, a senior US State Department source claimed the statement’s wording had been thrashed out over several months at P5 meetings.
“At the base, level to be able to say that this is how we think about these risks, and this is an acknowledgment that it is something that we want to avoid, particularly during a difficult time, I think is noteworthy,” the official said.
The statement’s release had been scheduled to coincide with the NPT’s five-yearly review conference. Still, that event has been postponed due to the spread of the Omicron variety of Covid-19 and arguments over whether the session could be done online.
“We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the statement said, echoing a joint declaration by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1985 summit in Geneva.
The NPT was a pact between states who did not have nuclear weapons and agreed not to acquire them and the five nuclear-armed states that promised to disarm. The meeting, initially scheduled for 2020, was expected to be controversial due to the initiatives by the five weapons states to modernize their arsenals.
Four additional countries with nuclear weapons that are not a party to the NPT — Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – have shown no evidence of lowering their stockpiles. Meanwhile, the failure of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and the deadlock in efforts to rescue it have increased the risk of nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Middle East.
It took several months of debate over the declaration’s language before all five powers agreed. France, in particular, was concerned that such a statement would damage its arsenal’s deterrent effect.
“France has a nuclear doctrine reserving the right to use nuclear weapons as a “final warning” to warn off an aggressor or even a state sponsor of terrorism,” said Oliver Meier, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.
Meier stated that the UK’s misgivings were not as explicit, but he believed they were similar.
To satisfy French concerns, a phrase was added to the joint declaration stating that “nuclear weapons – for as long as they exist – should serve defensive goals, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
The five nuclear-weapons states also claimed that one of their “foremost responsibilities” was the “reduction of strategic risks,” ensuring that global tensions do not lead to nuclear conflict.
“We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament,” the statement said.
According to a senior US official, the declaration was the product of “a good and substantive and constructive conversation about how to reduce and eventually remove nuclear threats.”
“Given the security environment, I’m pretty shocked that the P5 could agree to this much,” Heather Williams, a senior lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London, said.
Williams and other nuclear specialists have advised nuclear weapon states to enhance their crisis communication channels as one method to reduce the chances of an accidental dispute escalating into a nuclear conflict.
Moreover, arms control activists applauded the announcement but demanded that a return to disarmament accompany it.
“With nine nuclear arsenals currently being enhanced, and Covid problems besetting nuclear-armed submarines and facilities, this statement from five of the nuclear-armed leaders is welcomed but does not go far enough,” said Rebecca Johnson, the vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
“As long as nuclear weapons continue to be advertised and wielded by some, we are all put at risk of nuclear war.”