To ring in 2022, the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, also known at P5 – have promised that they will do so. to the best of their ability to avoid nuclear war.
It should be good news that five great nuclear powers have reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” But, with the rise in international temperatures in Ukraine and elsewhere, this engagement seems worrying rather than reassuring, a reminder that, without diplomacy and action, war between nuclear powers remains a growing risk.
The good news is that humanity has already gotten out of this mess, so we know there is much more that the world’s nuclear powers can and do. must do to reduce nuclear risks. The dangers we face today are no excuse for inaction.
Europe on the brink of war
At the time of the publication of the P5 statement, around 100,000 Russian troops had gathered on the Ukrainian border with everything needed to support an invasion, from armored vehicles to field hospitals. Ukraine is preparing for war – in fact, has summer at war since 2014, when Russia first invaded the eastern part of the country and occupied Crimea. The United States tells its allies that a new Russian invasion of Ukraine may be imminent; the United States and other NATO members have pledged to respond to further Russian aggression in Ukraine, warning Russia of the consequences of such an act. The head of the British armed forces said if Russia struck at the heart of Ukraine it would mean violence “on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II”.
A conventional war in Ukraine would be devastating. It also risks escalating towards the use of weapons of mass destruction. Whether to stoke nationalist anger or to justify future military actions, Russia’s defense minister has started to make unsubstantiated accusations that the United States is preparing to use chemical weapons against Russian troops in the war. eastern Ukraine. The noise of the nuclear saber has also started: in the last weeks of 2021, Russia sent nuclear-capable bombers to patrol the skies of Belarus.
Unfortunately, the situation in Ukraine is not the only source of tension between the nuclear powers. Nuclear weapon states – including the United States – are increasing rather than decreasing their nuclear capabilities. China is paving the way for a major expansion in the size and diversity of its nuclear forces. Although the Chinese arsenal is still much smaller than the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia and will remain so for the foreseeable future, fears about the activities of American adversaries are being used to support astronomical spending on nuclear weapons in the United States. United States as well. . In his first budget request, President Biden called for more money for nuclear weapons than his predecessor despite Biden’s campaign promises to reduce the United States’ dependence on nuclear weapons.
Statement is an inadequate offer for a struggling NPT conference
The statement on the importance of preventing nuclear war was unrelated to the escalating crisis in Ukraine; the timing was a coincidence. Even a brief statement from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council often requires months of diplomatic engagement. This particular statement was designed to be an offer for the (now postponed) review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the most important international treaty to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The NPT is based on a large market: the non-nuclear-weapon states agree that they will not continue to use nuclear weapons, and the five recognized nuclear-weapon States agree to continue “good nuclear disarmament”. faith ”while sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear technologies. Every five years, the NPT Review Conference provides a vital global forum for the 191 member states to assess progress towards disarmament and plan actions to make the world a safer place from nuclear conflicts. Unfortunately, the last review conference did not result in a consensus agreement and the 2020 conference has been repeatedly delayed due to the ongoing global pandemic.
There is little reason to hope for a better outcome for the next NPT review conference when it finally takes place. Since 2015, little significant progress has been made on disarmament – in fact, the world appears to be moving in the opposite direction towards a new arms race. There is a new source of conflict between nuclear weapon states and many non-nuclear weapon states over the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, aka the Nuclear Ban Treaty. The nuclear ban treaty entered into force in January 2021 but was boycotted by all nuclear powers. It remains to be seen how the issue of the nuclear ban treaty will be approached under the NPT.
In the context of the challenges facing the NPT regime, the P5 declaration is a disappointing offer. It outlines no path to progress, and offers little to those who fear the actions of nuclear powers will bring the world closer to nuclear war, and no more.
A dangerous world needs more disarmament, not less
Nuclear-weapon states have explained their opposition to the nuclear ban treaty by asserting that a comprehensive disarmament effort fails “”[take] account of the international security environment. Echoing this language, the North Atlantic Council has repeatedly stated that the nuclear ban treaty “does not reflect the increasingly difficult international security environment”. When nuclear powers are pressed to explain why they have made so little progress in their obligation to continue nuclear disarmament, they will undoubtedly cite the deteriorating global security environment.
But the dangerous security environment we live in today makes nuclear disarmament more urgent, not less. The greatest achievements in non-proliferation diplomacy and disarmament occurred during the Cold War and required close cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union; treaties like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were propelled by the Cuban Missile Crisis; arms control agreements limited the nuclear arms race to its peak; the Reagan-Gorbathav principle reaffirmed in the P5 declaration was first enunciated in 1986, after one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War.
It is welcome that the P5s agree that nuclear war must be prevented. But the declaration is nonetheless disturbing for what it does not contain: a response to the spiral of global conflicts that could lead to nuclear war; any way out of the ongoing nuclear arms race; any action likely to bring the world closer to nuclear disarmament. Ultimately, the only way to prevent nuclear war is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Words, no matter how well intended, are not enough to prevent disaster. What the world needs is action.