The P5 pledge to avoid nuclear war should be celebrated

The January 3 statement should be seen as a very small, but still important, step in the right direction.

Activists holding a banner that reads "abolition" are seen during protest against nuclear weapons
Activists of Nuclear Disarmament Group ICAN take part during a vigil against Nuclear Weapons at the St Michel square on June 19, 2019, in Paris,France [Paulo Amorim/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

On January 3, leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, collectively known as P5) issued a joint statement on “preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races”.

The statement, which came after the third COVID-19 related postponement of the much-anticipated 10th Review Conference (RevCon) of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), was significant for several reasons.

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the leaders agreed in the statement, echoing a landmark declaration by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1985 summit in Geneva. The US, Russia and China had already reaffirmed the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration on various occasions in recent years. The UK and France, however, arguing that affirming the pledge could undermine the deterrence value of their nuclear arsenal, have long resisted doing so. France, which has a nuclear doctrine under which it reserves the right to use tactical nuclear weapons against aggressors as a “final warning”, was especially resistant. Thus, France and the UK agreeing to the inclusion of this pledge in the joint statement was a major development.

In the statement, the five leaders also listed nuclear risk reduction as one of their “foremost responsibilities”. This was likely in response to the efforts of the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament, which was launched in 2019 by 16 non-nuclear-weapon states with the aim of promoting “a successful outcome of the 10th Review Conference of the NPT through building political support for a pragmatic and result-oriented nuclear disarmament agenda”.

In 2020, to mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT, members of the Stockholm Initiative adopted a set of proposals or “stepping stones” that aim to minimise the risk of nuclear weapon use, mainly through declaratory commitments. On January 3, the five nuclear states fulfilled this requirement by including a solid commitment to “nuclear war avoidance” in their joint statement.

In the statement, nuclear weapon countries also announced their desire “to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament”, thereby reinstating their support for the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative introduced by the US in 2018. The reaffirmation of the CEND is important because it involves nuclear weapons possessing countries that are outside the NPT, and thus is much more inclusive. Moreover, it allows for engagement in informal settings and leaves space for flexible debates, unlike NPT RevCons which require lengthy preparations and allow only for rigid, formal discussions. It is, however, important to note that the CEND initiative has received criticism from various quarters as an attempt to deflect attention from nuclear weapon states’ failure to move forward on their disarmament pledges. The initiative has also brought to the surface longstanding tensions between deterrence advocates who prioritise stabilisation of relations between nuclear-weapon states, and proponents of disarmament who push for reduction of nuclear arsenals.

All in all, the January 3 joint statement hit all the right notes at the declaratory level, and served its purpose by slightly easing tensions about the rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Russia on the one hand and the US and China on the other. However, despite all its positive aspects, the statement is unlikely to reverse the continuous negative trajectory of global non-proliferation on the ground.

Indeed, nuclear force modernisation plans of all five nuclear-weapon states are moving forward unabated. Instead of slashing nuclear weapon spending, the Biden administration is planning to spend a whopping $634bn on operating, sustaining and modernising the US nuclear arsenal between 2021 and 2030. Likewise, China is continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal and moving towards building a strong “nuclear triad” – a three-pronged military force structure that includes land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Beijing is known to be testing modern weapons systems such as the hypersonic glide vehicle and has reportedly also begun constructing hundreds of new ballistic missile silos across the country. On January 4, just one day after the issuance of the joint statement, China said it will continue to “modernise” its nuclear arsenal and called on the US and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of all warheads in the world, to reduce their nuclear arsenals instead. The September 2021 AUKUS security pact between the US, the UK and Australia, as part of which the Australian military will acquire nuclear-powered submarines, has also set a troubling precedent for the future of the non-proliferation regime.

The joint statement by the five nuclear-weapon states also did not give any signs that important steps towards nuclear disarmament may be taken in the near future. Many important initiatives that could help the world move towards disarmament, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), have not even been mentioned in the joint statement. All this indicates that at least for now, the focus of nuclear-weapon states is restricted to risk reduction measures, and that there is no real appetite for direct disarmament discussions.

The nuclear-weapons states’ lack of appetite for disarmament had already come in to sharp focus when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which seeks a comprehensive and unambiguous ban on the development and possession of nuclear weapons, entered into force in January 2021. None of the nuclear-weapons states supports the agreement. Many of the non-nuclear-armed members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) including Germany, along with states like Australia and Japan, also do not support the agreement, because despite supporting non-proliferation in theory, they believe the US nuclear arsenal enhances their overall security.

There are many other signs that the future of nuclear non-proliferation is in peril. The recent failures of the NPT, including its members’ inability to adopt a common set of recommendations for the 2020 RevCon at the 2019 PrepCom, the demise of important arms control agreements such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, and growing tensions between the US and Russia, as well as the US and China have left many advocates of nuclear disarmament without much hope for the future.

In this context, the January 3 statement should perhaps be seen as a very small, but still important, step in the right direction. There is no indication that there will be any significant changes in the status quo in the near future. But, with this statement, five of the world’s most powerful nations came together for the first time in a pledge to avoid nuclear, and this should still be celebrated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.