On 3 January 2022, the leaders of five nuclear-weapons States — the US, Russia, China, UK, and France, also known as the P5 — issued a joint statement on preventing a nuclear war and avoiding the ongoing global arms race.
The joint statement makes all the right noises. First, it considers the avoidance of war among the nuclear-weapons States and the reduction of strategic risks as its foremost responsibility. Second, for the first time, these nuclear powers have, in unison, affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. But in the same breath, they uphold the necessity of nuclear weapons for defensive purposes to deter aggression and prevent war.
Third, they reaffirm their commitment to Article VI of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Fourth, they commit themselves to strengthening national measures to prevent unauthorised or unintended use of nuclear weapons and avoid their usage. Lastly, and perhaps the most promising, is the underlining of the desire to create a secure environment that is more conducive for disarmament through the pursuit of constructive dialogues.
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Weapons for war and weapons for peace
All nine nuclear-weapons States, including those not recognised by the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea), are not in any position to give up nuclear weapons. On the contrary, they believe that these weapons have prevented the big wars and kept an uneasy peace that paradoxically harbours an existential threat to humanity should nuclear deterrence ever break down. The search for stability has, therefore, been the approach. But it requires political relations that create a strategic structure based on trust.
The contemporary international strategic structure has been described as being ‘Between Orders’, and its political ambience surcharged with distrust. The ongoing arms races are its symptoms. So, unless the security environment improves through dialogues between the parties concerned — it includes the non-nuclear weapons States (NNWS) — one cannot expect progress in winding down the current arms race.
Ironically, until a security environment based on trust is created, nuclear weapons are needed to keep the peace going. To expect that the P5 adhere to the NPT commitments, join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that they have at present boycotted, and engender strategic stability would tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.
Strategic stability requires adherence to the principle of the United Nations Charter that eschews the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State. Russia in Ukraine and China in Ladakh, South China Sea, and East Asia are presently blatant violators. The US, the UK, and France are no saints either, and their post-Second World War indulgences provide sufficient evidence. Instances of armed coercion involving nuclear powers or their allies — who are being provided extended deterrence — have to be substituted by constructive dialogues. This is precisely what the joint statement promises.
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Way to avoid criticism?
The timing of the statement, though, reveals more. First, the 10th Review Conference of the NPT was scheduled for January 2022 but had to be postponed at short notice for the third time due to Covid-19, and will now be held in August 2022. Second, the TPNW took effect in January 2021. The P5 nuclear powers, therefore, are expected to face greater criticism for inaction on their commitments towards disarmament made through the NPT seven decades ago.
In essence, the joint statement is a preemptive move to ward off criticism. It is hypocrisy feigning disarmament, and only strategic stability moves would make a difference when they know that a joint statement as such cannot positively affect the existing global security environment.
The hypocrisy is revealed by the gulf between the spoken word and their deeds. Deteriorating political relations between the major powers continue to drive an unbridled arms race that encompasses the search for capabilities in the nuclear, conventional, and sub-conventional domains. Yet, the P5 have found common ground to make efforts to shield themselves from the growing clamour from the non-nuclear weapons States (NNWS) for fulfilling their commitments under Article VI.
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Pitfalls must be realised
Having found common ground — albeit for not-so-noble reasons — the joint statement yet provides a ray of hope. One is that the wished-for aim can be realised if there is common acceptance of the dangers of the present path adopted by all the major powers. It is a path that promises the illusion of political victory defined through technological prowess embedded in the instruments of force. Such a realisation requires the acceptance that for power struggles in strategic relations, technology is contestable and eventually entails an action-reaction scenario that could amount to mutual suicide in the nuclear era.
The antidote to instability in the nuclear era is the restoration of mutual vulnerability. But this requires the establishment of trust and moving away from the fear of a surprise nuclear attack. It is now scientifically established that a successful surprise attack involving just close to a hundred nuclear weapons can result in a long-term climatic catastrophe for the entire humanity.
If all the nuclear powers have accepted that nuclear wars should not be fought, then a return to updated versions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies treaty could provide the brakes to arrest the arms race. Similar moves towards the No First Use principle can provide the space for de-alerting nuclear weapons and reducing risks that emanate from accidents and inadvertence.
Human dalliance with nuclear weapons may have kept a Third World War from erupting. To expect that such weapons can be expected to continue to play that role is imprudent. The danger that lurks in the structure of international relations inheres in the minds of the leaders who are all but human. To expect them to be normal and to surmise that they would be able to make rational decisions in an ambience of extreme danger that is integral to crises, is asking too much.
Risk-taking is what must be abjured, and that lies in human hands and certainly not in the nuclear weapons or the delivery systems that can easily slip beyond the control of the human agency.
While we can’t trust nuclear weapons to maintain peace, believing in human rationality to accomplish peace is the greater danger. A constructive dialogue as visualised in the joint statement must first accept both these realities. Actions that follow would be a space to watch. Actualities must change. Let us hope sanity gets the chance it deserves.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)