New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The P5, the “N5,” and the NPT Review Conference


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at Wiston House, Wilton Park, UK, on December 16, 2019.  They may also be found on the website of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good afternoon, and thank you as always to Mark Smith and the good people at Wilton Park for having us all here for another nonproliferation conference.

Our topic for this panel is the so-called “P5 Process” and its potential contributions to the upcoming Review Conference (RevCon) of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). I’m glad to have this chance to speak on this, since I do think that the P5 can play a constructive role, but I also think there can be pitfalls in how one approaches this.

I hope to do three things today in this talk: I will talk a little bit about terminology because I’m afraid we are confusing concepts by trying to be too “generic.” Second, I’ll talk about the value of communication among the nuclear-weapon States and the potential for increased global security, and, finally, I’ll explore the idea of communication between nuclear-weapon States and non-nuclear-weapon States to create better conditions for stability.

I. A Note About Terminology

Before I ruminate on where the P5 process can take us I want to take a moment to examine the use of the term “P5” itself, as I wonder whether it might be useful to drop the use of the term “P5” in the NPT context. We are all probably too casual in our language in talking about the “P5.” Properly speaking, the term “P5” refers to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. I would submit that it isn’treally a good way to refer to the five countries that qualify as nuclear-weapon States (NWS) under Article IX(3) of the NPT by virtue of having “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.” For my part, I think of the five NPT nuclear-weapon States as the “N5,” rather than the “P5.”

Since the N5 nowadays happen to be the same five countries as the P5, most people just refer to these states as the “P5” without distinguishing these very different contexts, but I would discourage this. Formally speaking, these are different categories, and historically have not always been the same. After all, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was not recognized as the lawful representative of “China” in the United Nations — and therefore was not among the P5 — until 1971. Although it didn’t join the NPT until 1992, the PRC met the NPT’s Article IX(3) criteria — that is, those of the “N5” — from the outset, because it had tested a nuclear weapon in 1964. Moreover, the lawful representative of “China” in the United Nations before the change in 1971 was the government of the Republic of China, which had joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state (NNWS) in 1970, and was thus definitely not part of the N5.

I’m not just being pedantic, here. One potential risk of speaking too casually about the “P5” in an NPT context — that is, when one really means the N5 — is that a listener might conclude that having nuclear weapons is what earns one a permanent seat on the Security Council. That, of course, is not the case. (When the permanent membership of the Council was established in 1945, in fact, only one state had nuclear weapons.) Structurally, legally, and historically, the term “P5” does not denote nuclear-weapon States: the P5 countries are, instead, the leading powers — or now, in two cases, the successors of those powers — that came together to anchor the United Nations system in 1945 in order to stabilize, rebuild, and keep the peace in a world shattered by the horrific bloodletting of the Second World War.

For anyone who cares about nonproliferation and disarmament, therefore, confusing the ideas behind the categories of P5 and the N5 can be dangerous. To be part of the P5 is to be a state with a special role and responsibility in the system of global order, while to be part of the N5 is merely to be one of the countries that had manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon prior to January 1, 1967. Confusing these categories risks seeming — wrongly — to reify nuclear weapons possession as the ticket to some kind of special and laudable global status. Such confusion could have the unintended result of increasing the perceived incentive for non-possessors to acquire such weapons and of decreasing the incentives for current possessors to relinquish them. That’s why I think it may be better to speak about the “N5” rather than the “P5” when talking about NPT issues.

II. The N5 Process and Direct Arms Control Engagement

So – and mindful of the excellent work being done by our British hosts here at this conference in hosting this year’s meetings – let’s see where careful thinking about the “N5 Process” can take us.

First of all, let me manage expectations by urging you not to overestimate the N5 Process and its potential contributions to the NPT RevCon. To be sure, there are things the N5 is already planning to do that should be constructive. We are planning to hold a side event at the Conference, for instance, at which all five nuclear-weapon States will exchange perspectives and answer questions about how we think about nuclear weapons, doctrine, and disarmament issues. To the degree that the N5 can demonstrate that they are responsible stewards of the nuclear arsenals they possess — and that they are living up to their NPT Article VI obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament — I hope this will help improve the atmosphere for the RevCon by rebutting false narratives suggesting that all of the N5 are unserious about such things.

Nevertheless, except in the sense that it would be worrisome — and not conducive to a constructive NPT RevCon — were the N5 unable to talk to each other at all, I would urge you not to read too much into the mere fact of meetings occurring among the five. We do continue periodic meetings, and they do help us better understand each other’s positions and approaches. But meetings per se are just that: meetings. The name of the game should be to achieve substantive progress, which is a different question than just whether or not N5 diplomats are willing to get together in a room from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that we are still meeting. But I am resistant to holding meetings just in order to be able to say that we are doing so. Diplomacy among the N5 should be undertaken for reasons of statesmanship, to improve international peace and security, and not merely as a public relations exercise.

As I’ll explain in a moment, I do think some substantive progress is possible. That said, to the degree that it is currently difficult to make progress in N5 engagements, true statesmanship would involve admitting this and focusing upon why this is the case — rather than just pretending things are fine and holding meetings to paper over the existence of problems that need to be addressed.

Such honesty would seem particularly important to the degree that such problems actually stem from actions by one or more of the N5 states themselves. If you are alarmed by such things, you should want these problems expressly addressed and made the subject of corrective diplomacy.

And, unfortunately, there are a great many things to be alarmed about: Russia’s invasion and occupation of portions of two of its neighbors; the PRC’s huge military buildup, expansive maritime claims, and provocative conduct in the East Asian littoral; the Kremlin’s maintenance of an undeclared chemical weapons program and indeed its use of a military grade nerve agent in an attempted assassination in the UK and its failure to demonstrate whether it dismantled the biological weapons program it inherited from the Soviet Union; as well as Beijing’s dramatic expansion of its nuclear delivery systems and stockpile numbers and Moscow’s continuing deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons and development of destabilizing new strategic delivery systems, and the disturbing questions that have arisen about both countries’ adherence to the “zero-yield” nuclear weapons testing moratorium adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Especially in the context of a nonproliferation treaty that expressly aims to ease international tension and strengthen trust between states in order to facilitate nuclear disarmament, N5 meetings should not be used to obscure the degree to which such developments in the security environment increase regional proliferation pressures, make movement toward disarmament more challenging, and threaten to ignite a new arms race.

I would also caution against letting the N5 Process interfere with or distract from diplomatic initiatives that hold out the prospect of substantive progress in addressing such problems. From a U.S. perspective, our diplomatic priority right now is to engage with both Moscow and Beijing in order to stopsuch an arms race from emerging — specifically, through the development of a nuclear arms control agreement on a trilateral basis, to stop the dangerous expansions now underway, forestall an arms race, and give humankind a chance to negotiate further, toward a better and safer future.

Trilateral arms control for a new era that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past should be a vital objective for the entire arms control community in order to avert a potential new arms race. We want to engage directly with our Russian and Chinese counterparts in bilateral and ultimately trilateral talks on strategic security, nuclear posture and doctrine, and the role of nuclear weapons in our respective security postures, with an eye to setting in place measures to deliver real security results to our nations and the entire world.

In theory, N5 engagement before the NPT RevCon should not interfere with trilateral arms control efforts, and it could perhaps even contribute to their success. I sound a note of caution only to the extent that we should not let ongoing N5 meetings provide Russia and the PRC with excuses not to engage directly with the United States on these critical questions. We shouldn’t allow N5 meetings to be used as cover for avoiding the critical bilateral and trilateral engagement the world so desperately needs if we are to avoid a dangerous new arms race; the N5 Process must not provide Beijing and Moscow with an excuse for shirking their Article VI obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.

III. Don’t Forget “the Other Arms Race”

The NPT RevCon, of course, necessarily focuses principally upon issues relating to implementation of the Treaty by its Parties. Nevertheless, another cautionary note I would offer relates to the importance of not forgetting that the international security and nuclear disarmament challenges of the world are in no way restricted to problems among NPT Parties, much less merely among the N5 themselves.

Indeed, the N5 process conspicuously leaves out two major nuclear weapons possessors — India and Pakistan — who find themselves today in a dangerous arms race that presents perhaps the single most likely scenario for nuclear warfare in the world today.  Both are developing an ever-wider and more diverse range of potential delivery systems in ways that are likely to be notably destabilizing.  They have not applied the hard-won lessons of our Cold War mistakes, instead following paths that shrewd observers now understand to be dangerous and destabilizing — for instance, Pakistan’s development of short-range, forward-deployed nuclear weapons of the very sort that NATO by the early 1980s had come to understand were more likely to lead to uncontrollable escalation or loss of control than they were to contribute to stable deterrence.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s nuclear build-up continues to catalyze expansion of New Delhi’s delivery systems — and these dynamics, coupled with cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, are creating destabilizing ripple effects through the subcontinent.  (This points, by the way, to yet another benefit of trilateral arms control between the United States, Russia, and China: it has the potential to help reduce arms race pressures in the South Asian context, too.) We have also watched with concern as Pakistan and India engaged in military confrontation under the “nuclear umbrella” of their mutual deterrence, seemingly overconfident in both governments’ ability to manage escalation and avoid catastrophe.  Nothing about the South Asian nuclear situation is reassuring at the moment.

As we head toward the NPT RevCon, therefore, we should remember that the N5 Process, by definition, has little direct way to help address such “other-arms-race” problems. If a fixation upon exclusively N5 engagement distracts from such broader challenges, it could make things worse rather than better.

IV. A Constructive N5 Approach: Three Ideas

In light of these cautions, let me suggest three ways in which the N5 Process could — and, I would argue, should — contribute constructively to international peace and security in the months leading up to the NPT RevCon and beyond.

First, the N5 could endorse diplomatic efforts to find a future for nuclear arms control that averts a potential three-way arms race between Russia, China, and the United States. They could, moreover, endorse such engagement as a good way to help meet Article VI’s requirement to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

Second, the N5 could lend their support for broader engagement with other nuclear weapons possessors in order to end nuclear arms race dynamics elsewhere, too. This need not imply any conflation or commingling of the NPT and non-NPT worlds, nor any “legitimizing” of nuclear weapons possession by states that are not recognized as nuclear-weapon States by the NPT. It would simply be a commonsensical recognition that there are dangerous nuclear dynamics involving such states, and not just among the N5, and a call for diplomatic engagement to help reduce these dangers. The N5 states could even endorse the principle of their own collective, direct engagement with those NPT non-Parties that are engaged in a nuclear arms race — an initiative that could be approached on a “P5 + 2” basis rather than an “N5 + 2” basis, thus focusing upon the P5’s special role at the center of the international security system instead of upon the status of the N5 as early nuclear weapons possessors.

Third, the N5 could voice support for larger multilateral engagements that are already underway to bring countries together in exploring ways to ameliorate the various conditions in the international security environment that make progress on disarmament so frustratingly slow. Most obviously, since all five of the N5 states are already participating in the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative — which just last month held its first round of working group meetings — the N5 could endorse CEND and encourage all participants to continue their engagement in that process.

Despite my concerns and caveats, therefore, I do think there are important ways the N5 can act together — symbolically and diplomatically — that will help make the RevCon more productive and that will genuinely contribute to reducing nuclear dangers.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

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