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Commentary | 23 November 2020

Getting P5 strategic risk reduction right: What NATO non-nuclear-weapon states seek from nuclear-weapon states

Image of Maximilian Hoell

Maximilian Hoell |Postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Global Security Research

NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction Global Security

Substantive new strategic risk reduction measures are an important means of improving strategic stability if they lower the dangers of the unintended use of nuclear weapons. The five nuclear-weapon states recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States; the P5) also regard such steps as genuine progress toward the fulfilment of their nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states outside of military alliances with nuclear-weapon states, such as the states of the Non-Aligned Movement, perceive strategic risk reduction as a modest contribution to nuclear disarmament. To be sure, they, too, would like to see nuclear risks reduced but they are concerned that nuclear-weapon states may emphasise strategic risk reduction as a way of deflecting pressure from reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons.

Allies of nuclear-weapon states, such as NATO’s 27 non-nuclear-weapon states, tend to sit between these two positions. For them, P5 strategic risk reduction brings the potential for viable interim measures to facilitate further nuclear reductions in the future. However, some NATO non-nuclear-weapon states, including Poland and other Central and Eastern European allies, are concerned that nuclear allies may go too far and adopt measures that could undermine the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Others, such as Germany, would like to see the P5 being more proactive on risk reduction. NATO collectively has stated that it remains committed to promoting predictability and transparency, seeks to reduce risks and has ‘call[ed] on Russia to do so as well’.

Generally speaking, NATO non-nuclear-weapon states would therefore support the ‘regular, sustained, and open-ended dialogue on strategic risk reduction’ among the P5 to ‘improve global strategic stability and create a constructive working environment for the next NPT review conference’, that Thomson, Svilanović, and Üzümcü called for in a recent commentary. After all, a P5 working group to reduce the risk of unintended nuclear war could indicate that the P5 are willing to dedicate substantial diplomatic resources to this issue.

But to ensure that P5 strategic risk reduction measures actually ‘improve global strategic stability and create a constructive working environment for the next NPT review conference’, as Thomson, Svilanović, and Üzümcü suggest, the P5 need to get strategic risk reduction right. From the perspective of NATO non-nuclear-weapons states, there are two specific dimensions along which the P5 can, and should, demonstrate a willingness to engage beyond merely talking among themselves.

Actions speak louder than words

First, many NATO non-nuclear-weapon states would like to see concrete P5 measures to reduce the risks of a nuclear exchange on European soil. For example, at the February 2020 Berlin ministerial meeting, the states of the Stockholm Initiative, which include the NATO non-nuclear-weapon states of Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain, have called upon the P5 to ‘take practical measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security and defence policies’. Similarly, at the First Committee of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, 25 NATO non-nuclear-weapon states advocated ‘an inclusive dialogue on nuclear doctrines and measures aimed at nuclear risk reduction’ as a means of ‘advanc[ing] nuclear disarmament in practical terms.’

These pleas by NATO non-nuclear-weapon states to reduce the role of nuclear weapons come in the context of a heightened risk of nuclear war. Over the past decade, all P5 states have modernised their nuclear arsenals instead of delivering further nuclear reductions, and some P5 states have lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use by contemplating the employment of low-yield nuclear weapons early on in a conventional conflict. If Russia-West tensions escalate, Europe could become the theatre of an accidental or intentional nuclear exchange.

Another important element fuelling the risk of nuclear use has been the near-total erosion of arms control. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has collapsed. While US president-elect Biden has indicated his interest in extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New Start) and in re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the future of these important legal barriers to untamed nuclear programmes remains uncertain at the time of writing.

In light of these developments, the establishment of a P5 strategic risk reduction working group at the tenth NPT review conference would be a useful basis to foster a dialogue on specific steps to lower the dangers of the unintended use of nuclear weapons.

But from the perspective of NATO’s European non-nuclear-weapon states, which are situated between the nuclear arsenals of the two largest possessor states, the P5 must also deliver concrete measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons during the next review cycle.

Specific actions that the P5 could consider to this end include inter alia transparency and confidence-building measures, such as de-targeting and de-alerting, which increase the threshold to use nuclear weapons. These steps would not only reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange and therefore strengthen strategic stability, but they could feed into wider efforts to reduce tensions among the P5 and, ultimately, facilitate further nuclear reductions.

Toward P5 risk reduction accountability

Second, for a P5 strategic risk reduction dialogue to earn recognition as a serious vehicle for producing stepping stones to further nuclear reductions, the P5 would need to be receptive to non-nuclear-weapon state interest in engaging with the P5 on this issue in a structured conversation.

In this respect, NATO non-nuclear-weapon states are in a bind. They have privileged access to the majority of the P5 through NATO consultative bodies, which include the United Kingdom, the United States and, to a lesser degree, France. They value the opportunity to discuss NATO nuclear policies. But the current doctrines, confidentiality rules and an overarching desire for NATO coherence and harmony have so far constrained a concrete risk reduction agenda.

At the same time, some influential NATO non-nuclear weapons states have engaged in groups of like-minded states to pursue a more ambitious risk reduction agenda. The participants of the Stockholm Initiative have recently called upon ‘nuclear-weapon states and nuclear possessor states to engage in a structured dialogue to assess, minimize and address nuclear risks’ and urged nuclear-weapon states to ‘improve or establish crisis communication and protocol among each other, e.g. by hotlines and risk reduction centres.

While the P5 have at regular intervals de-briefed the states of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) on their P5 process deliberations, these briefings have fallen short of a structured exchange of views on specific issues.

One way for NATO non-nuclear-weapon states to reduce the frictions between the various conversations they entertain with nuclear-weapon states on risk reduction would be for the P5 to agree to a structured dialogue about strategic risk reduction with non-nuclear weapon states. Such a dialogue should set new standards of openness and responsiveness, such as regular meetings with groups like the Stockholm Initiative or the NPDI; public debriefings following such interactions; and standardised reporting by the P5 on the progress made on risk reduction. These steps would help the P5 to counter the oft-cited criticism of P5 opacity and foster a collaborative working environment for the NPT review process.

Getting P5 strategic risk reduction right: the role of NATO non-nuclear-weapon states

NATO non-nuclear-weapon states have an important role to play in working with the P5 on shaping their strategic risk reduction deliberations. While the P5 states must demonstrate a willingness to engage, NATO non-nuclear-weapon states can, and should, assume responsibility for pressing the P5 for substantive outcomes that go beyond the mere initiation of a working group.

To this end, NATO non-nuclear-weapon states should proactively seek a structured conversation with the P5 about strategic risk reduction. This conversation could help identify feasible and concrete P5 measures to lower the risk of nuclear use.

NATO non-nuclear-weapon states should also ensure that such a structured conversation between them and the P5 lays the foundation for a credible accountability framework that makes it easier for all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states parties to assess the P5’s progress on strategic risk reduction. Such an accountability framework would foster transparency and pave the way for the P5’s strategic risk reduction efforts to earn recognition from all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states parties as a promising stepping stone to nuclear reductions at a future date.

To get strategic risk reduction right, the P5 will need to work with interested non-nuclear-weapon states in a structured and transparent manner on concrete measures to lower the risk of nuclear use.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of the ELN’s members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.

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