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Commentary | 4 February 2015

The sustainability of the P5 process and expectations for London

Image of Rachel Staley

Rachel Staley |Program Manager for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)

NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Russia-West Relations Global Security

The United Kingdom will play host this week to the United States, France, China and Russia for a meeting of the “P5 Process”. This is the last meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon states (NWS) prior to the NPT Review Conference this April. These states have been meeting for five years and the pressure is on to demonstrate concrete evidence that a multilateral approach can achieve some progress in meeting disarmament obligations. But is the “P5 Process” sustainable, and if so, what should we realistically expect from the London meeting?

A speech by then UK Defence Secretary Des Browne in 2008 to the Conference on Disarmament called for a technical conference on verification of disarmament between the P5 nuclear weapon states, to be held before the 2010 NPT Review Conference. This suggestion was unprecedented: never before had these states carved out time or space to discuss their understanding of their disarmament obligations under the treaty. There were hopes that this forum could bridge misunderstandings and possibly create something innovative and effective to break the stalemate preventing progress on multilateral disarmament. The initiative was called the “P5 Process”, though it had nothing to do with the five countries’ status as the permanent five members of the UN Security Council. The focus was on a slow and patient construction of confidence and trust between technical and political communities that previously had limited contact. Wider transparency was not a priority.

Five “P5 Process” meetings have taken place (London 2009, Paris 2011, Washington 2012, Russian-hosted Geneva meeting in 2013, and Beijing 2014). Non-nuclear weapon states waited patiently for concrete evidence of progress that the group of NWS had promised at the end of the 2010 Review Conference. The NWS focused their efforts on the implementation of the 2010 Action Plan, more specifically working on disarmament verification, a glossary of disarmament-related terms, terms of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and building transparency through a common reporting framework. Results of these efforts have not been impressive to anyone but those directly involved. For example the reporting framework, presented at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting, did not even include specific data-reporting requirements.

It is important, however, not to underestimate the challenges involved in this process. The “P5 process” negotiators have to deal simultaneously with increasing strategic competition and declining levels of trust between some of the states involved, domestic opposition to moves that appear to weaken deterrence, and major systemic and technical challenges that arise in any type of serious multilateral disarmament process. It is not at all clear how multilateral disarmament could be achieved in any case, beyond measures that build confidence or attempt to solve specific technical challenges to verifying disarmament. While few would object to multilateral disarmament in principle, achieving progress in practice proves problematic.

Moreover, the fallout from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has ruptured relationships with Western nations, sending NATO members into a tailspin. The Russian President and the Duma in Moscow appear in no mood for compromise on nuclear matters. The US Congress also seems unwilling to engage.

Meanwhile, the pressure on NWS increased more generally in terms of sustaining the NPT, widely regarded as a cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. Many non-nuclear weapon states are fed-up with the inequality between the “have” and the “have-nots”, with the nuclear weapon states showing little willingness to fulfil their disarmament obligations. Some analysts are suggesting that 2015 could become a make or break moment for the NPT and there exists a possibility that some states may commence a parallel process to conclude a treaty that bans nuclear weapons.

Despite tensions between Russia and Western P5 members, the “P5 Process” itself seems sustainable, at least for now. Such technical processes have been relatively insulated from broader strategic complexities, and there remains an interest among the Five in exploring progress and showing constructive spirit on the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. A new structure may bring about much needed momentum to the meetings: as host to this year’s meeting, the UK has invited a handful of non-nuclear weapon states to observe some of the proceedings in the hope of demonstrating a greater level of openness and showing to them the level of difficulty faced by the NWS. Having a small non-nuclear audience may also focus NWS minds on the need to deliver tangible results.

As an outcome of this week’s P5 meeting, we should expect a joint statement that includes such elements as reconfirmation of support for the NPT, the 2010 Action Plan, the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the implementation of the CTBT, and revitalisation of the Conference on Disarmament. It is likely to announce progress on the glossary of terms, and note further exchanges of views on the P5 nuclear postures. But it is usually at this point in reading such vague joint statements that the disappointed non-nuclear weapon states begin to question: what steps were actually taken to address these issues? What was really discussed and to what conclusions?

Therefore, as this year’s meeting takes place prior to the highly anticipated NPT Review Conference, the five NWS states should aim to express themselves more clearly. A detailed report on progress within the “P5 Process” would be welcomed, along with an explicit appeal for patience until further disarmament-related steps can be taken. NWS should also aim to declare their intent to push multilateralism to a place where it can actually deliver results on the disarmament agenda: this might mean more inclusive P5 Process meetings with more non-nuclear observer states to help drive the process, or the involvement of other nuclear armed states that are not party to the NPT. Separate national statements outlining their visions for progress could serve to reiterate individual state commitment to success for the multilateral process.

The “P5 Process” meeting is not likely to garner attention of national headlines, but as it is likely to set the tone for the April’s NPT Review Conference, it is one of the most important multilateral nuclear meetings this year. There is a widening gulf between the international community’s expectations and the ability of NWS to deliver, as they work under constraints of their own national security agendas. If there is no progress in London or soon afterwards, there is a threat that these meetings could gradually sink into redundancy and irrelevance.


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