Sometimes, short sentences carry a lot of weight. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This phrase was used repeatedly by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the final days of the Cold War, earning it the moniker “Reagan-Gorbachev statement,” but it was only recently used for the first time by the P5 — the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) — in a joint statement released on Jan. 3, 2022.
While the Reagan-Gorbachev language has received significant attention, it is but one sentence in a much longer statement. The most interesting and impactful aspect of the P5’s work, namely strategic risk reduction, has been largely overlooked. Ultimately, the Reagan-Gorbachev statement is unlikely to have any significant impact, but strategic risk reduction efforts could lead to the development of concrete measures to manage geopolitical crises and tensions.
GUARDRAILS OVER GESTURES
Reagan first used the phrase “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never fought” in a radio address on Apr. 17, 1982, but the phrase came to prominence following the 1985 Geneva summit. The summit did not yield any breakthroughs in arms control but did result in a joint statement by Reagan and Gorbachev agreeing to further dialogue. The Soviet and American leaders again used the phrase at the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. At the time it was seen as an important symbolic gesture toward détente and cooperation on arms control. Most recently it was repeated by Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin following the June 2021 summit in a joint statement on strategic stability.
While there is a Moscow-Beijing hotline, China is otherwise largely removed from crisis communication networks, despite efforts by the United States and others. Cooperation on risk reduction might provide a timely opportunity to increase channels for dialogue.
In recent years, there has been pressure for other countries to sign up to the Reagan-Gorbachev statement, particularly within the “P5 process,” because it could signal shared awareness of rising nuclear risks and pave the way for progress on arms control or contribute to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The “P5 process” was established in 2009 to provide a forum for the five NPT recognized nuclear possessors to discuss their shared responsibilities under the treaty and facilitate progress toward disarmament. The group meets annually with a rotating host, and the recent statement was released in anticipation of the NPT Review Conference, which typically occurs every five years, but has been repeatedly postponed.
While the recent P5 statement is a welcome development, it will not have the desired impact for at least three reasons. First, while the statement might have been a symbol of détente in tandem with arms control during the Cold War, today’s geopolitical landscape is very different given the buildup of both Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and the increase in China’s arsenal, and ongoing peer competition. Second, as a stand-alone, it will not reconcile differences over arms control, such as American concerns about Russia’s history of non-compliance, or induce China to join arms control agreements. Finally the P5’s use of the Reagan-Gorbachev statement will not improve prospects for a positive outcome at the NPT Review Conference. Critics of the P5 have already dismissed the statement and accused them of hypocrisy.
The Reagan-Gorbachev language, however, is just one sentence in a longer, and more interesting, P5 statement. In the statement’s opening sentence, the P5 recognize, “the reduction of strategic risks as our foremost responsibilities.” And the recent P5 statement itself is just one piece of a broader effort to reduce nuclear risks, which includes a December 2021 communique and a four-page working paper on strategic risk reduction. The December communique, for example, launched a pilot project to develop a Young Professional Network or P5 academics. The P5 statement and work on risk reduction should be seen as an important opportunity to develop new nuclear guardrails.
NEXT STEPS FOR PROGRESS ON RISK REDUCTION
Now that the Review Conference has been postponed, the P5 should focus on four specific steps to make progress on strategic risk reduction. First, the P5 should develop a catalog of existing risk reduction mechanisms in partnership with nongovernmental organizations and academia, which have conducted extensive research on these initiatives. Recent research on the evolution and application of hotlines, for example, could contribute to the P5’s thinking on how to expand existing risk reduction tools or develop new ones.
Second, the P5 should focus on threats from emerging technologies that could exacerbate misperceptions during a crisis. One option would be to develop a 21st-century version of the Incidents at Sea Agreement, such as the Incidents in Space Agreement, to establish rules of the road and procedures for avoiding misperceptions, such as an entanglement scenarios.
Third, the P5 should focus on ways to expand existing crisis communication channels. China is the only member of the P5 outside of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers network, so the P5 process can provide a forum for discussing the benefits of the network and how China might join. While there is a Moscow-Beijing hotline, China is otherwise largely removed from crisis communication networks, despite efforts by the United States and others. Given China’s leadership within the P5 process, cooperation on risk reduction might provide a timely opportunity to increase channels for dialogue.
Finally, the P5 should collaborate with other important initiatives on risk reduction, particularly the Stockholm Initiative, which released a working paper on risk reduction in spring 2021 calling for the P5 to, among other things, reduce “the risk of miscalculation or misperception and accidental use of nuclear weapons, including through the establishment and enhancement of hotlines building on robust and trusted crisis communication technology, joint data centers, military-to-military dialogue, and other cooperative measures.”
The P5 will face numerous challenges in pursuing this work on risk reduction. Indeed, risk reduction is one of five other agenda items for the P5, so managing the group’s capacity and prioritizing a limited number of initiatives will be important. Additionally, critics of the P5 will claim strategic risk reduction is just an excuse for lack of progress towards disarmament. The P5, therefore, should clarify if and how they see risk reduction as contributing towards their NPT disarmament obligations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the P5 process, like everything in the NPT, is at the mercy of geopolitics. It is impressive the P5 could agree to three important documents in the lead-up to the NPT Review Conference given rising geopolitical tensions. That cooperation should not be taken for granted and may prove to be short-lived, which makes the need for concrete risk reduction measures all the more urgent.
Heather Williams is a visiting fellow at Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and a senior lecturer at King’s College in London.