The P5 Process: is there still enough trust?

Graduate student
May 25, 2022

Since its foundation, the P5 Process has been facing challenges along the way. The geopolitical context is one of the key sources of those challenges because relations among the five nuclear-weapon states (P5) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – do not take place in a vacuum. Clearly, the current foreign and security policy context creates unprecedented obstacles for the format.

Bruno Russi, independent analyst, former Swiss Defence Attaché in Moscow, has shared his diplomatic experience with PIR Center – he has been working in the Swiss Ministry of Defence for more than 30 years. Bruno Russi believes that “these processes [such as the P5], in order to be successful, require a minimal amount of trust between the parties on different levels (politicians, diplomats, military, but also experts at the negotiating table). But at the moment there is precious little trust and when I look at the meetings of UNSC the P5 seem to be deadlocked in many questions, although there are overarching common interests, like nuclear arms control.” Indeed, the presence of minimal trust is a prerequisite for any negotiations or discussions. As for the P5 process, there is still a sufficient amount of trust despite all the deep disagreements among P5. In particular, it manifests itself in the non-proliferation area – in terms of “the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle”.

Amid the current tensions in Europe, rhetoric highlighting the risk of nuclear war is on the rise. To reduce fears, on May 2, 2022, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a regular briefing, “I would say that the Russians themselves have, over time, including as recently as last year, made clear that– a nuclear war could not be won. We agree with that. And that is important for every country to restate and every elected official to restate around the country here as well.” This statement was not only an attempt to “calm down” the international community, but it also reaffirmed the fundamental principle of the NPT regime. Until now, the Joint P5 Statement on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races dated January 3, 2022, demonstrates its efficiency and there are indications that this trend will continue. On May 6, 2022, Deputy Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Information and Press Department Alexei Zaitsev also said, “We had to refute repeatedly the insinuations about Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons during the special military operation in Ukraine. This is a deliberate lie. He also reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Furthermore, in Jen Psaki’s statement, there might also be a call for other states, besides P5, to join this “Reagan-Gorbachev Principle”. In a broader sense, such a step could be the contribution of non-nuclear states to the P5 nuclear arms-control efforts as the P5 reiterates that it underlines its “desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” As for potential non-nuclear states’ contribution, they could also be a driving force to offer the P5 an additional meeting on a nuclear risk reduction topic.

Moreover, even though the P5 is constrained by geopolitical circumstances, there should always be a channel for discussions on the expert level. Expert-level communication is paramount to making civil society’s voice heard in the P5 Process. After the PIR Center Midweek Brainstorming Session on the topic “Possible role of the P5 in strengthening strategic stability” Bruno Russi points out that “this expert-level discussion is very timely and pertinent. The overarching interest being to avoid nuclear escalation, it is very important that this specialist channel remains open.” With frozen political communication channels, it is expert dialogue that should be a bridge to the constant exchange of views. Another path to improving the P5 format work is isolating specific questions. Considering that questions discussed in the P5 format are intertwining, nuclear arms control might be sufficiently isolated from other ones, which are indeed “highly emotional.” There is a common understanding among P5 of the irreversibility of nuclear weapons. In fact, this irreversibility should be viewed as an axiom since there is no place for manipulating the risk of nuclear war. This “red line” should be out of reach on any level. To some point, isolating it means not doubting the avoidance of nuclear war. This task is arduous but still seems real. If the idea of isolating nuclear arms-control from other sensitive topics works, it can be tailored to other overarching issues, such as climate, the fight against terrorism, etc. notwithstanding the required great political will. 

Publicity, as Bruno Russi mentioned, is another factor potentially undermining mutual trust and necessary confidentiality. “Particularly – at times of ‘Twitter-diplomacy,’ where politicians, diplomats or military, etc. tweet their emotions and contradictory views, positions, or opinions through the world – it seems to be very difficult to build up a relationship of trust, which can carry the delegations through the negotiations. The minutest thing is immediately exposed to the public, everything can be scrutinized on the basis of a ‘zero-sum game,’ which undermines the confidentiality necessary for successful iterative negotiations. So e.g. if you tweet before the beginning of the negotiations that XYZ is non-negotiable, you restrict your own ‘freedom of action’ and thus jeopardize the entire process.” The P5 Process has been blamed for its “closed-door” policy and a lack of transparency, especially for non-nuclear-weapon states. The “closed-door” policy is one of the effective strategies of abstracting from any noise in order to maintain this process viably. Ideally, the very fruitful method might be a mutual agreement to not use social media before the results are on the table, although it is troublesome to implement due to, inter alia, a lack of trust. In reality, politicians have to weigh the balance between twittering in real-time format and risking a breakdown in the negotiating process.

Beyond all doubts, the P5 Process is currently facing a whole set of new difficulties. However, this format is the unique discussion platform for the permanent members of the UN Security Council. So far, it has proved its effectiveness on the whole. The best outcome of current tensions would be adherence to the principle that “a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought”.