On Monday, Russia, United States, China, UK and France came together to state that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The ‘Reagan Gorbachev principle’, as it has become known, may seem to be a fairly obvious truth. But this is the first time that these five nuclear weapons possessing nations have declared this statement together. What then is its significance, and how should the five nuclear powers follow this up?
The original joint declaration by Reagan and Gorbachev came about after the two leaders met for a fireside chat in Geneva in 1985. This meeting set in process a series of discussions between Russia and the US on nuclear arms reductions, which bore fruit with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987 and eventually the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991.
Most probably, the prime motivation for the declaration on Monday is the dwindling confidence in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the part of some non-nuclear weapons states. This has come about by the failure of the United States, Russia, China, UK and France to diminish the importance of nuclear weapons in their security strategies. This failure gives the impression that the five recognised nuclear states (N5) are not taking seriously their obligations under the NPT to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date”.
Today we are living in difficult and dangerous times and, consequently, reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use is more important than ever. International institutions and treaties are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. Russia is sending signals about further military action in Ukraine, and China is set on a collision course with the United States over Taiwan and claims to the South China Sea. China is developing its military and naval capacity at an unprecedented pace. Russia is developing new delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons including a long-range underwater torpedo while the US and the UK design and build new nuclear warheads.
Among the five, only China has declared that it will not use nuclear weapons in a first strike. The other four are all developing smaller nuclear warheads in order to provide a more ‘credible’ threat and refuse to promise that they will not use nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack.
Indeed, in the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review, the UK government even held out the notion that, in the future, our nuclear weapons could be used in an expanded role to deter an overwhelming cyber-attack on the UK. A peculiar irony of this statement is that it occurred in a paragraph that was intended to reassure non-nuclear states of the UK’s non-use of nuclear weapons against them. This illustrates a difficulty with declaratory statements on nuclear policy – they are too often contradictory. Last year the UK government announced that it would increase the stockpile of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260. Any attempt to reconcile that declaration with this week’s statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won” would have to rely on a logic that is so arcane, theoretical and tortuous it actually has no bearing in the real world.
Such theatrical Cold War postures were not lost on Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan when they got together for their evening fireside talk in Geneva in 1985. Neither President was fully confident that their administrations could be relied upon to give the type of measured advice that would avert a nuclear conflict. They were both committed to doing what they could to achieve nuclear disarmament. They both supported the elimination of nuclear weapons. Initially they believed that they could take their two nations a long way towards achieving that goal and it is sobering to acknowledge that sadly this ambition faltered. Even so, the restatement by the N5 of the Reagan Gorbachev principle while simultaneously opposing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is a further apparent contradiction. The TPNW is built upon important principles in international law that all five states support. In the spirit of Gorbachev and Reagan’s determination to make the world a safer place without nuclear weapons, should not the five nuclear weapons states engage more constructively with the TPNW and its supporters? Surely they could do so even if they regard its ultimate goal (and therefore its signing) as out of their reach at this moment.
This week’s declaration by the N5 is valuable and welcome. The NPT Review Conference (whenever it finally takes place) can be shored-up if the N5 undertake further work to demonstrate exactly what the Reagan Gorbachev principle means in 2022. As Reagan said in 1985 “Genuine confidence must be based on deeds, not just words. That is the criterion for the future.” A no first use declaration (or sole purpose statement) on the part of the each of the N5 states would be a logical follow-on and would give substance to the statement made on Monday.
We are under no illusions that working collaboratively on nuclear policy will be easy for the N5. The relations between China, the United States, Europe and Russia will remain tense over the coming years. Conventional forms of deterrence will continue to play a part in moderating and influencing state behaviour. But our governments must not allow progress in nuclear disarmament to be hijacked by the worsening tensions between them. Following through on the Reagan Gorbachev principle requires that the five recognised nuclear-armed states and their leaders look beyond short-term national interests and act on their global responsibility to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
 The statement was intended for the eve of the five-year Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference which was scheduled 4th to 28th January. Unfortunately it was announced last week that this meeting of 191 nations in New York has been postponed (for the third time) due to Covid.  This is in spite of a commitment to do so in the action plan coming out of the 2010 NPT Review Conference.  Principles of distinction and proportionality in International Humanitarian Law.