How the P5 worked together to protect their interests at the NPT Review Conference

More from Wikileaks about the power-play between the permanent five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council before the Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference earlier this year.

At the end of September 2009 the UK government hosted a conference for the P5 to discuss confidence building measures towards nuclear disarmament.  The conference was attended by Ellen  Tauscher, the USA's Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, and other high level government representatives with an arms control brief.  Wikileaks has published diplomatic cables minuting meetings that Under Secretary Tauscher had on the conference fringe with David Miliband, the then UK Foreign Secretary, and with French, Russian, and Chinese Foreign Ministers.

The leaked cables reveal that during these meetings the P5 members agreed to work closely together at the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held in New York in May 2010 – and the P3 (NATO members France, the UK, and the USA) were particularly keen to co-ordinate their efforts at the conference.    Significant elements of this dialogue were aimed at protecting the interests of the Five and deflecting criticism of past failures to take disarmament seriously.

France's hostility to progress on nuclear disarmament at the conference is clearly shown by the diplomatic cables.  Patrick Maisonnave, the French Director for Strategic Affairs, insisted that there must be nothing in the final text of the NPT conference resolution that would weaken deterrence.  Maisonnave emphasised that the conference should seek a “balanced result” and wanted the text of the Summit’s resolution to put the issue of nuclear nonproliferation in a broader context. He suggested a short sentence asserting that “we need to make progress on other forms of disarmament”.  Overall, these steps would help distract attention away from the nuclear weapons programmes of the P5 nations.  

Maisonnave was especially keen to encourage close co-ordination between the P3, and Under Secretary Tauscher agreed that the P3 needed to “stick together”, and use frequent telephone calls to remain in contact during the Review Conference.

British civil servants were concerned that P5 states were “losing the public diplomacy arguments about nonproliferation” and civil nuclear power, with the P3 and the P5 “being portrayed as the bad guy”, and complained that that there is “no real recognition” of what the UK has done in terms of nonproliferation and disarmament, “either in our own media or worldwide.”

Nevertheless, Cabinet Office representative Simon McDonald admitted that for the lastforty years the nuclear states had downplayed their obligations to spread civil nuclear power and to disarm, although President Obama’s leadership on arms control presented an opportunity to change this.  

The civil servants said that UK’s goal for the NPT Review Conference was for the P5 to work well together but “not scare the horses,” which meant “not scaring off the French” and “keeping the Chinese and Russians on board”; indeed, one of the UK's aims in hosting the P5 conference was to help cement P5 unity.  They stated that the French were uncomfortable with the UK's commitment to disarmament; were “excessively worried about what they view as unilateral UK disarmament”; and felt that the UK and US were “starting a (public) debate that is not there” by publicly addressing issues of nuclear disarmament.

The Chinese and Russians shared the view that the P5 should work together at the Review Conference.  Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the P5 needed to “stand together” and unite, since the P5 countries were a “target” for non-nuclear weapon states as a result of foot-dragging in meeting their commitments towards nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT.

Conferences which bring together P5 members to discuss nuclear disarmament are potentially very valuable tools in the arms control process, and the September 2009 P5 conference in London was rightly hailed as a positive move by the UK government hosts.

However, the conferences will cease to serve a useful purpose if their main aim is to give the P5 an opportunity to square their stories and agree how to resist disarmament demands from the rest of the world.

A second P5 conference is scheduled to take place in Paris in Spring 2011.  All participants must ensure that the focus on the conference is on taking forward the disarmament agenda which was agreed at the NPT Review Conference, and put aside any partisan interests.

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