“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”- Ludwig Wittgenstein
The language we use affects the world as we interpret it. While many are all-too familiar with the "sticks and stones" of the nuclear world, less attention has been paid to the terminology around disarmament and nonproliferation.
In recent years, the term "P5" - that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - has become synonymous with nuclear weapons states ("NWS"), particularly when referencing the private meetings held between the five recognized nuclear powers to discuss their commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament (dubbed the "P5 conferences"). To indiscriminately refer to NWS as the P5 is both legally and historically inaccurate. Furthermore, and more importantly, it entrenches the widely held but dangerous linkage people make between the possession of nuclear weapons and global governance, which could be driving nuclear proliferation.
In his 2008 speech to the Conference on Disarmament, Des Browne, then-UK Defence Secretary and one of the co-chairs the BASIC Trident Commission, proposed the commencement of a "P5 conference" with the aim of engaging NWS in confidence-building measures and creating a pathway for greater cooperation on nonproliferation issues. This speech is considered to be the origin of the "P5 conferences" and possibly the first time the term P5 was substituted for NWS.
The term "P5 conference" quickly caught on and it has since been widely used to describe the private meetings between the NWS that have taken place in London, Paris, Washington and, most recently, Geneva. In addition, the P5 themselves have fully embraced this term, with respect to their nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, and have begun issuing joint statements regarding these issues under their official "P5" heading.
The use of the P5 title in the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament context has created a link between these states’ possession of nuclear weapons, their responsibilities as NWS under the NPT to engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations, and their global governance role, thus implying that their possession somehow re-enforces their P5 status. This in turn reinforces the misperception that nuclear weapons are desirable - maybe even necessary - for a state to take part at the top table of global governance. The consequences of this linkage risk undermining global non-proliferation efforts and undercut the intended outcomes of the NWS conferences.
First, it runs the risk of encouraging states to acquire nuclear weapons. As global power dynamics continue to shift, it sends the wrong message that a state must have nuclear weapons to have a place at that top table.
Second, it simultaneously discourages nuclear or near-nuclear states from engaging in meaningful disarmament efforts, as it makes states reluctant to "give up" this global status symbol.
Third, it deepens the divide between NWS and non-NWS, by associating the weapons states with their P5 membership (and its exclusivity). So, as the nuclear world continues to divide itself between the "haves" and the "have-nots," the P5 title only reinforces the division between these states. This is not constructive for cooperation and it certainly does not lend itself to the broader mission for disarmament.
Fourth, it takes the focus away from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its related disarmament efforts and instead leads one to assume that "P5 conferences" are related to Security Council business. It may even imply that nuclear possession underpins their ability to maintain the peace, through the possession of ultimate (and terrifying) force. This is unfortunate, as the conferences are designed to enhance cooperation on nuclear reduction and have nothing to do with the UN or the Security Council.
Linking P5 and NWS status is both historically and legally inaccurate. Historically, these terms identify separate commitments and responsibilities of these states when they step in to their role of either (1) a permanent member of the UN Security Council or (2) a NWS of the NPT.
As a permanent UNSC member, these five states are entrusted with maintaining and restoring global peace and security, a role that includes powers ranging from imposing sanctions to admitting new members to the United Nations. Conversely, as an officially recognized NWS, these five states have agreed to work towards fulfilling the NPT goals of nuclear reduction and disarmament. The P5 title, then, refers to a state's commitment to uphold global peace and security whereas the NWS title reflects a state's broader place within the NPT regime, and their commitment to work towards a nuclear-free world.
Legally, there is nothing within the UN Charter that states that a member must possess nuclear weapons in order to become a permanent member of the Security Council. This is, perhaps, best demonstrated by the fact that the UN Charter, which appoints the P5 as permanent members, was signed on June 26, 1945. The first nuclear weapons test, conducted by the United States, was a month later. So, at the time of its signing, there were no officially recognized nuclear weapons states. Conversely, there is nothing within the NPT that requires that a nuclear weapon state must also be a permanent member of the Security Council.
Furthermore, the recent acquisition of nuclear weapons by states seeking some sort of title or status in the international arena is misguided, as the definition of NWS can only pertain to the five current weapons states. The Non-Proliferation Treaty defines a NWS to mean states that have manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon prior to January 1, 1967. Therefore, states that have been pursuing weapons programs can neither officially or legally become a "NWS" under the NPT - nor would nuclear weapons possession contribute to their eligibility for selection as a permanent member of the Security Council. As an interesting aside, a NWS that chose to disarm its nuclear weapons would not under the NPT become a non-nuclear weapon state, but would retain the rights and responsibilities of a NWS.
So what to do? First, there should be a conscious effort to de-link global power and nuclear weapons by correctly referring to the P5 as NWS when they act in their capacity under the NPT. This means referring to the "P5 Conferences" instead as "NWS Conferences" and to joint P5 statements as joint NWS statements. Second, there should be a shift back towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as the use of the term "NWS" would correctly frame these efforts within the context of the Treaty. Though many may see these changes as a case of subtle semantics, there is far greater significance to this issue. When such wording has the potential to substantially impact non-proliferation efforts, then it has the possibility of causing as much harm as the "sticks and the stones" of the nuclear world.
Image: Acting Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller With P5 Counterparts at the State Department - See more at: http://blogs.state.gov/stories/2012/07/09/washington-p5-conference-imple...