The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—and the first five nations to develop nuclear weapons—issued a rare joint statement on Monday pledging to contain the spread of nuclear arms and maintain adequate safeguards on existing ones.
“We believe strongly that the further spread of [nuclear] weapons must be prevented,” the statement read. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Although the statement did not explicitly commit the five nations to the elimination of their own stockpiles of nuclear arms, it reaffirmed that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.” They also agreed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
The pledge was issued in part because of the upcoming review of the United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. A review session to update the treaty, the tenth since its implementation in 1968, was originally scheduled to take place in January; it has since been pushed back further in the year.
In spite of a growing list of other disagreements and tensions between Russia, China, and the United States, arms control has remained an area where the three superpowers are more or less in alignment. All three countries have strongly supported the NPT, and have attempted to constrain other states from developing nuclear programs in violation of it. All three nations were represented in the “P5+1” powers that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran in 2015; although the United States withdrew from that agreement in 2018, Russia and China continue to play an active role in nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
Both Moscow and Beijing praised the statement’s signing. Chinese Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhauxu argued that it would “help increase mutual trust and replace competition among major powers with coordination and cooperation.”
A statement published by Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed “hope that in the current difficult conditions of international security, the approval of such a political statement will help reduce the levels of international tensions.”
Other commentators noted the parallels between the five-nation statement and an earlier joint declaration by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, at which both nations reaffirmed their commitment to the enforcement of the NPT and expressed hope that they would each reduce their nuclear stockpiles by half.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.