CSIS European Trilateral Track 2 Nuclear Dialogues

2022 Consensus Statement

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The European Trilateral Track 2 Nuclear Dialogues, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in partnership with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), have convened senior nuclear policy experts from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States (P3) since 2009 to discuss nuclear deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation policy issues. By identifying issues of mutual concern and areas of consensus, the group seeks to improve collaboration and cooperation among the three nations across a range of challenging nuclear policy concerns. The majority of the experts are former U.S., UK, and French senior officials; the others are well-known academics in the field. Since the dialogues’ inception, currently serving senior officials from all three governments have also routinely participated in the discussions. 

Each year the Track 2 members of the group issue a consensus statement reflecting their discussions. All signatories agree to this statement in their personal capacities, which may not represent the views of their respective organizations. In 2022, the group’s discussion addressed a range of growing challenges in the international security environment, prompting the group’s Track 2 participants to issue this statement reflecting their consensus after two rounds of meetings.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and France hold common values and principles directed toward a shared purpose of sustaining global peace and security, as well as an understanding of their respective roles as responsible stewards of the nuclear order. While the three nations have unique perspectives and policies regarding nuclear issues and the nature of today’s security environment, as the three nuclear weapons states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, they play a unique and enduring role in the stewardship of international alliances and partnerships, especially in matters of nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation, and arms control. Moreover, the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russia’s blatant nuclear saber-rattling drive home the inescapable risks of war that occur under a nuclear shadow. The war in Ukraine also reinforces the enduring importance of close collaboration and solidarity between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France as responsible nuclear weapons states and NATO alliance members.

The Evolving Security Environment

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by explicit nuclear threats, with Russian president Vladimir Putin stating, “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people—this is not a bluff.” In addition, in late 2022, Russian military leaders actually discussed the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Although President Putin was supposedly not part of the conversation, the fact that it occurred at all at senior levels in the Russian military increases concerns over Russian intentions regarding the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. In response to these nuclear threats, the P3 have responded in ways designed to prevent further escalation. None of the P3 publicly increased the alert status of their nuclear weapons in response to Putin’s threats and declaration that Russian strategic forces would go on a special alert status. In fact, the P3 have used signaling and messaging to limit escalation, including the United States’ decision to delay an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in the spring of 2022. As the war continues without a clear end in sight, however, the P3 and NATO will need to consider and develop a long-term strategy for deterring Russia and for responding to potential future threats of Russian nuclear escalation, as well as a long-term view of European security. Participants highlighted the need to nuance the conversation about deterrence failure, as NATO’s deterrence has not failed. Most importantly, the P3 will need to establish a coherent deterrence messaging strategy. While the stance does not need to be identical across the P3, messages from Washington, London, and Paris should not contradict each other. The P3 will also need to establish a strategy to address Russia’s role in the international system as it continues to use its influence to disrupt multilateral institutions.

At the same time, China continues to pose a growing challenge to the P3 due to its nuclear buildup and increasingly aggressive behavior in the Pacific. China’s nuclear arsenal is, today, comparatively smaller than the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, but its doctrine is based on an emphasis on strategic ambiguity and a reluctance to engage in transparency measures. China’s recent and continuing buildup of its nuclear and other strategic forces has also raised serious doubts about China’s stated intention to strictly adhere to a declared No First Use policy, especially in complex crises. Moreover, the buildup has impacts on U.S. conventional posture in the region, as China is seeking to establish theater conventional superiority over the United States and its allies under an umbrella of mutual assured destruction with the United States. The nuclear buildup could also have implications for U.S. extended deterrence in the region, as China is developing theater nuclear forces. In response to this, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have also begun to discuss increases in defense spending. Participants raised questions over what China might be learning about P3 and NATO nuclear deterrence policy and practice in the context of the Ukraine war and if there may be implications for a crisis in Taiwan. The P3 should focus on strategic risk reduction measures with China, such as limited missile test notifications, to manage the nuclear relationship and reduce the likelihood of war.

The evolving security environment has called into question some traditional approaches to deterrence, driving broad reassessments of deterrence concepts and approaches. The United States published its National Defense Strategy—which included the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—in October 2022, premised on the concept of “integrated deterrence.” The U.S. NPR called for the United States to work across domains and instruments of power, as well as to work with a network of allies and partners to achieve integrated deterrence. In addition, the NPR noted that nuclear weapons occupy a unique and distinct role but could be integrated with other systems, if needed. The NPR also acknowledged the unprecedented range of challenges in the security environment and the need to deter both Russia and China as peer adversaries. During the conversation, participants focused heavily on how the NPR will be implemented and how allies can be engaged. The United Kingdom’s Integrated Review, which is in the process of a refresh, adopts similar approaches to deterrence: thinking about how to deter adversaries at all levels and in all domains, not just the nuclear one. Moving forward, questions on how to implement new strategies within each state will need to be addressed, and the balance between commonality and autonomy among national positions will need to be carefully considered. Most importantly, alliance cohesion must be prioritized for implementation.

NATO’s Changing Makeup and Mission

The war in Ukraine has directly impacted NATO, resulting in Sweden and Finland beginning the NATO membership process. The two countries first indicated their intent to join NATO in response to the changing European security environment, with NATO leaving the door open to other European democracies who are ready and willing to contribute to shared security. Their desire to join NATO signals the enduring importance of the alliance for European security and, despite delays with finalizing membership, demonstrates growing European consensus in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A growing NATO will present both opportunities and challenges for the alliance. Sweden and Finland’s membership will strengthen NATO’s presence in the Far North and in the Arctic region. They will also bring historical and regional experience in facing Soviet and Russian threats that will strengthen the alliance’s ability to deter Russia. But being part of a nuclear alliance will be new for Stockholm and Helsinki. The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept states: “The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. NATO’s goal is a safer world for all; we seek to create the security environment for a world without nuclear weapons.”

While NATO has not changed its nuclear posture since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is revising nuclear planning guidance. The new guidance will need to establish coherence between conventional and nuclear capabilities and ensure that there is enough support for nuclear missions. Moreover, NATO has improved strategic communication to signal credible capabilities and critical resolve. NATO cohesion remains imperative in light of the war in Ukraine. The P3 should remain in sync in their messaging related to NATO’s makeup and mission. There will inevitably be a period of adjustment as both new members learn more about NATO’s nuclear posture and engage with operations and exercises. This can be part of a wider European effort to raise the “deterrence IQ” of NATO members in order to strengthen the response to Russian aggression and reinforce the enduring importance of nuclear weapons in the alliance—and as a force underpinning European security for nearly eight decades.

Prospects for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

The evolving security environment also has implications for arms control and nonproliferation regimes. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) convened its first meeting of States Parties in 2022, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s nuclear threats. In addition, on August 26, 2022, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) ended without a final consensus document. Russia objected to the document based on language that referenced concern over the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The lack of a consensus document and Russia’s role as a spoiler raise concerns over the future of the NPT, which remains the cornerstone for the nonproliferation and arms control regimes. Following the collapse of the NPT consensus and in the face of an ongoing war under the nuclear shadow, TPNW supporters used their platform to call on nuclear weapons states and their allies to disarm, stating the time is ripe. This group argues that the NPT continues to offer the most robust mechanism to build on expertise for future agreements. P3 unity and a shared sense of purpose in NPT and arms control settings will be an important contribution to deterrence and to assuring other NATO allies. 

At the same time, negotiations for the reimplementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan on Action (JCPOA) began. Since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran has resumed some of its nuclear activities, including increasing enrichment levels. In 2021, U.S. president Joe Biden stated that the United States would return to the deal if Iran came back into compliance. The renewed diplomatic talks have faltered, with both sides unable to agree on sanctions relief and the required nuclear steps by Iran, along with the introduction of new issues. The lack of progress on JCPOA negotiations is coupled with the approaching sunset clauses of the original deal, which rolled back restrictions on Iran. Participants raised concerns over a possible cascade of proliferation in the Middle East should Iran successfully field a nuclear weapons capability, as well as the implications for the P3. Some participants raised questions over whether the official U.S. stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program might be wavering as the security environment is overtaken by events in Ukraine and competition with China.

Finally, the demise of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia has also stalled negotiations for a follow-on to New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is set to expire in February 2026. In January 2023, the United States found Russia in noncompliance with New START because of canceled inspections and meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Committee. In response, President Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in New START in February 2023. A trilateral arms control agreement between the United States, Russia, and China seems highly unlikely in the near term, yet risk reduction measures may be desirable. Participants raised questions over the role of the P5 in future arms control efforts and the timing of engagement. Arms control remains an essential complement to deterrence when used to support strategic stability by improving crisis management, managing arms racing, and reducing nuclear risks writ large. Admittedly, today the prospects for arms control appear bleak—but in the aftermath of crises, opportunities can emerge. It is imperative that the P3 stand ready to seize such an opportunity should it present itself.

This report is made possible by the generous support of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Photo: CSIS
Director, Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Fellow, International Security Program