Time to Renew the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle

March 2020
By Lewis Dunn and William Potter

The risk of use of nuclear weapons among the great powers is greater today than since the height of the Cold War. Growing political-military competition has increased the possibility of a U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Chinese military conflict. Any such conflict would carry with it the danger of escalation across the nuclear threshold, most probably driven by misinterpretation and miscalculation.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan arrive at a session of their 1985 summit in Geneva. Their agreement that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought" was the most notable achievement of the summit. (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images) Concerns about this risk have focused renewed attention among officials, experts, and civil society on the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Whether or not nuclear-weapon states should endorse what came to be known as the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle, or make some other equally compelling commitment to avoiding use of nuclear weapons, almost certainly will be part of the debate at the upcoming 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

Since the United States dropped two atomic bombs to end World War II in 1945, the subsequent nonuse of nuclear weapons is one of the more perplexing, if positive, phenomena of the past 75 years. This tradition, or what some prefer to consider to be a taboo or norm, has persisted despite the existence of a number of unfavorable conditions, from the demonstrated technical effectiveness of the weapon to the centrality of nuclear weapons in the deterrence strategies, military doctrines, and operational war plans of a growing number of states.1 Although the strength and vitality of the tradition of nuclear nonuse has fluctuated over time, the very fact of decade after decade of nonuse has steadily strengthened the norm.

The language of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle has its roots in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. That crisis led to an increasingly shared recognition in Washington and Moscow of the risks of using nuclear weapons and the need to stabilize the “balance of terror.”2 Although the precise formulation of this recognition is most closely associated with the November 1985 summit in Geneva between Reagan and Gorbachev, the underlying philosophy was reflected in a number of U.S.-Soviet agreements and treaties negotiated between 1969 and 1979. The 1971 Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Outbreak of Nuclear War, for example, proceeds from the premise that nuclear war would have “devastating consequences…for all mankind” and expresses “the need to exert every effort to avert the risk of outbreak of such a war.”3 Similarly, the 1972 Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics proceeds from “the common determination that in the nuclear age there is no alternative to conducting…mutual relations on the basis of peaceful coexistence...[and the parties] will do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.”4 The same perspective is articulated in almost verbatim language in the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II Treaty.

This recognition of the risks of nuclear use was sustained in the 1960s and 1970s across both Republican and Democratic administrations, but it appeared to be in jeopardy when Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981. Some of his early comments about the potential for limiting the escalation of a war involving tactical nuclear weapons prompted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to declare in October 1981 that “it is dangerous madness to try to defeat each other in the arms race and to count on victory in nuclear war.” Brezhnev added that “only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor.”5

Almost immediately thereafter, Reagan responded to Brezhnev’s charge by declaring that he had been misquoted and that the United States also opposed the use of nuclear weapons as “all mankind would lose” in a nuclear exchange.6 Subsequently, in April 1982, Reagan refined his message in the famous line from a national radio address: “Those who’ve governed America throughout the nuclear age and we who govern it today have had to recognize that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”7 Frequently repeated by Reagan thereafter, the language later became the most notable achievement of the 1985 Geneva summit. After the summit, this phrase was repeated in bilateral settings such as the December 1987 Washington summit8 and the May-June 1988 Moscow summit.9 Variants of the statement also appeared in both Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty texts.10 Significantly, however, neither the more recent 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty nor the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty make direct or indirect reference to the principle.

Although references to the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle are much less prominent in multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation fora, there is language in the NPT and occasional formulations in the NPT review process that are consistent with the principle. Perhaps most importantly, the preamble to the NPT highlights “the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples.” Although the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference did not adopt a consensus document, the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle also is referenced in the report of Main Committee I, which states that “[t]he conference reaffirms that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, considering the devastation that a nuclear war would bring.”11 Aside from this 1995 report, no other NPT review conference made specific reference to the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle, although the related theme of the global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use appears in the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document.12

Renewed Attention but Elusive Agreement

During the past two years, there has been renewed interest in the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle and its possible affirmation by the United States and Russia, as well as its endorsement more widely by all five NPT nuclear-weapon states. In 2018, UN High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu highlighted the current relevance of the principle.13 Writing in April 2019, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called for U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly to reaffirm that declaration.14 In the months preceding the May 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York, China had unsuccessfully proposed an affirmation by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council when it served as chair of the P-5 process, periodic consultations among China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on NPT-related matters. China also brought the issue back into the review process at that preparatory committee but received no public support for its initiative to include reference to the principle in the Chair’s Factual Summary.15

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony during their 2016 summit in Beijing. China and Russia have supported an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The thinking among these five states recognized as nuclear-weapon countries under the NPT on an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle is complex, and the lack of formal policy statements make understanding their policies more difficult. China has most strongly and consistently supported affirmation, and the United States has been the most reluctant. The Russian Federation appears to have been open to the Chinese effort to gain a joint statement on the subject and also has stated that it had sought unsuccessfully to gain U.S. affirmation of the principle in the fall of 2018.16 The position of the United Kingdom appears to have fluctuated over time, publicly in step with the United States but privately being more amenable to an endorsement. France has staked out its own position, at times suggesting that the principle erodes the fundamental logic of its nuclear deterrence posture.

The 2020 Review Conference

There are competing arguments on whether the review conference is an opportunity or perhaps a “forcing event” to create consensus among the nuclear-weapon states in support of the principle. Renewal could be pursued in several different ways: by a bilateral U.S.-Russian statement on the eve of the review conference, with which the other nuclear-weapon states could associate themselves; by its inclusion in a joint P-5 statement prior to or at the review conference; or by its inclusion in a review conference final declaration.

The primary argument for seeking agreement by all five nuclear-weapon states to affirm the principle is that it would be an important signal among themselves that they recognize today’s growing dangers of nuclear confrontation, crisis, and conflict escalation. Moreover, by signaling their shared interest in avoiding a nuclear war, an endorsement could be a stepping stone to more concrete actions to address today’s nuclear risks. Today’s P-5 discussions of nuclear doctrine could be broadened to include crisis avoidance and crisis management, perhaps by creating a dedicated working group to focus explicitly on the risks of misinterpretation, miscalculation, and subsequent escalation in a U.S./NATO-Russian or a U.S.-Chinese confrontation and how to reduce those risks. All of the five could also revisit the Cold War agreements aimed at reducing the dangers of nuclear war with the goal of first updating and then transforming those bilateral agreements into multilateral ones. By so contributing to reducing nuclear risks, renewal also would serve the interests of all the non-nuclear-weapon states.

Affirmation also could help create a more conducive political context for other bilateral risk reduction efforts such as resumption (in the U.S.-Russian case) or intensification (in the U.S.-Chinese case) of contacts between defense and military personnel to avoid possible accidents, miscalculations, and misinterpretations. Similarly, by signaling a shared interest in reducing nuclear dangers, affirmation could help halt the pending collapse of U.S.-Russian arms control as well as facilitate exploration of cooperative measures to avoid intensification of U.S.-Chinese strategic competition. Here, too, nuclear and non-nuclear nations would benefit.

Participants of the 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York, shown here in plenary session, agreed to adopt the NPT Action Plan, including a commitment by nuclear-weapon states to discuss policies to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. (Photo: United Nations)Renewal of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle by all NPT parties could contribute, moreover, to a successful NPT review conference.17 By partly responding to widespread fears among many non-nuclear-weapon states of a heightened risk of nuclear use and greater reliance on perceived nuclear war-fighting doctrines by some nuclear-weapon states, it would set a more positive tone for the review conference. It also would signal that the nuclear powers understand and take seriously their concerns about nuclear risks.

Despite the benefits of pursuing the principle, there also are arguments for avoiding the effort. The consequences of trying and failing to reaffirm the principle could heighten suspicions the nuclear-weapon states have about each other. In particular, some Russian experts have warned that U.S. reluctance to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle has already raised questions in Moscow about U.S. intentions. Closely related, trying and failing could reinforce the existing judgment of some if not many non-nuclear-weapon states that several P-5 nations increasingly believe that nuclear weapons are usable. This outcome could negatively affect the atmosphere at the review conference and dampen prospects for a successful outcome.

It is difficult to anticipate the costs of trying and failing. Given that U.S., French, and to a lesser degree UK reluctance to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle is already well known publicly, the costs of a failed effort may well be sunk costs by now, already paid. It also is difficult to gauge how much credibility to give Russian claims that U.S. reluctance to reaffirm the principle has created new uneasiness about U.S. intentions. Nonetheless, there likely would be some cost in trying and failing.

A very different argument against seeking an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle in the NPT context is that it could be construed as ignoring the non-NPT nuclear-armed states. Nonetheless, rather than providing a reason to set aside pursuit of an affirmation by the nuclear-weapon states, this argument suggests the importance of finding ways to engage non-NPT nuclear-armed states. Indeed, a parallel commitment to do so could be a complement to an endorsement of the principle at the review conference.

In addition, it is sometimes argued that it makes no sense to affirm the principle because it was relevant only in the bygone U.S.-Soviet Cold War era. In many ways, however, today’s environment of mutual mistrust and heightened military competition among the United States, Russia, and China is all too reminiscent of the early 1980s when the U.S. and Soviet leadership worried about the risk of nuclear escalation and use.

Finally, there are concerns in some quarters that affirmation of the principle could contribute to the erosion of deterrence. While conceivable, other declarations and actions are apt to be far more relevant to a robust U.S. deterrence posture in a future crisis. Moreover, the argument that affirmation is at odds with the logic of nuclear deterrence, with its combination of a threat to use nuclear weapons and preparations to do so, is not as compelling because nuclear deterrence has long been based on a threat that the country making it ultimately would not have wanted to carry out. This dilemma is at its core, and an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle would not alter that predicament. Indeed, perhaps that partly explains why Reagan and his key advisers, clearly all very strong supporters of robust deterrence of the then-Soviet Union, were quite able to sign on to what became the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle.

It is difficult to predict how states will respond to the aforementioned points, and some may continue to object to a simple affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle. Modified formulations could generate greater support. For example, one possibility would adapt the language of the NPT’s preamble to “affirm the commitment of the NPT nuclear-weapon states to be guided in their mutual actions by their joint recognition of the vast devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war involving them.” Alternatively, the nuclear-weapon states could state their “recognition of their unique and special responsibility to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again as well as their commitment to sustain and strengthen their mutual engagement, bilaterally and within the P-5 process, in order to avoid mutual misperceptions and miscalculations that could lead to a process of escalation to use of nuclear weapons.” Both of these statements would comprise a strong commitment to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and to act accordingly, but they lack the simplicity of the original formulation.

A Way Forward

A review of these considerations reinforces the logic of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle and the desirability of seeking its affirmation in one form or another at the 2020 review conference. Admittedly, it is late in the game, but it is not too late, especially given past instances in which one or more of the P-5 has made a last-minute decision that led to a review conference outcome. Outside experts and civil society should make endorsement of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle at the review conference a priority. That endorsement could be part of a broader package of actions consistent with the principle to address today’s risk of use of nuclear weapons. P-5 countries should acknowledge their unique responsibility to act in ways to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and to preserve the 75-year old nuclear taboo. Endorsing the principle also could be accompanied by a joint commitment to use the P-5 process along with bilateral actions to reduce the risks of nuclear escalation and use posed by misinterpretation and miscalculation during a crisis.

Ideally, governments that attach importance to the principle should pursue efforts diplomatically to secure its affirmation, at high levels, with the United States and other P-5 countries. They should consider doing so in any upcoming bilateral consultations on the NPT review conference and in other political consultations. Retired former senior officials could make the case yet again for affirmation privately and publicly.

Similarly, like-minded governments, outside experts, civil society, and others should look for ways to keep the issue of reviving and affirming the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle on the review conference agenda. Hopefully, China will again raise this issue within the P-5 context, while the current chair of the P-5, the United Kingdom, should keep the issue on the P-5 agenda. Supportive non-nuclear-weapon states also could call for endorsing the principle in their national statements at the review conference, while encouraging a similar call in the statements of those regional and political groups with which they are affiliated, including the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Nakamitsu already has raised this issue on a number of occasions, but could do so again. It also could be an element of any statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres prior to or at the review conference.

Going a step further to mobilize and generate support, a group of countries could circulate a draft resolution at the review conference on affirmation and line up support from as many NPT parties participating in the conference as possible. This step would follow the model of the Canadian decision to circulate a resolution in support of indefinite extension of the NPT at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. The Canadian resolution gained support from many more countries than a majority of the participants in that conference, demonstrating in an irrefutable manner that the votes were present for indefinite extension. This knowledge helped to generate momentum for the eventual indefinite extension of the NPT without a vote. As in that case, the purpose of a resolution on affirmation would not be to seek a vote but to shift the thinking of countries, which otherwise might be reluctant to include affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle as part of the review conference outcome.

How states will address the many problems that await them at the 2020 review conference remains uncertain. What is indisputable is the urgent need to reduce the danger of nuclear use. Hopefully, they will recognize that now, more than ever, is the time to renew the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. It is a precept that serves the interests of all NPT parties and merits special attention on the 75th anniversary of what should remain the first and only use of nuclear weapons.



1. William C. Potter, “In Search of the Nuclear Taboo: Past, Present, and Future,” IFRI Proliferation Papers, No. 31 (Winter 2010). For two of the most important scholarly works on the norm against nuclear weapons use, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); T.V. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

2. Animated partly by that same concern, the Cuban missile crisis also led to greater U.S.-Soviet cooperation on nonproliferation. For a discussion of this relationship, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, eds., Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (New York: Routledge, 2018).

3. Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, preamble, September 30, 1971, 807 U.N.T.S. 57.

4. Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “116. Paper Agreed Upon by the United States and the Soviet Union,” n.d., https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v01/d116.

5. Serge Schmemann, “Brezhnev Bids Reagan Help Ban a Nuclear Attack,” The New York Times, October 21, 1981, p. A7.

6. Jim Anderson, “President Reagan, Answering a Challenge From Soviet Leader Leonid…,” UPI, October 21, 1981.

7. “Radio Address to the Nation on Nuclear Weapons,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, April 17, 1982, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/41782a.

8. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Text of the Joint U.S.-Soviet Summit Statement,” INFCIRC/348, December 21, 1987.

9. “Joint Statement Following the Soviet-United States Summit Meeting in Moscow,” June 1, 1988, http://insidethecoldwar.org/sites/default/files/documents/Joint%20Statement%20Following%20the%20Soviet-United%20States%20Summit%20Meeting%20in%20Moscow.pdf.

10. See “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” Conference on Disarmament, CD/1192, April 5, 1993; U.S. Department of State, “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START II),” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102887.htm (“Conscious that nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity, that it cannot be won and must never be fought…”).

11. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part II,” NPT/CONF.1995/32) (Part II), 1995, p. 253.

12. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Volume I,” NPT/CONF.2010/50) (Vol. I), 2010.

13. Izumi Nakamitsu, “Remarks at the First Committee Side Event Entitled ‘Disarmament to Save Humanity: Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” October 9, 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/unoda-web/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Izumi-Remarks-at-First-Committee-Side-Event-on-Reducing-Nuclear-Risks.pdf.

14. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, and Sam Nunn, “The Threat of Nuclear War Is Still With Us,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2019.

15. The only other country to endorse the principle during formal sessions of the Preparatory Committee meeting was Switzerland, which in the opening general debate called on all states that possess nuclear weapons to affirm the appeal by the UN secretary-general that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

16. See Elena Chernenko, “Yadernomu miru—da, da, da” [Toward Nuclear Peace—Yes, Yes, Yes], Kommersant, April 19, 2019, p. 1; “Briefing for Representative of Mass-Media by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on the Issues of Preparation to the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” April 26, 2019 (copy on file with authors. Oddly, Russia did not speak to the issue in any formal session of the Preparatory Committee and did not endorse the Chinese position.

17. The authors define a successful review conference outcome as one that advances the goals of the NPT, whether in a traditional final document; one or more separate resolutions or decisions; a series of stand-alone voluntary commitments made by groups of states, including the nuclear-weapon states; or a combination of these actions.

Lewis Dunn is a former U.S. ambassador to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. William Potter is the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. The authors wish to thank Vladislav Chernavskikh for his research assistance.