By Casey Kitchens
I had the pleasure of attending the Fourth Annual Betty Lou Hummel Memorial Lecture at Johns Hopkins SAIS last month. The speaker, a former professor of mine, was U.S. Ambassador Mary Ann Peters. The title of her lecture: Why America Matters.
I’d known from personal experience that Ambassador Peters feels strongly about the America that allowed her to serve for more than 30 years as a diplomat. She’s optimistic about America’s role in the renewed era of great power politics, but realistic about the obstacles it faces. Unsurprisingly, among her top concerns was nuclear war.
The ambassador expressed concerns about the global non-proliferation regime crumbling, and the possibility of new horizontal proliferation should Putin be successful in Ukraine — a topic that is top of mind for many in our field. Tying these concerns into her overall message — why America matters — she argued that the United States carried the mantle of progress after World War II, and despite the growing presence of China, remains enormously influential across the world.
Putin’s dangerous nuclear threats, North Korea’s declarations that it will never denuclearize, and a weakened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have been labeled as possible death knells for the non-proliferation regime. Some commentators and analysts have already resigned themselves to defeat and are preparing for potential proliferation in the Middle East and a renewed arms race with China.
We must remember that collective security was born because of great power conflict, not in spite of it, and its re-emergence presents an opportunity to reimagine non-proliferation in a way that builds on the foundation of liberal values that America spent the last half-century spreading across the world.
The United States should use its immense influence and strategic advantages to resist the pull of Cold War nostalgia that led to a dangerous and costly arms race. It should address the growing security concerns of non-nuclear weapon states, rather than leaving them to draw their own conclusions from the conflict in Ukraine. It should prioritize meaningful engagement in global institutions shaped by universal ideals, rather than turning inward when cooperation is needed most.
Most importantly, the United States should recognize the limitations of prioritizing abstract idealism over practical solutions that meet the needs of a broad coalition of like-minded actors.
Ambassador Peters is right. No nation in the world is better positioned to lead this charge than America.
Editor’s note: Casey Kitchens is the Center’s fall 2022 intern. Casey has used her internship to develop her thinking on international security and the role of non-proliferation and arms control.
Our interns get first-hand policy experience, get published and get hired. They go on to PhD programs, government jobs and prestigious fellowships. At this time, applications are open for the Center’s Spring internship. If you, or someone you know, have strong writing skills, interest in nuclear and security policy and a desire to make a difference, please consider applying.