Last Thursday I spoke at a conference on nuclear weapons hosted by the State Department titled “Generation Prague”. As the title suggests, the conference was aimed at young people and looked at the challenges and opportunities facing the “Post Cold War Generation” working in arms control and nonproliferation.
I spoke on the afternoon panel titled “Intergenerational Perspectives” with former NNSA Director Linton Brooks and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose. Our panel prompted a spirited discussion and seemed to generate a lot of interest from the audience. Below are my opening remarks.
The Prague Generation and Nuclear Weapons
Thanks Jonathon. It’s a pleasure to be here. I want to thank the State Department for inviting me to participate on this panel, and for hosting today’s conference. In all honesty, I feel out of place given Linton and Frank’s long experience in and enormous contributions to our profession both inside and outside of government.
But someone has to represent the so-called “Prague Generation,” and the reality is that we haven’t been around that long. Then again, looks can be deceiving. I’m 28 years old, but I’m pretty sure Amb. Brooks still has more hair than I do.
I thought I’d use my opening statement to share some thoughts on what drew me to this field and what I think nuclear weapons mean to our generation.
I think the best way to do that is to start by describing two events in particular that have largely defined the way in which I think about nuclear weapons, and I believe they shed a lot of light on the challenges and opportunities that our generation faces…
The first event is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now you might be asking yourself how someone that didn’t live through that event could be so influenced by it. You might also be asking why I’m fixating on an event that occurred during the Cold War.
Well, let me explain.
During my Junior year at Brown University, I enrolled in a seminar on the Cuban Missile Crisis and Weapons of Mass Destruction. The instructors of the course, Professors James Blight and janet Lang, were the principal organizers of two conferences which occurred on the 30th and 40th anniversaries of the crisis and brought together newly declassified documents and participants in the events of October 1962 from the U.S., Soviet Union, and Cuba (including then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Fidel Castro). Thanks to these conferences and additional revelations, we now know that the Crisis was far more dangerous than any of the participants at the time could have possibly imagined. Or as McNamara put it some years later, in the end it was largely luck that prevented a nuclear war.
Simply put, I was terrified by what I learned in the seminar. For me the lessons of the crisis are chillingly clear. Kennedy was rational, Khrushchev was rational, even Castro was rational. Yet nuclear war almost occurred anyway. As McNamara stated in the Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War, the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.
The second event is 9/11. Like the Missile Crisis, I think this event is noteworthy as much for what didn’t happen as it is for what happened.
For me 9/11 illustrated the damage that could have been done by a terrorist group armed with weapons of mass destruction. 9/11 – and the discovery of A.Q. Kahn’s nuclear Walmart a few years later – seemed to encapsulate the erratic and unpredictable world in which we now live; a world in which our enormous nuclear arsenal of over 5,000 weapons seems powerless to keep us safe.
From the perspective of our generation then, the world seems to have changed in fundamental ways. The world is more chaotic and unpredictable. Because of this the nuclear status quo no longer seems tenable.
But there is a tendency to view the challenges and problems of ones own generation as new or unique when they are not. The world has changed since the end of the Cold War, but the age-old questions about deterrence and the role and purpose of nuclear weapons are still with us today. And as the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates, despite the seemingly halcyon stability of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, the risk of catastrophe has always been real.
In effect, we’ve been fighting the same battles for decades.
Witness, for example, the recently concluded New START debate. The debate over the treaty in the Senate occurred largely within a Cold War frame. The strongest argument deployed by proponents of the treaty was that treaty is necessary to monitor and verify the size and location of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. This argument may have been good enough to ensure 67 votes for New START, but we’re in need of a much larger fundamental reframing of the nuclear danger if we’re to make progress on the rest of the agenda – to say nothing about the ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Which begs the question: How can the danger be reframed? Can it be reframed? Either way, it will be up to the Prague generation to move the Prague agenda forward.
Let me end with a few thoughts on the challenges and opportunities our generation faces as we seek to move that agenda forward.
First the good news.
First, opinion research shows that our generation in particular is open to the narrative that nuclear weapons are a liability rather than an asset. For example, an April 2010 poll showed that 66% of American’s between the age of 18 and 34 approve of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, versus 53% between the age of 35 and 54 and 49% over the age of 55.
Second, based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues who study the impact of generational attitudes on foreign policy, preceding generations underestimate how cosmopolitan our generation is. “Foreign” is not necessarily unknown or unknowable (or even scary) to us in a way that it was to earlier generations. This is important because we are unlikely to make meaningful progress on disarmament unless we identify ourselves as being part of something much larger, dare I say something global. The danger posed by nuclear weapons is a shared danger, and reducing and ultimately eliminating that danger will require a cooperative global effort.
Third, younger generations are by nature far less cynical about the limits of the possible than older generations. We don’t have scars from past battles. As President Obama stated in his Prague Speech “fatalism is a deadly adversary.”
Fourth, our generation is already making its mark on moving the Prague agenda forward. We’re already represented here at the State Department and elsewhere in the administration. Outside of government, a coalition of young people working throughout the arms control and disarmament community has formed a group called “the Prague Project.” The Project is raising awareness about the nuclear threat and providing opportunities for communication, collaboration, and action. Meanwhile, the Global Zero movement has established chapters on college campuses all across the country.
Yet while I’m hopeful about all that we can achieve, we should all be mindful of the enormous challenges we face.
First, I think the predominant attitude that defines our generation’s attitude toward nuclear weapons is, not surprisingly, apathy. Obviously I’m not speaking about anyone in this room. But I think there is a general attitude that nuclear weapons are a problem of the past. Put in another way the threat seems entirely abstract.
Previous generations have at times awakened to the nuclear danger, which has prompted a meaningful sense of urgency about doing something about it. Such moments occurred in the immediate aftermath of World War II, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during and after the Reagan administration when the Freeze Movement developed. But these moments didn’t last.
In order to permit real progress toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, our generation must sense that a HUGE problem exists, a problem that could end all life as we know it. As a former professor once put it to me: We must somehow create a sacred space of virtual horror.
Second, a broad-based disarmament movement will need leaders, but too few job opportunities exist for young people in the arms control field.
In addition to the lack of opportunities, a career in arms control may be less appealing than other issues competing for our generation’s attention because young people don’t want to fight the same battles that arms controllers have been fighting for the past 50 years. This isn’t to say these debates weren’t important. Our generation would do well to appreciate and learn from what Linton’s generation did to keep us safe during and after the Cold War. But as one colleague my age put it to me, we want to learn from the past, but not feel doomed to repeat it.