A Call to Arms Control: The Generation Prague Conference

Posted by Elena Wicker
July 31, 2015
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman delivers remarks at the Sixth Annual Generation Prague Conference, in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 2015

Mere hours after her return from successfully negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman visited the Generation Prague conference to deliver her thoughts on the marathon negotiations, but also highlighting the driving role of diplomacy in resolving this critical international security issue.  At the same time, Under Secretary Sherman also stressed the importance of young people to carry forward the work of arms control and non-proliferation.  As a young woman thinking about entering the field of arms control, women like Wendy Sherman are the role models for my generation. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to intern in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) under another incredible female role model, Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller, who was the lead negotiator of New START. Under Secretaries Sherman and Gottemoeller are truly inspirations to young women today who are considering careers in diplomacy or arms control.  As the number of successful nuclear agreements continues to increase, the role of diplomacy comes evermore to the forefront. By helping to create peaceful solutions to modern nuclear challenges, Under Secretaries Gottemoeller and Sherman have actively pursued President Barack Obama’s “Prague Agenda” laid out in 2009.

Since 2009, the State Department has held the Generation Prague Conference, an annual event focused on engaging young people on issues of arms control and nonproliferation.  The conference was inspired by President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague in which he stated the United States’ commitment to seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.  President Obama’s vision is not new.  In fact, it is a continuation of the disarmament work of a number of previous presidents hailing from varied political backgrounds.  In order to continue to make progress, it is clear that we will need a new generation of arms control experts to continue that mission.

On July 15th, the Marshall Center at the United States Department of State came alive with discussions on nuclear weapons policy.  As a succession of impressive speakers took the stage, it became clear that arms control is just as important today as it was in the past.  The first day of the conference featured speakers such as Jon Wolfsthal, NSC Senior Director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, and Admiral William Gortney of North American Aerospace Defense and USNORTHCOM.  Both emphasized the need for increased public awareness and a renewed conversation about the role of nuclear deterrence.

 “Ten Things You Should Know About Nuclear Weapons” followed next, with Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman drawing laughs while interspersing important information with movie clips from classics like Armageddon and Dr. Strangelove.  His list contained some interesting points:

  1. Hollywood is wrong about nuclear weapons.  (No weapon the size of a football is going to destroy a city.)
  2. Building a nuclear weapon is difficult.  (Fissile material is hard to get!)
  3. 80% of nuclear weapons have been dismantled.  (Efforts are ongoing to dismantle even more.)
  4. Nuclear deterrence works.
  5. Except if it doesn’t.
  6. Governments will not give up nuclear weapons if they feel insecure.  (No country has given up nuclear weapons as a result of a threat.)
  7. Disarmament will not work without nonproliferation.  (Countries are less likely to disarm if other countries are proliferating.)
  8. Nuclear power doesn’t necessarily lead to nuclear weapons.
  9. For most of the world, nuclear weapons are already illegal.  (NPT!)
  10. There are things you can do to help!

Following Under Secretary Sherman’s remarks, Colin Kahl, National Security Advisor to the Vice President, took the stage to answer technical questions about the deal.  AVC Deputy Assistant Secretary Mallory Stewart closed the day with optimistic words about the achievable nature of the Prague agenda.

Day two of the conference began with Dr. Alex Wellerstein, nuclear historian, addressing misconceptions spread about the history of nuclear weapons due, in part, to the lack of publically available information.  Dr. Wellerstein presented interesting facts about the Manhattan Project, as well.  A surprising example is that almost 1% of the civilian workforce during World War II was involved in some way with the Manhattan Project.  Dr. Wellerstein also highlighted the difficult nature of nuclear weapons development, due to the “tacit” knowledge that was held by experts and not transferrable on paper.  This tacit knowledge of procedures and techniques is critical to the development of nuclear weapons.  The lack of documentation had serious impacts, for example, compelling the USSR to recreate the entire process of creating a nuclear device, including the errors.

A panel on “Nuclear Weapons and the Faith Community” followed, explaining the positions of different religions concerning nuclear weapons.  A general consensus exists among the Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities, supported by excerpts of scripture, on the forbidden nature of nuclear weapons due to their inability to discriminate between combatant and noncombatant targets.  This consensus is interesting and could be beneficial to future arms control efforts.

The next conversation between Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) and the Honorable Ellen Tauscher focused on the lack of knowledge and experience with nuclear weapons policy among Congress members.  Representative Cooper believes nuclear weapons have an important role in the public dialogue and encouraged young people to “literally dedicate yourself to saving the world” by pursuing a career in arms control and nonproliferation.

Two panels of young people followed, the first showcasing two scientists from U.S. National Laboratories, Dr. Julia Craven-Jones and Dr. Derek Haas, and their experience during the CTBTO’s 2014 Integrated Field Exercise in Jordan.  The mock inspection of a potential underground nuclear test is a part of preparation for the CTBT’s eventual entry into force. The second panel addressed the future of nuclear policy in South Asia, with Yogesh Joshi and Faiqa Mahmood discussing their personal experiences, as well as their studies of the policies in India and Pakistan.  The last panel of the day involved Ambassador Adam Scheinman and Ambassador Alexander Kmentt discussing the 2015 NPT Review Conference and the next steps in arms control and disarmament.  Under Secretary Gottemoeller closed the day with remarks emphasizing the importance of engagement with these issues, especially among members of my generation who have not internalized the experience of the Cold War as other generations were forced to.

The last day of the conference was held at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, and used a fantastic format which highlighted the nexus between academics and practice.  Three panels were held where academics presented their papers or ongoing research and policy practitioners had the opportunity to respond with their thoughts from a practitioner’s perspective.  This type of exchange is important because academia plays an important role in information gathering and critical thinking and both academia and government make important contributions to the national security of this country.

The Generation Prague Conference was a fascinating experience for me, both in an educational and practical sense.  The conference was the culmination of the experience that I have had this summer bringing together the academic perspective and the practical realities of engaging in foreign policy efforts.  I am proud of the conference that we created and congratulations are in order to the team of people who pulled together a schedule of impressive speakers and crafted a high quality final product on a “shoestring budget”. 

Young people around the world need to realize the important role that nuclear weapons play in our ever-changing security environment.  Conferences like Generation Prague are important means through which young people can educate themselves, and it is essential that people understand the complexity of nuclear issues.  Disarmament is not a fast or easy process and requires continual engagement and support.  Through detailed understanding of the issues and patient but determined involvement, I believe that it is possible to reach the ultimate goal set out by President Obama in Prague:  “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

About the Author: Elena Wicker serves in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC).

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