Thank you to Ploughshares Fund and its partners for the invitation and for bringing us all together.
To be fully transparent, as is fitting for an arms controller, I have not yet seen the movie, so I am looking forward to seeing this movie with you all. I should note at the outset that I have heard the film does not address the humanitarian impacts of these horrific weapons, so I look forward to the panel on this topic.
But I know this film gives us an opportunity to reflect on how arms control has evolved since the 1940s and to consider how arms control remains an integral tool today in global stability – so that is where I will focus my comments.
As we know, the international security environment is being challenged in ways not seen in decades. Indeed, concerns of an arms race and nuclear escalation have not been more real since the Cold War. Adding to the strain are the emerging technologies and domains that are becoming more strategically relevant, including artificial intelligence, hypersonic glide vehicles, space, and cyber capabilities. These technologies and domains are rapidly developing without guardrails or transparency – increasing the risk of misperceptions, miscalculations, or misunderstandings, and leading to their own arms racing.
In many ways, the questions that the Manhattan project scientists and leaders wrestled with echo those we have today.
Some of those questions include: How can science and diplomacy and defense and arms control communities better work together to reduce the risk of nuclear war? How can we manage today’s and tomorrow’s game-changing technologies? And how can we foster a culture that encourages and enables conscientious questions and serious forward-looking analysis on all sides of the issue? As we consider these questions and others that the film may raise, I think we all recognize the important role that arms control has played. Whether in the form of risk reduction, transparency, strategic predictability or attribution, arms control provides the necessary tools to fill in the gaps where deterrence alone cannot address destabilizing global challenges.
Arms control has been and must continue to be creative, flexible, and adaptive – encompassing tools that range from legally-binding agreements to political commitments on transparency and confidence-building measures, information sharing, and crisis communications. A great example is the National and Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. For those that may not be familiar with the NNRRC, it’s an institution created in the late-1980s continuing, to this day, to reduce the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation. Although started as a 24-7 communication channel between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to diminish the risk of nuclear war, the Center’s success is grounded, in part, in the evolution of its mandate to include more international partners and a broader range of issues, including ballistic missile launches and international cyber incidents.
These types of arms control mechanisms can help reduce risks and prevent misunderstanding and miscalculation, especially in opaque gray zones and with emerging and potentially disruptive technologies where there are no clear guardrails or rules for appropriate behaviors.
With regard to emerging technologies, we currently lack broadly recognized or adopted norms of behavior for their use while their capabilities are rapidly evolving, often driven by the private sector. Since we do not fully understand the future implications and uses of emerging technologies, or emerging domains, the lack of a common approach to what constitutes responsible behavior could lead to escalatory outcomes.
The Biden Harris Administration is working to foster norms of responsible state behavior and put in place mechanisms to limit risks such as miscalculation and unintended escalation. In February, for example, we launched a Political Declaration on Responsible Military Use of AI and Autonomy. The Declaration puts forth a set of principles that states could subscribe to. These include, for example, practices to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of military AI capabilities and a commitment that personnel who use or approve use are appropriately trained. Importantly, in this context, our political declaration notes that so long as nuclear weapons exist, human control and involvement must be maintained for actions related to nuclear weapons employment. The aim of the Declaration is not merely to get states to endorse these principles – we see this as a foundation for future efforts focused on exchanging best practices and building states’ capacities to responsibly develop, deploy, and use military AI capabilities. We want to raise awareness of the risks that AI can pose when used for military purposes, while appreciating the potential benefits AI can also provide.
Part of what this movie is doing is also raising awareness, and that – in itself- is an arms control concept. Transparency is an important element of arms control and risk reduction – as is verification: We try to shine a light on what everyone is doing, and confirm our collective commitments, so that we can better prevent potential drivers of instability. But we can only get to a better understanding of our reality and our potential future if we encourage honest questions, engagement, awareness and accountability on all sides of the issue.
This movie – just like today’s headlines – might disturb audiences. But our community, especially, probably won’t be particularly surprised. We all have been closely watching Russia’s dangerous nuclear rhetoric amid its illegal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine; its baseless, purported suspension of New START; the PRC’s rapid and opaque build-up of its nuclear arsenal; and the DPRK’s ongoing development of its own nuclear arsenal and launches of an unprecedented number of missiles.
The anticipated arms race that the nuclear scientists feared of course happened, and we must acknowledge this reality. The nuclear arms race will get worse if we don’t find a way to get back into arms control treaties with Russia in the near term, bring China to the table, and continue to reinvigorate multilateral conversations on the necessity of arms control and risk reduction for global stability and predictability.
All of us are grappling with this stark reality. And all of us – in every scientific, military, NGO, or governmental audience – should continue to work together to address the challenge.
In sum, this movie should raise a lot of important questions. I know that I’m reminded of complicated history of nuclear weapons every time I walk into the AVC Bureau’s offices, where General Groves, and other key Manhattan Project personnel, once worked. But I am heartened that 80 years later, these same offices are home to a bureau of dedicated, creative, diverse, and experienced individuals working to respond to today’s strategic and conventional threats and to reduce the risks from tomorrow’s technologies.
We all might have very different opinions after we actually watch the movie, but I hope some of these points have been helpful in framing the present context for the film. Thank you again for your attention, and I look forward to the panel and the movie itself.