Good morning. Thank you, Under Secretary Jenkins, for your introduction and for welcoming everyone this morning.
My thanks to your team for bringing so many partners together today around the cause you lead every day: countering weapons of mass destruction.
I think the Secretary General is going to join us, so I say hello, Mr. Secretary General, when you can, virtually. To representatives of our NATO allies, and I’m glad to see that placard for Finland, and we’re now 31; distinguished guests in this room and online: welcome to the State Department and to the 18th annual NATO WMD Nonproliferation Conference.
I should add, of course, that we look forward to adding Sweden to this number in the near future.
This conference could not be more essential or timely. Because if diplomacy’s purpose is to prevent the prospects of conflict and promote the promise of peace, then there are few callings more vital or more urgent than limiting, reducing, and stopping weapons of mass destruction.
If NATO’s objective is, at its core, to ensure our mutual defense and advance our common security, then few missions are more essential than the one that unites us here: reaching that day when the world’s most dangerous regimes no longer possess the world’s most deadly weapons—and ushering in an era of arms control that makes us, our children and grandchildren safer, more secure, and more free.
This is never a simple challenge to address. There are rarely, if ever, straightforward answers in an arena where even the smallest steps forward can take years of painstaking negotiations.
And none of this is getting any easier.
We are now entering a time when transformative technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing may add uncertainty to the balance of power and make the question of when to use WMD more complicated, not less.
We are now seeing a time in the not-too-distant future when machine speeds could shrink decision-making windows, adding to the risk of inadvertent consequences.
For all the wonders wrought by rapid advances in innovation and invention, for all the excitement brought by developments we cannot fathom or predict or imagine yet—in the realm of arms control, these leaps forward bring a new degree of fear and uncertainty, along with promise.
That’s a somewhat destabilizing reality of this moment.
But that is not a reason to give up on our mission or deem it hopeless or helpless. That cannot and will not be the measure of our leadership.
Indeed, we are here, at this conference, because we believe the opposite.
We know that the weight falls on our shoulders, as allies and partners, to tackle the toughest issues affecting global security, no matter what changes emerge from technology or current events.
We are prepared to take on the duty of strengthening the international security architecture around chemical, radiological, biological, and nuclear weapons.
We also know that apparent progress can be unraveled in what seems like an instant.
Just think back, for a minute, to the last time this conference convened. It was September 2021, in Copenhagen, and Under Secretary Jenkins stood up on behalf of the United States and spoke with notes of tempered, but real, optimism about the possibilities of our Strategic Stability Dialogue with Russia. She discussed how we might utilize that platform to put forward—and realize—the framework for the future of arms control.
Yet, within a matter of months, that glimmer of hope had dissipated and disappeared, as I led the U.S. delegation to an extraordinary session of the SSD with a narrower and more immediate mission: to use this channel to make one last effort to keep Russia from embarking on its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, by that point, Vladimir Putin’s mind was made up. No proposal we put on the table, and there were many, could convince the Kremlin to change
direction. They had already made the horrific decision to launch their brutal violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, their illegal intrusion on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and their barbaric assault on Ukraine’s people.
As if anything could be more terrifying than one of the largest land wars in Europe since NATO’s founding, Putin has repeatedly used nuclear saber-rattling to ratchet up tensions and raise the stakes of this war.
He’s said Russia will deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus. He’s pushed a legally-invalid suspension of New START, endangering global nuclear stability.
These steps are of a piece with the Kremlin’s consistent failure to abide by its commitments on important WMD multilateral agreements.
To make matters worse, Russia’s reckless behavior isn’t happening in isolation.
The DPRK is testing and publicly trumpeting its increasingly dangerous arsenal and delivery systems.
The IAEA has reported a fearsome jump in Iran’s uranium enrichment levels.
The rapid and opaque expansion of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal, the largest in its history, has increased tension in the Indo-Pacific.
In each case, transparency is almost non-existent, which only serves to raise the risk of an escalation.
Against this backdrop, NATO’s strength and unity are more important than ever. NATO’s deterrent capability is more necessary than ever.
NATO and likeminded partners must be more determined than ever to fortify the infrastructure that’s helped keep the world secure for decades: risk reduction; crisis communications; stabilization mechanisms; confidence-building measures; and multilateral agreements designed to halt the growth of dangerous weapons.
As President Biden has said, “No matter what is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.”
That is a position of principle, and it remains relevant even when others refuse to uphold their obligations, even when others act to erode longstanding accords, even when others demonstrate they cannot be trusted.
Put another way: even in this time of trial for the international security architecture, it is still our task, as leaders in the global community, to do the work of arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament.
That begins with all of us leading the charge to uphold the NPT, which continues to stand as the single greatest bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons.
That entails reinvigorating the “peaceful uses” pillar of the NPT, where signatories provide resources and technical expertise to improve crop yields and provide life-saving innovations to developing countries.
That means doubling down on rules and norms around transparency and accountability when it comes to weapons of mass destruction.
That requires us to see how NATO’s partnership on WMDs extends beyond what we usually think of when we talk about arms control. How our strategies can apply to the regulation of missile testing and responsible behaviors in outer space. How our coordination can help us understand the impacts of artificial intelligence and ensure this transformational technology is developed and deployed by militaries in a responsible fashion.
When all is said and done, arms control and nonproliferation must remain central tenets of NATO’s leadership—and core building blocks of international stability. The reason is simple: the first responsibility of any public servant is public safety, and weapons of mass destruction only serve to threaten people’s security.
Sixty years ago, John F. Kennedy spoke to the graduates of American University about the necessity of peace, not as a distant dream or a theoretical ideal, but as an achievable goal and a national necessity.
As he discussed the obstacles to peace, he laid out the stakes of the arms race; the dangers of idle stockpiles of nuclear devices; the need for all nations to discard destabilizing behavior and embrace a course of disarmament.
He pleaded, in that age of the Cold War, for everyone to appreciate the true intent of these weapons—that they “can only destroy and never create.”
Six decades later, that still rings true.
Even in this era when progress seems distant, we can never resort to inaction.
Even in this moment when technology raises more questions than it seems to answer, we can never abandon our work to advance arms control measures. We can never shrink from the challenge of non-proliferation. We can never lose sight of our commitment to disarmament.
Because however uphill the battle, doing this work is always worth the effort. It is always central to our shared mission of mutual defense. It is always the duty of NATO allies and partner nations. It must always be a pillar of our common security, a foundation of our diplomacy, and a cornerstone of peace.
So I thank you. I thank you for being our partners, our NATO partners, in this effort.