Nuclear Weapons in the Next Generation: Reflections on Generation Prague

Last week, I attended the State Department’s Fifth Annual Generation Prague Conference. The conference was started four years ago as a way to highlight the important perspectives and contributions of the next generation, my generation, as we work to implement the vision President Obama set forward in his 2009 speech in Prague—a world without nuclear weapons.

When I explain to people my age that I work in arms control and non-proliferation, the conversation usually goes one of two ways:

The first reaction—usually preceded by wide eyes and a look of awe—is one of incredulity. “That sounds so…official!” Or, “Wow! That is way over my head.”

The second reaction—usually accompanied by an eye roll and a twisted smile—is one of dismissal. “Ha. What year is this, 1962?”  Or, “Impossible. Nukes are the reason why we haven’t seen World War III.”

These perennial conversations with my peers are reflective of what I believe to be the broader, predominant attitude of my generation toward nuclear weapons. For the most part, my generation either believes that nuclear weapons exist in an aura of military and scientific mystery, untouchable by mere mortals, or they see nuclear weapons as a problem of their parents’ generation, whose existence in our defense posture is inevitable. Both perspectives underscore the belief that nuclear weapons are irrelevant to our lives as young people.

While I’d like to say that my own interest in arms control and non-proliferation came about in some very profound way, I must admit that I only became interested in nuclear issues by a stroke of luck.

My sophomore year of college, there was a panel event held on my campus entitled “The Nuclear Dilemma: A World Held Hostage.” Now to be honest, I only went to the event because my attendance and a short written summary guaranteed me extra credit in one of my hardest political science classes that semester (frankly, there is a decent chance that I would not have been able to explain the basic theory of mutually assured destruction before the event started, because I had skipped out on the assigned reading earlier that day).

The panel featured two incredibly seasoned speakers. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the current director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative, and Professor Donald Hafner, the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs at my university and a former Foreign Affairs Officer in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The panelists explored the question of nuclear disarmament, arguing that our current Cold War era-nuclear stockpiles do not address twenty-first century security threats, and that there have been too many instances in which we have come dangerously close to a nuclear war.

To my surprise, the panelists also emphasized the importance of the youth movement in addressing issues of arms control and non-proliferation—issues which initially appeared to me as taking place in some elusive, far-off, academic land.

“Youth has a lot of energy, a lot of optimism about the future,” I recall Professor Hafner saying. “There is a kind of wonderful contagion that can result when college students take up a cause, even one as dark and complicated as nuclear weapons. I believe you can make a difference, and I encourage you to do so.”

The rest, as they say, is history. I went home that night and finished all of my reading, realizing that the event had provided me with a whole lot more than five extra credit points on my next test.

Two months later I arrived in Washington, D.C., knowing barely a soul in the city, to serve as a summer intern for Global Zero. With high school and college chapters around the world, Global Zero embodies the tireless, relentless pursuit of young people toward the goal of nuclear disarmament. My time at the organization infused me with a special passion for combatting the threat of nuclear weapons around the world that I hold with me to this day.

At the heart of the Generation Prague Conference lies the recognition that my generation will be responsible for ensuring that President Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons becomes a reality.

There is reason to be optimistic about this seemingly daunting task. As Senator Chris Murphy said in his keynote address, compared to their parents’ generation, young people are more open to the narrative that nuclear weapons are a liability rather than an asset. Citing a 2010 poll, Murphy noted 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.

Furthermore, my generation is the first to come of age in a truly globalized world. Senator Murphy importantly noted that like many other issues in today’s world, nuclear weapons are increasingly being seen by young people as a global issue. In other words, the debate over nuclear weapons is less about “us” versus “the scary other,” and more about how these weapons are a source of shared risk that pose a threat to global and national security everywhere.

However, despite the fresh attitudes of my generation and the fantastic energy President Obama has brought to the movement, significant hurdles remain. From my own point of view (and from the information I gleaned from others at the conference) there are two main challenges for young professionals seeking to enter and thrive in the world of arms control and non-proliferation.

First, many young people are tired of fighting the same battle that arms controllers have been fighting since the day the atom bomb was born. We want to contribute to the field in a new and dynamic way. We don’t want to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, and we certainly don’t want to be seen as cleaning up the ash and trash of the Cold War.

Second, too few jobs exist for young people in the field. Frustration with the lack of opportunity in arms control and non-proliferation was a central and recurring theme in the questions posed by young attendees at the conference, with many recent graduates lamenting that they had been forced to accept positions in fields unrelated to arms control upon graduating college.

Generation Prague must be led by the best and brightest. If the field remains barren of opportunities for young professionals to grow and learn, the movement is in danger of being unable to cultivate the fearless leaders it so desperately needs.