Hoover-NPEC Nuclear Proliferation Seminar Keynote Speech

Thank you very much for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be here this afternoon among friends, colleagues and wonderfully prolific experts on the topic of nuclear security and proliferation. The books at the heart of the panel discussions today are a welcome addition to the scholarship, public education and policy development around these challenging topics. I look forward to further discussions after lunch – including on the possibility of forging regional and global joint enterprises to address the threats posed by nuclear weapons, as well as today’s broader security threats. This is a subject near and dear to me and my colleagues at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and at the European Leadership Network, to our colleagues at the Hoover Institution, and, of course, to so many of the other leading voices on our issues around the world, including those in this room today.

When I was invited to speak here today, I was asked to focus on Europe and Russia – a logical request for the chairman of the European Leadership Network and someone who is clearly a European, has served in various ministries and was the UK Secretary of Defense.

Those who invited me may not have imagined that I’d be speaking on the very day that the Iran agreement was announced – but as that is the case, I feel obliged at the outset to say a few words about this from a European perspective.

First, let me say that the Iran negotiations themselves are an example of diplomacy and leadership overcoming extremely difficult problems. The fact of an agreement, which meets the challenge of the diversity of the EU’s three-plus-three negotiating team and the diversity of Iran’s politics, is a significant achievement – and all the more so that it’s happened in the worst possible geo-political circumstances, where the deficit of trust and confidence in each of the two coalitions could not have been higher.

Second, having gotten here, the maintenance and preservation of the coalition that enabled the deal is central to the preservation of the deal – particularly with regard to verification and the relaxation of sanctions. It also could serve to be just the sort of joint enterprise that some of the contributors to today’s discussion will argue for.

Turning to the deal itself, I am in the Senator Tom Carper school. In a statement issued earlier this morning, the senator said this: “Almost immediately, this agreement – which none of my colleagues has read – has been denounced for any number of reasons. To the harshest critics among us, let me say this: Cool your jets. Let’s read the documents, let’s meet with the Americans who’ve negotiated it and ask then the tough questions that need to be asked. And while we’re doing that, let’s ask ourselves: What are the alternatives?”

“For now,” he went on, “let’s hold our fire. Let’s do our homework and then engage over the next 60 days in a thoughtful, respectful debate that an opportunity like the one before us deserves.”

I quite agree – but I will say that it appears to me that this deal is what was agreed to at Lausanne, with additional verification – and verification has always been the most difficult challenge of this deal. I have confidence that if we can verify this agreement, then Iran will be kept from developing a nuclear weapon for between 10 and 15 years. So as Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS says, the principal component of the deal is no nuclear weapon in the forseeable future and no war.

From that perspective, it is a good deal. But I would add a third key component: an intact coalition and opportunity for us to build on that and perhaps even engage Iran in that continuing coalition though this process.

So, in the last 40 hours, with respect to Iran and to Greece, we have seen two historic, protracted negotiations conclude through the engagement of political leadership. I’ll come back to Ukraine in my remarks, but for now, let me says that I have considerable sympathy for Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s observation yesterday – to paraphrase – that it’s offensive to the people of Ukraine who are living in a war zone that the collective leadership of the eurozone have spent 17 hours negotiating, among other things, the privatization of Greek bakeries, and have not spent one hour together discussing the conflict in Ukraine.

I think it speaks to a deficit in leadership on nuclear issues that we all know must be addressed. And that brings me around to the remarks I had drafted before the Iran news broke this morning.

Even before the Iran agreement was announced, I intended to begin by saying that I am at heart an optimist, and I believe we all have good reason to be optimistic – despite so much recent evidence to the contrary. There’s no question that we are in the midst of some extremely challenging times with respect to Euro-Atlantic security and our broad agenda for nuclear threat reduction – but even in these difficult times, there are a number of signs, today’s news among them, that progress is possible. With that said, let me offer a European perspective as context for today’s discussion. Clearly, Europe today is at the epicenter of a number of significant challenges – from the future of the eurozone to dramatic trends in migration and the impact of regional wars – and it’s quite obvious that governments are struggling to provide the leadership necessary to address them. Without adequate leadership around these systemic challenges, it will be impossible for Europe to fulfill its obligations in securing the Euro-Atlantic community and in addressing the very troublesome deterioration in relations between the West and the Russian Federation.

Undermining security broadly at the moment, of course, is the economic crisis still being played out in Greece – which, even with a successful conclusion this week of a new arrangement, will be with us for years to come. Within the last couple of weeks, European leaders have had to face head on the prospect of what would be a damaging and humiliating departure from the eurozone – a move that on its own would have serious implications for regional stability and that could become contagious – or the prospect of engaging in some very ugly and uncomfortable compromises to keep Greece in the fold. The geopolitical stakes, to say the least, are high.

Europe’s migration and refugee crisis could be compounded by the outcome with Greece – but on its own, it is another area sorely lacking in leadership and direction. The UN issued a rather startling statistic last week, in case any of you missed it: It reported that the world now has nearly 60 million people displaced by war, conflict or persecution, the highest number since World War II.  Of the 60 million, nearly 20 million are refugees and the report said the humanitarian agencies no longer have the capacity to handle the situation. It’s a desperate state of affairs on so many levels – and there are profound global security implications. For Europe, the stakes are enormous. There were nearly 700,000 asylum applications by the end of March – certainly there are more now – as the vast majority of the displaced are within traveling distance of Europe. So it’s sad but not surprising that a number of countries, already overwhelmed, are closing or considering closing their doors. But we know that’s not a solution to the problem. The bottom line is that this is yet another area that breeds fear and further undermines regional security – and again, leadership is sorely lacking.

Now, let’s turn to the breakdown in Euro-Atlantic security and the significant rupture in relations between the West and Russia. Here in Washington just last week, the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia now poses the greatest security threat to the United States and that its recent behavior is “nothing short of alarming.” That’s a remarkable statement given the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State and other extremists around the globe. Think about it. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the man who is about to become the highest ranking military officer in the United States is identifying Russia once again as posing the greatest threat to this country.

I think we can all agree that the impact is clear: the longer the crisis in Ukraine festers and relations with Russia erode, the more difficult it will be for the West and Russia to continue to cooperate at any level on joint security objectives, including nonproliferation and disarmament. In addition, the notion of working together on new approaches to long-contentious issues such as missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons seems far off at this point. The fact is that even if Russian policy took a sharp turn for the better, the flames of distrust that have been fanned may take years to burn out in many Western capitals.

It’s a very dangerous dynamic in a region that includes six of the world’s 10 largest economies, four of the five declared nuclear weapon states and more than 90 percent of global nuclear inventories.

So, what are the implications – and what can be done to further our goals?

It’s certainly clear that whatever hopes we may have indulged for post-New START prospects for bilateral disarmament over the next two years are extremely remote. And though there’s still a strong case to be made that NATO’s nuclear deterrent would be more credible, safer and affordable if the U.S. were to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, discussions within Washington and NATO on the topic are frozen and likely to remain so for some time.

The landscape, then, is made worse by a clear lack of structure and leadership resolved to change the trajectory and bring new thinking to the table. The institutions set up to support constructive interaction between the West and Russia are inadequate or incapable of addressing today’s core political, economic and security issues, and the close, personal relationships among leaders that are so essential for managing crises have been lacking for years and are now marred by deep distrust. Our leaders, it seems, are stuck.

What can fill this void? Here’s where my optimism takes hold. In February, former Russian foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Senator Sam Nunn and I put forth a proposal to build a new Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group to take on these challenges. We’re not talking about a Track II or a group of experts working on their own with the hope that someone will listen. We’re proposing a Leadership Group that would be personally mandated by presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers and that would commit to conduct continuous high-level dialogue focused on developing specific recommendations on key points relating to the Ukraine crisis and to Euro-Atlantic security more generally – integrating broad political, economic and security issues.

The Leadership Group would offer an important demonstration of governments’ commitments to resolving core issues and would offer a vehicle for turning that resolve into action, including by initiating long overdue steps for Europe to begin to assume more responsibility for its own security. In The War That Must Never Be Fought, my NTI colleagues Isabelle Williams and Steve Andreasen write: “The question now is whether the political will exists in key capitals to even envision the creation of such a process. The potential gains are clear: pulling both sides back from an increasingly costly conflict. However, is it possible to envision practical steps consistent with the vision of building mutual security in today’s Europe? And could those steps lead to a change in the nuclear status quo within NATO?”

Here’s why I remain optimistic: We have begun the process of advancing our proposal, and we are seeing significant, high-level interest and willingness to work to address the leadership vacuum. I am not foolishly optimistic – but I am encouraged. I hope you are, too, and I hope to be able to share some concrete results of this effort in the months ahead.

We all know that today’s Europe is facing significant risks and challenges, and they are not being met by bold leadership. The combination of thoughtful scholarship, fresh thinking and bold ideas can help change that trajectory. So I am grateful for your work in this area, and I would like to thank you again for inviting me to join you here today. I look forward to our discussion this afternoon.

July 15, 2015
Des Browne
Des Browne

Vice Chair, NTI