Millennials: The next great opportunity in nuclear security

By Kiran Sridhar, Ravi Patel, David Jia | May 16, 2016

Many world leaders and security experts have expressed concern that millennials have grown up incognizant of the danger posed by nuclear weapons. In a United Nations study in 2002, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan asserted that because young people did not live through or do not remember the horrors of the Cold War, they are liable to complacency: “What we know little about, we care little to do anything about.” It is true that millennials’ exposure to the horrors of nuclear weapons comes not from “duck and cover” drills at elementary schools nor from evening newscasts, but from video games such as Call of Duty.

But instead of being fearful, we and many of our peers are optimistic that our generation’s leadership will help to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again. Because we don’t remember the Cold War, we are unencumbered by outmoded theories of deterrence. And because we have grown up in an age of unprecedented technological interconnectedness, we are more globally engaged than any previous generation.

Adjusting deterrence philosophy. The great Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz described the underpinnings of deterrence in his 19th century treatise On War when he postulated that wars represented a “continuation of political activity by other means” and could not be considered in isolation from political objectives. The indiscriminate destruction wrought by nuclear weapons make them prototypical examples of weapons that destroy a state’s political objectives.

During the Cold War, when the principal actors—the United States and the Soviet Union—both understood the severe consequences of using nuclear weapons, deterrence was a viable cornerstone of international security. But in today’s more complicated global landscape, where the most urgent nuclear threats come from rogue state and non-state actors, deterrence is an unreliable means of ensuring security. Terrorists, by definition, strive to destroy the political objectives of nations like the United States and therefore cannot be deterred. And the rogue North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has purged many of his father’s top advisors, executing as many as 70 officials, leading many to fear that he won’t exhibit the rationality that international observers came to expect of the nuclear states during the Cold War.

Yet leaders of the national security apparatus continue to trumpet the importance of deterrence. Leading generals have called for a trillion dollars in upgrades to America’s triad—as a contingency in the unlikely event that a nuclear power seeks to wipe out the nation’s second-strike capacity, even though such an initiative will prevent the disarmament of weapons that are incredibly vulnerable to accidental use or to being stolen. And despite the fact that the Pentagon's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review indicated that the most pressing threats were nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it still called for America's stockpile of land-based nuclear weapons to be kept on hair-trigger alert. This decision makes little sense, given that geopolitical analysts foresee almost no scenario—barring a nuclear war with Russia— in which hundreds of nuclear weapons need to be immediately launched.

Too many military and political leaders have proved unable to shake off Cold War principles that are obsolete in a more complicated world with a multipolar nuclear threat. On the other hand, young people who lack the proclivity to adhere to outdated defense doctrines are well positioned to develop the new philosophies that are needed in a world with more nuclear actors and a greater risk of nuclear terrorism. By facilitating a frank conversation about nuclear deterrence, young people can pave the way for the adoption of a set of policies that better address the urgent nuclear threats facing the world.

Increasing global engagement. Young people also have the greatest opportunity to advocate for, and galvanize, collective action around the world. A Pew Research Center report found that a higher degree of social media usage among young people has led to greater political involvement; early Twitter employee Claire Diaz-Ortiz attributed this correlation to the fact that "living in an online world means that [millennials] have larger social networks, and thus larger social obligations, than [their] forefathers." Social media sheds light on international issues and on the common backgrounds and perspectives of individuals in different corners of the world, thereby fostering a sense of global citizenship.

Indeed, a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that incoming US college freshmen in 2015 were more committed to political engagement than any cohort since the study began 50 years ago. Nearly 40 percent of freshmen surveyed indicated they wanted to be community leaders, and 60 percent stated that they were interested in improving their understanding of other countries and cultures. This interest—both in local communities and in the international system at large—means that young people are well positioned to stimulate the collective action necessary to tackle global issues, including the improvement of nuclear security on a multilateral level. It is little wonder, then, that major global advocacy initiatives such as Kony 2012 (an online video created to expose the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony) and ONE (which campaigns in favor of government initiatives to fight extreme poverty) have fostered global discourse.

In order for advocacy campaigns to effect real change, though, mechanisms must be developed to influence policy and aid international monitoring efforts. Lobbying campaigns can generate the political will necessary to reinvigorate stalled efforts aimed at improving nuclear security—such as the repatriation of fissile materials to the United States and Russia, or another attempt by the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Collective action also presents an opportunity for ordinary citizens to leverage technology and assist international regulators; for example, physicists Christopher Stubbs and Sidney Drell have proposed that millions of people detect seismological activity on their smartphones to identify potential illicit nuclear tests.

Prominent leaders in the nuclear security arena have taken notice of the opportunity to tap the next generation. For example, Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), recently announced the formation of a youth group as part of the CTBTO. (Ravi Patel, one of the authors of this essay, is a member of this youth group). Zerbo stated that he “believe[d] that the time has come to bring youth more firmly on board.”

One project led by the CTBTO youth initiative is to identify the benefits beyond security that can be derived from the treaty’s entry into force. The young researchers will present their findings during the Ministerial Meeting at the Forty-Sixth Session of the Preparatory Commission in June. Engaging the emerging generation reflects a realization that nuclear security challenges are multigenerational.

In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy stated that, at a time when “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of… human life,” it was the obligation of “a new generation of Americans” to ensure peace and stability. Today, we are confident that another new generation has the ability to reduce—and ultimately perhaps eliminate—the existential threat that humankind still faces.

Together, we make the world safer.

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