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The White House
For Immediate Release

Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes at the Arms Control Association

Ben Rhodes

Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor

Remarks to the Arms Control Association

As Prepared for Delivery

June 6, 2016


Thank you Daryl for inviting me here today. Anyone who has worked on arms control issues in government gets used to receiving the occasional thousand word email from Daryl laying out exactly what we should be doing. The Arms Control Association could save a lot of extra time by publishing Daryl’s collected emails every quarter as its roadmap for the U.S. government. But I want to thank ACA – and all the other groups here today – for your tireless advocacy.


I want to begin with a quick story about a different time, and a different presidential campaign. Nine years ago, in the summer of 2007, I had recently left the Wilson Center for a job as a speechwriter for Barack Obama. If you can believe it, people were calling me young and inexperienced back then – and I had a lot more hair. That’s the problem with these events. Everyone looks the same, and I always look older.


That summer and fall, a key issue in the campaign was the Iraq War, and then-Senator Obama’s opposition to it from the beginning. On October 2, the campaign was gearing up to mark the five year anniversary of a speech that Obama gave opposing the war, and warning of “an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs and undetermined consequences.”


But instead of simply giving a speech about Iraq, Senator Obama asked us to prepare a speech about the need to pursue a different foreign policy – and the centerpiece of that speech was a call for the United States to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, and to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program. We even had the incomparable Ted Sorensen introduce Obama as a tribute to President Kennedy’s historic speech at American University calling on the United States to rethink our approach to nuclear weapons and the Cold War – which was just the first of many efforts to walk in the path that Kennedy set in that speech.


As we enter the homestretch of the Obama presidency, it’s worth remembering that he came into office with a personal commitment to pursuing diplomacy and arms control. And the first major foreign policy speech that he gave as President focused on these issues, putting more meat on the bones of what he talked about as a candidate.


The early focus was also rooted in concerns about the status quo in 2009. North Korea had recently conducted its first nuclear tests, and Iran was steadily advancing its nuclear program. America’s commitment to arms control had been called into question following our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the Bush Administration’s nuclear guidance. Nuclear security efforts were lagging behind our broader counter-terrorism policies.


The central objective of the Prague speech was to put non-proliferation, nuclear security and diplomacy back where they belonged – at the center of American national security policy. And we got a stark reminder of the importance of that effort the night before the speech when North Korea tested a missile. That was the first time that I had to meet with the President after he’d been woken up in the middle of the night, and it was in a sparse blue tent in a hotel in Prague – not exactly the glamour that you dream of on the campaign trail.


Today, I’d like to revisit that speech – what we said we’d do; what we’ve done; and what we haven’t done. I’ll be straightforward up front. I know that the work is incomplete. I’ve read enough of Daryl’s emails to know that there are areas where many people in this room would like us to do more. And I’m glad that’s the case. As someone who just went to Hiroshima, I’m grateful that there are people and organizations constantly insisting on bolder action.


But I do think that President Obama has set – and followed – a course that has profoundly changed the status quo that he inherited. Indeed, one overarching objective of the Prague speech was to create a sense of urgency. As the President said – “More nations have acquired these weapons…. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.”


All of these different threats required effort in coordination with one another. Against that backdrop, let me start by reviewing the three broad objectives laid out in the Prague speech.


First, we have made substantial progress in securing vulnerable nuclear material around the world.


The most urgent danger that we face is a terrorist organization acquiring a nuclear weapon, or the materials to make one. That is why the President launched the Nuclear Security Summit process – so that this issue would be elevated within other governments, and on the international agenda.


Since the first Summit in Washington, 3.8 tons of enriched uranium and plutonium has been removed from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries – that’s enough material for more than 150 nuclear weapons. Fourteen nations and Taiwan have completely disposed of their highly enriched uranium. South America is free of nuclear materials. When Poland and Indonesia fulfill their commitments, the same will be true of central Europe and Southeast Asia. These are not always headline grabbing events. But one country that disposed of its highly enriched uranium in this process was Ukraine – and it certainly contributes to global security that the combustible mix of conflict and Russian-backed separatism does not include access to nuclear material.


At the same time, we have strengthened international efforts to counter nuclear smuggling. There are now more than 100 nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative, and we’ve been able to work with many of these countries to interdict shipments that raise proliferation concerns. With our partners, we’ve also installed radiation detection equipment at more than 300 international border crossings, airports and ports. Additionally, 102 nations have now joined the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which allowed that treaty Amendment to come into force on May 8 of this year.


There is more work to be done on these issues – which I will address in a few minutes. But we have secured important commitments, strengthened institutions, and developed habits of cooperation that will outlive this Administration and make the world safer.


Second, the President has taken steps towards the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.


To reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America’s own security strategy, we revised our declaratory policy to make clear that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear nation that is compliance with the NPT. We further made it U.S. policy to pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of our arsenal. And we reduced the role of launch-under-attack in our contingency planning to help avoid a catastrophic misjudgment.


The central numerical limits of the New START Treaty, which must be met by February of 2018, include significant reductions in U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear weapons and delivery systems.  The Treaty also include an ongoing comprehensive verification regime. Indeed, it is precisely at times when there are tensions between the United States and Russia that we should be most thankful for the verification that comes with strong arms control agreements.


There are now just over 4,500 nuclear weapons in our stockpile – 85 percent below our peak during the Cold War, and the lowest it’s been in several decades. We’ve further determined that we can sustain our deterrent while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by an additional third. Of course, we have not fulfilled our ambitions with respect to reductions. But we have continued our step-by-step pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, fulfilling our commitment under the NPT.


This leads me to the third objective laid out in Prague – fortifying the global non-proliferation regime. In Prague, the President put forward several principles to strengthen the NPT.


President Obama said, “we needed more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections” – and the United States has provided more funding for the IAEA, investing in its nuclear security fund; the capacity of its inspectors; and in the Peaceful Uses Initiative that was announced at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.


President Obama said, “we should build a framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation.” Since then, we’ve reached several new agreements on peaceful nuclear cooperation with other countries, most recently Vietnam. And we’ve supported the IAEA and Kazakhstan in opening a fuel bank that can serve as a supplier of last resort for countries that cannot obtain LEU on the global commercial market, but need to fuel peaceful reactors.


Finally, President Obama said, “we need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.” Since then, he has dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort to following through on that principle. Indeed, much of the work that we did at the outset of the Administration set the context for the capacity to hold a country like Iran accountable for failing to meet its NPT commitments. We affirmed our own commitment to meet our NPT obligations through the New START negotiations. We secured support for the Prague agenda through a UN Security Council Resolution, in a session chaired by the President. President Obama said, in Prague, that "we will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections” – and demonstrated our willingness to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran. And before seeking international sanctions, we presented clear evidence of Iran’s violation of an international norm – most dramatically, it’s development of a covert facility in Qom. 


All of those efforts allowed us to make the case – to other nations, and at the UN – that imposing consequences on Iran was not simply a national security interest of the United States, it was essential for the NPT and a rules-based international order that there be consequences for violations of the NPT. Meanwhile, the President made clear that sanctions were not an end – they were a means to strengthening our diplomacy with Iran. We had numerous false starts. But following the deterioration of the Iranian economy and the election of President Rouhani, there was an opening – and we took it. Of course, it took a while to negotiate – but the negotiations also demonstrated the enormous value of having both extraordinary diplomats and experts at the table to solve hard problems. The tag team of John Kerry and Ernie Moniz made this possible.  Their personal efforts set an example that I think we can draw from in similar efforts going forward.


In that process, we also benefited from support from groups outside of the government. I know there’s been just a little bit of commentary about this recently. But the obvious truth is, the White House did not have to convince the Arms Control Association to defend the Iran deal. You’d thought about these issues for years. You’d advocated for diplomacy. You shared ideas about what a deal could look like – before we even had one – and that helped us in the negotiations. And yes, you – and our other allies – successfully defended the deal, because it was a good deal. Then you went back to criticizing many other aspects of our nuclear policy.


Of course, for critics, it’s easier to have a debate about messaging than the deal itself. Because the results speak for themselves. Iran has taken significant steps to roll back its program and cut off its pathways to a nuclear weapon – steps that have been verified by the IAEA. These are facts – and they match how we described the deal last summer. 


To address the enriched uranium pathway, Iran dismantled and placed under IAEA monitoring two-thirds of its installed centrifuges. They shipped 98 percent of their enriched uranium stockpile out of the country—enough for about 10 nuclear bombs. Iran’s stockpile is now less than 300 kg of uranium enriched to no more than 3.67%. They are enriching uranium at only one facility – Natanz – and this activity is under 24/7 IAEA monitoring. To address the plutonium pathway, Iran removed the core of its Arak reactor and filled it with concrete, rendering it wholly inoperable now and in the future.


Before this deal, Iran’s breakout time to gain enough fissile material to build one nuclear weapon was two or three months.  Today, it would take about a year—and if they cheat, we’ll know because this deal subjects Iran to the most comprehensive nuclear inspections regime ever negotiated.  The IAEA reports on implementation – the most recent of which was issued last week  – continue to indicate that Iran is acting in line with its commitments. And IAEA inspectors remain on the ground conducting ongoing verification and monitoring activities, keeping a watchful eye on Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain – from milling and mining to spent fuel, which gives us a far greater capacity to detect a covert breakout scenario than we would have with no deal.


So with the Iran deal, the United States and our allies and partners did more than resolve a specific security challenge – we also demonstrated that diplomacy with even the most complicated adversaries can stop the spread of nuclear weapons, which should make this the first post-Cold War Administration to not have another nation acquire and test a nuclear weapon on its watch. 


The truth is, Iran took up an enormous amount of time and energy – building the sanctions regime; negotiating a deal; ensuring that it could be implemented. And I know that there are other areas where more work needs to be done. Let me just touch on a few of those, and give you a sense of how we are looking at the last seven months.


We have not stopped the advance of North Korea’s nuclear program. The continued testing of both nuclear weapons and missile systems by the North Koreans is the most serious proliferation challenge in the world today. The recent UN Security Council Resolution does impose the toughest sanctions that North Korea has faced, and is further indication that the international community – including China is taking seriously Kim Jong Un’s destabilizing actions. We’ve also worked hard to cut off North Korea’s capacity to sell materials overseas, and advanced our missile defense systems and planning in northeast Asia. But this will be a top priority – through our Administration, and for the next.


We have not been able to lock in further stockpile reductions beyond New START. Given our interest in pursuing those reductions through a negotiation with Russia, the largest obstacle has been President Putin’s unwillingness to come to the table. Indeed, given all that’s happened between our two countries, people can forget that one of the main reasons we cancelled a planned Summit in Moscow in 2013 is that we had nothing of substance to talk about.


We have not been able to secure all vulnerable nuclear material. This effort has also been impacted by Russia’s reduced enthusiasm for shared initiatives on nuclear security, along with a number of other countries who proceed cautiously on these issues. Moreover, Pakistan has also opposed efforts to negotiate a treaty to end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.


We have not been able to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – CTBT. In our first two years in office, the priority for Senate ratification was New START – and getting that through wasn’t easy. Then, following the 2010 mid-term elections, the composition of the Senate changed – leaving us with no viable path for CTBT.


Finally, I know that the scale of our planned modernization program has generated a lot of debate – and opposition – in the arms control community. Of course, even in Prague, President Obama was clear about the need to sustain a strong deterrent, and we have also invested in conventional systems that make nuclear weapons less relevant to some of our strategic planning. But we also take seriously the arguments that have been made on different sides of this issue.


So where does that leave us? I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues.


With respect to our stockpile, President Obama already decided to accelerate the dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads by 20 percent, and will continue to look at how we address our non-deployed weapons. We will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies, and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use. While Senate ratification of CTBT is not going to happen this year, we will continue to consider ways to affirm the international norm against testing nuclear weapons. And we will continue our focus on nuclear security – working to put more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring and security regimes, and to institutionalize the cooperation that the President advanced through the Summits.


Finally, it is a simple fact that the modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress and varied expectations about our future arms control efforts. Our Administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades. And the President will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.


Of course, the other thing the President will do is speak about these issues – as he recently did in Hiroshima. One of the questions that I sometimes get is whether the President should have put forward such an ambitious – and idealistic – vision in Prague. Why put forward a host of goals, knowing full well that not all of them would be achieved during two terms in office?


Let me close with two thoughts on why that ambition – and idealism – is entirely necessary.


First, in a city – and world – where you almost always have to settle for half a loaf, you sometimes have to start by pursuing the biggest loaf possible. The goals set by Prague were so big that they could make even historic progress look smaller – and that’s fine. Because as the President recently repeated in Hiroshima, we may not achieve the goal of a world without nuclear weapons in our lifetimes, but we can set a course, and move in that direction.


Second, let me quote that Kennedy AU speech – “the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war – and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears.” Of course, those words are just as true today. And that is why it is imperative that we force these issues back into the public conversation; push back against the fatalism which suggests that it’s not worth the effort; and do our part to extend our moral imagination.


As the President made clear in Hiroshima, ensuring that a nuclear weapon is never used again is not simply a matter of arms control – it’s a matter of how and when we are able to choose peace over war. No President – or succession of President – can fulfill the Prague vision in a vacuum. It requires cooperation with Congress. It requires a change in global dynamics – from our relationship with Russia, to the Korean peninsula, to South Asia and beyond.


It’s easy to say that’s impossible. But going to Hiroshima tells you that history can change, and that it should. Driving in from the airport, we were surprised to see huge – and friendly – crowds welcoming us. Who could have imagined that seventy years ago? Presidential motorcades drive pretty fast, but now and then you lock in – for just a moment – on one face in the crowd. For me, it was a small Japanese boy, smiling and holding a sign in English that said “welcome to Hiroshima.” Of course, you think of what would have happened to him standing there nearly 71 years ago; and you also think that the work done by groups like this, and by individual citizens in the United States and around the world, isn’t a luxury – it’s essential.  And the Administration will spend the next seven months continuing this important dialogue all the way through January 20, 2017.