Generation Prague: An Overview

The most practical lesson I learned at Generation Prague was to never show up 25 minutes early to a State Department event, as doors typically open 25 minutes after they are scheduled to do so.  My fellow compatriots and I endured 50 minutes of a coffee-less morning until finally, at 8:25, we were processed through security.  Thankfully, the conference inside made the wait worth it.

The list of speakers included Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chief of the UN Joint Mission in Syria Sigrid Kaag, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Andrew Weber, former Lieutenant General and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Director Frank Klotz, Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, and STRATCOM commander Admiral Cecil Haney.

Aside from a few technical difficulties (such as Lieutenant General Klotz’s microphone not functioning until midway through his speech), the conference went off without a hitch.  It focused on innovation in national security, primarily via the application of technology and youth engagement using social media. Senator Murphy delivered a keynote address in which he emphasized the non-traditional nature of 21st century national security threats.  He argued that nuclear weapons overall have become a liability, due to the rapidly diminishing value of nuclear deterrence.  Cyber threats and small-scale crises neither require nor can be remedied by the blunt force a nuclear solution entails.  Additionally, the traditional concepts of deterrence theory cannot be as readily applied due to the rise of non-state actors, and the increasingly blurred distinction between sovereign nations, proxy organizations, and terrorist groups (e.g. ISIS).  Even when deterrence applies, such as with great powers like the Russian Federation, the cold war era approach to deterrence are no longer effective in areas like Eastern Europe, due to the shift away from traditional ground forces and greater reliance on quasi-covert operations.  Nevertheless, stated Senator Murphy, the threat of United States use of military force must be seen as a credible.

One of the main foreign policy events the conference focused on heavily was the Syrian Chemical Weapons situation. Sigrid Kaag, the head of the UN Joint Mission in Syria, discussed the immense physical, political, and financial obstacles her team encountered during the weapons removal program.  Through her description and the comments of various other speakers, one could detect the consensus that the Syrian Chemical Weapons crisis was being viewed and marketed as an overwhelming victory for the United Nations and the State Department.  The oft-repeated narrative stated that the Join Mission represented a paragon of international cooperation, with ships from a wide variety of nations working tirelessly in tandem to remove chemical agents from Syrian borders for their destruction offshore, despite escalating tensions between the United States and its allies and the Russian Federation due to the Ukrainian crisis.  Despite different approaches, the great powers had come together on this one issue to rid the region of chemical arms, using a little bit of Russian arm-twisting and United States military potential to ensure the compliance of the Assad regime.

The conference also addressed the twin-pronged threat of bioweapons and infectious diseases and pandemics.  Assistant Secretary of Defense Weber heavily emphasized the broad and varied nature of biological threats (making nonproliferation and security efforts focused on biological weaponry extremely difficult).  Biosecurity, more so than any other type of WMD nonproliferation effort, requires international cooperation, due to the ease of producing and distributing biological agents as demonstrated by the 2001 Anthrax Attacks in the United States.  Most importantly, bioweapons only represent half of the threat in biological security, with the destructive ability of naturally occurring pathogens and drug-resistant viruses and bacteria posing a grave threat to peace and stability.  Without international communication, Assistant Secretary Weber argued, containing and responding to biological threats is next to impossible.  Border security becomes much less relevant because of the disparate methods of transmission a virus or bacterium can utilize.  International collaboration becomes the only way to stand a chance against biological threats.

General Frank Klotz shifted the focus of discussion back to technological application, speaking on the role of technology in updating and increasing the effectiveness of existing nuclear technologies, and discussing his experiences at the NNSA.  Technological innovation helps increase the lifespan of older systems, allowing the United States to update existing nuclear infrastructure and improve monitoring capabilities instead of testing new devices and delivery systems.

The penultimate speaker of the conference, Under Secretary of State Gottemoeller, was (in this intern’s humble opinion) the highlight of the conference.  She synthesized the primary points of the prior speakers, and argued that the need to focus on WMD’s is even more critical after the end of the Cold War.  “The Cold War is over,” she stated, “but the ash and trash of the Cold War is still with us.”  Agreeing with Assistant Secretary Weber, Under Secretary Gottemoeller emphasized the benefits of international collaboration, decrying the attempts of various elected officials to disengage from the Russian Federation, despite its policy differences with the United States.  She also specifically identified Asian proliferation as a potential problem in the immediate future, and reiterated General Klotz’s point regarding the need for updated monitoring capabilities.  As Congressional disengagement from the nuclear issue increases, Under Secretary Gottemoeller argued for the importance of social media engagement, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that the United States remains active in preventing WMD proliferation of all types.  Such social media efforts could help renew political interest in an issue that has fallen out of favor on the national stage.  Overall, Under Secretary Gottemoeller tried to make clear the increasing, rather than decreasing, role nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will have on world affairs in the immediate future.

Admiral Haney finished out the event by focusing on the need to redefine deterrence in the modern world.  Proper application of technology and intelligence, rather than the numerical amount of warheads in the US arsenal, are vital to an effective US deterrence strategy.  As the threat of nuclear war declines, he commented, the threat of the use of a nuclear devise increases.  Nonproliferation and deterrence, therefore, remain just as relevant in the 21st century.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “never show up 25 minutes early to a State Department event, as doors typically open 25 minutes after they are scheduled to do so.” I have been to a number of events and conferences in DC (not State Department)–always possible to get in early, even if speakers might not start until 5 or 10 minutes late. I hope this was just a snafu, not typical. Glad the rest of the conference went well, with several speakers presenting a variety of views on WMD.

  2. J_kies (History)

    So with the various distractions the major themes of foggy thinking were less clear?

    Nuclear weapons have never been ‘useful’ and the principle issue of deterrence is convincing others that the US will retaliate (e.g. the only nation to employ nuclear weapons in war is crazy enough to do it again). The US has a vast current superiority in delivery of conventional weapons so we are not motivated to escalate in conflict and our nukes convince others not to.

    Given the Russians themselves as the rumored original source of the Syrian chemical weapons program; who better was motivated to help clean up the mess?

    As to the new Russian Imperium attempting to undo the popular revolt against their corrupt agents that robbed the Ukrainian people; instigating ‘popular’ revolt via unacknowledged military agents that deliberately shoot down civil airliners? Why does the US DOS not just muscle-up and declare Tsar Vladimir a ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’? Suitable counter-terrorism actions could then occur with the former Blackwater / Triple Canopy types doing sanctioned headhunting for unacknowledged active Russian military or intelligence personnel in Ukraine to preclude further attacks against civil targets.

    Getting the US Treasury to take appropriate actions to seize Russian assets as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is also immediately indicated.

    A bit harsh but a lot of bad things are occurring and the speakers ought to just call it correctly.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Calling Russia a “State sponsor of Terrorism” over the shootdown is ridiculous.

      First and most importantly, this was not a terrorist act, but rather an accident during wartime. The person firing the missile believed that it was a legitimate military target, in a war zone, during time of war. It’s an unfortunate event, and one that should and will have consequences for the separatists and Russia, but it was not terrorism.

      Terrorism is an act of violence against a civilian target by a non-state actor to further political change. In this case the actor is a de facto state (They hold territory and act as a government) against what they believed was a military target.

      If the “state sponsor of terrorism” label is going to remain relevant, rather than just code for someone we don’t like, then it needs to be applied carefully. Otherwise you run the risk of it becoming just another meaningless term. It’s much the same as how some prosecutors in the US are trying to label teen girls who send nude selfies to their boyfriends as producing child porn. Not only is it completely at odds with the intent of the designation, but it renders the designation meaningless.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      News accounts strongly suggest “accidental” rather than intentional killing of civilians. The individuals shooting the sophisticated piece of weaponry (supplied by Russia) were inadequately trained and/or lacked the ancillary equipment needed to distinguish military from civilian target. Clearly it was reckless and irresponsible to supply this equipment under such circumstances, maybe even a war crime, but not terrorism.

    • J_kies (History)

      Ridiculous?! Its a serious critique; why do you believe that indiscriminate firing of weapons capable of killing hundreds isn’t terrorism? Since a SAM system capable of shooting down straight and level aircraft at 10km height also has target ID capability, failing to ping the A/C transponder is deliberate ignorance of the target, its not an ‘accident’. Stating otherwise is simply a lack of ability to state hard truths. They acted in a manner that could kill hundreds of civilians and it happened to work out exactly that way.

      We agree that terrorism is the (non-state) application of violence for political objectives. If the Kremlin wants to claim state status for their hand-puppet then its casus belli and war is the state of affairs. We should prefer to consider the Russian agents provocateur as being outside of control and acting as terrorists. A fiction that leads to more moderate outcomes.

      Either Vlad should disown and shoot his proxies for their criminal stupidity or we ought to do it for him and seize his stolen wealth as partial compensation for his victims.

      Lest you think I am devaluing the label, the US needs to be exceptionally careful about arming Syrian rebels or weapons we provide may become the means to ID the US as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” if used in a terrorist act.

  3. Cthippo (History)

    Harry said:

    “As Congressional disengagement from the nuclear issue increases, Under Secretary Gottemoeller argued for the importance of social media engagement, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that the United States remains active in preventing WMD proliferation of all types.”

    So, if I’m reading this right, she’s saying “well congress isn’t interested in these issues so we should start a facebook page about them to get people interested”? Social media may be a good way of spreading information, but as an agent of change it’s been pretty much an abject failure. It doesn’t matter how many “likes” an issue gets, it’s not likely to translate into action.

    Let’s face it, non-proliferation is just not on people’s radar and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. If anything, congress, or at least a few members, are probably paying more attention to it than the population at large. Even the chemical attacks in Syria barely raised an eyebrow. This isn’t a hot issue and isn’t going to be until it more directly affects most people.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I would certainly agree, arms control “isn’t a hot issue” right now. Maybe social media, books, journal articles, or other communications won’t change that anytime soon.

      Certainly, the situation could change if/when “it more directly affects most people.” I would hate to think we need a nuclear war (in some faraway place, of course) or another scary nuclear crisis (like the Cuban missile crisis) to get people’s attention. Is there some way of gaining interest (or forward movement) on arms control that would be both more effective and less dangerous?

    • Cthippo (History)

      @ Jonah Speaks

      I guess the question I have is “Shoul arms control be a big issue right now”?

      I mean, obviously it’s an issue we’re interested in, but is the proliferation of strategic arms and WMDs one of the most pressing issues of our times or can it safely be put on the back burner?

      Looking at the present world situation, I would argue it can be back burnered for a while. WMDs in Syria are largely under control, the US / Russia dynamic is one of words and economic sanctions, India / Pakistan remains messy, but stable, and unless you’re concerned that Burma is going to get the bomb this century, there is just not much going on.

      That’s not to say we should give up on arms control and nonproliferation, the capabilities of which were certainly important when the Syrian WMD attacks happened, but I’m just not sure it should be on the front of people’s minds right now.

      So what should people be talking about (in my opinion)?

      Israel and the Palestinians

      The larger Sunni – Shia divide since it’s driving the Iraq and Syria conflicts

      Russia, Ukraine, and the limits of what we can do in Putin’s backyard.

      Looking for a third way between corrupt governments and violent extreemism in central Africa

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      From my perspective, nuclear risk reduction and nuclear war avoidance are existential issues for the human race. Nuclear war can endanger the bulk of humanity and lead to the collapse of modern civilization. By comparison, most other problems are not existential.

      Political leaders in all countries have decided that nuclear arms and nuclear risk reductions is not their priority. But is that safe? The nuclear clock is still ticking, waiting for a new hot war or cold war to arise.

  4. jeannick (History)

    those comments , including Rose Gottemoeller’s , are sooo yesterday its pretty obvious there is a powerful constituency out to play the worst , with no desire whatsoever to ” emphasized the benefits of international collaboration ”
    …..cold war 2 , the movie is out there in a movie theater near you
    anyone standing in front of this runaway truck is going to be flattened as a Putin bot