The Hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Innovation Forum Workshop
Stanford University, CA
April 7, 2016

Good morning. It is wonderful to be back at Stanford. But it is especially wonderful to be with Bill Perry. As Bill said, I have had the opportunity to work with Bill during the Clinton Administration. You meet and work with all sorts of people in government, and I think, despite the cynicism in these times, probably nine out of ten people that I worked with, whether it was in the executive branch or on the Hill, wanted to do the right things. We may have differences in judgment, but we try not to question each other’s motives and motivations. Unfortunately that ethos has worn very, very thin.

But there are a few individuals that you come across in government who stand out and above even that standard. In my experience, Bill Perry is one of those few individuals. I rarely met anyone in government or elsewhere for that matter whose brilliance is matched by his integrity and decency. Bill, you are always someone I have looked to for a role model for how we should govern, and that has inspired me, so I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you.

It is also a great pleasure to be here with my colleague Rose Gottemoeller, who is really one of the giants in the world of nonproliferation and arms control, who is leading our efforts on a day-in and day-out basis. Her leadership, and Bill’s leadership for many decades, has truly given humankind a second chance.

I’m very grateful to our co-hosts: Technology for Global Security and Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Center for International Security, and the Preventative Defense Project. And I’m also very grateful to all of you for coming out to spend the day with us.

It’s hard to think of a discussion that is more important or more consequential than the one we’re having today. It’s important to the President, to Secretary Kerry, to our team at the State Department. It is important that your ideas and your insights—what we get out of today and what we get out of every day from interacting with this community—those ideas and insights are embedded into the highest level of our policymaking.

Technology has long been a tool of foreign policy, from wartime radio broadcasts to real-time epidemic monitoring. But today, it is something much, much more. From cyberspace to outer space, it is fundamentally altering the DNA of our foreign policy—disrupting, accelerating, or creating new horizons for diplomacy.

As Bill said, I’ve been privileged to spend the last seven years in the executive branch at the White House National Security Council and now at the State Department, and I have been struck again and again by how some of our toughest, most urgent global challenges that we are grappling with in the Situation Room reside squarely at this intersection of foreign policy and technology.

One of the downsides we have is that may of us who are given the responsibility of trying to grapple with these decisions are not trained in technology or science, and it is one of the shortcomings we’ve been working to overcome. I’ve come to the conclusion in many meetings that we need scientists and technologists in the room just to tell us whether we need scientists and technologists in the room. We are working on that. We’re getting better. The President has particularly been focused on bringing in—including to serve stints in government for six months to a year with the U.S. Digital Service—young innovators, young technologists, young entrepreneurs to spread that kind of thinking through our government.

But as I look every day at what we are doing in the State Department, we know that this intersection of foreign policy and technology is something that we have to grapple with.

How will the advent of digital currencies affect the strength or effectiveness of our sanctions regime around the world? How do we prepare for the revolution in robotics and its impact on our labor markets, on our economies? How do we amplify the positive voices and diminish the negative ones on social media in the fight against violent extremism? And how do apply new technologies in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction?

In thinking about all of this, one of the things we’ve done at the Department is to create something called the Innovation Forum. We are convening regular conversations almost on a monthly basis between senior policymakers and global innovators to build bridges with the innovation community to answer very specific policy challenges and questions.

It helps us in Washington to see around the innovation corner—to have a better understanding of what’s coming at us for good or for the less good. But it is also a way of letting people in the innovation community know what we’re trying to do, what challenges are we facing, what are the problems we’re trying to solve, and hopefully get people interested and engaged in doing just that.

We want to find more ways for innovators to inform foreign policy at the highest levels—and foreign policy priorities to spark and accelerate new ideas.

So we held our first Innovation Forum right here at Stanford just a couple of months ago. We brought over 100 humanitarians, coders, and entrepreneurs together to think about the problem of expanding access to education for Syrian refugees. It was incredible. The ideas that came to the surface just in the space of a one-day workshop I think are going to make a real difference as applied to this problem.

In February, in Washington, we brought together people around the question of monitoring ceasefires. At NYU, at the Center of Law and Security, we brought people together around the questions of fintech and the different implications for us around the world.

And that is why we are back today.

The question, the challenge, the goal we are discussing here is nothing short of a safer, more secure world for every single citizen of the world, so it is a small subject.

Nearly seven years ago to the day, President Obama stood in Prague and outlined a vision for the reduction of nuclear dangers through U.S. leadership.

As he said at the time, “One nuclear weapon exploded in one city, be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague, could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens there is no end to what the consequences might be—for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”

It was this ever-present danger that drove the United States and the former Soviet Union—in spite of profound disagreements and differences—to enter into arms control treaties and agreements with an eye to prevent the greatest cataclysm ever imagined: a nuclear war.

And it was this danger that spurred the world to build a global nuclear nonproliferation regime anchored in a treaty that celebrated its 45th birthday last year.

We all know that that treaty is not without its imperfections, but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty advances the peaceful applications of the atom; forbids new countries from acquiring nuclear weapons; and commits those countries that already have them to work toward their eventual elimination.

It is this rules-based order that helped humankind step back from the precipice of our own making and protect future generations from repeating some of the mistakes of the past.

Over the last several decades, the historic lockdown of thousands of nuclear weapons worth of material and the ingenious work to convert some of that material into energy to light cities has undoubtedly made the world a safer place.

But a rules-based order only works when we all subscribe to the rules. That is really the larger challenge that we are facing around the world today. The United States took the lead after World War II in forging that rules-based order—creating the norms, the institutions. By and large, it got the big picture right. It prevented more war between the great powers. It created an environment in which countries could develop and rise relatively peacefully, and it has been a great success for us and, for that matter, many countries around the world.

But that order is under challenge and under threat in many ways today. Of course, we know it is under threat from non-state actors, from super-empowered individuals, from groups of one kind or another that are challenging its basic premises. It is also under challenge from large state actors who decide which rules they want to abide by and which they feel free to ignore.

Think of this problem: you see us spending a lot of time dealing with the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s actions and interventions there. On the one hand, it seems a little bit strange that we’re spending that much time on this problem because Ukraine is far away, and arguably it really doesn’t go to our core national security interests. Yes, people are aggrieved by Russian aggression and Russian intervention, and it’s nice to do something about it, but why does this really matter?

It matters because it is a challenge and a threat to this rules-based system in which we have invested so much—to basic premises like you can’t change the borders of another country by force, or you can’t tell a people what they are to do in the future with their own country and their own decisions or with whom they associate.

But what is particularly interesting about this case, and the reason I mention it today, is—as Dr. Perry knows so well having worked on it—when the Soviet Union dissolved, it left three successor states with nuclear weapons: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. And one of the great achievements of the Clinton administration in the early days was to get those countries to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved.

In the case of Ukraine, the reason we were able to do that is because Ukraine got a guarantee from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty. So if that agreement has been literally and figuratively thorn apart by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, what is that going to do for us as we’re trying to convince other countries like North Korea to give up their weapons and that would understandably look for some basic security assurances. That is why it matters so much.

The horrific terrorist attacks that unfolded so recently in Brussels, in Ankara, in Lahore underscore the single greatest national security threat facing civilization: the grave risk of nuclear terrorism. That is something we spent a lot of time discussing at the nuclear summit in Washington.

These recent tragedies, as barbaric and indiscriminate as they were, would pale in comparison to a scenario where Daesh succeeds in actually acquiring a radiological source or fissile material—or, God forbid, a nuclear weapon.

This is just the peril that the President and this administration are working relentlessly to thwart. So we had a Nuclear Security Summit—50 countries and nearly 40 Heads of State to Washington—working on, thinking about, trying to act on this problem.

The fourth since 2010, this Summit has mobilized the world behind the idea that all countries have a role to play in the hard security issues of our day.

But our work is still far, far, far from complete, and what we really need is your help to create a new paradigm where individuals become active participants in their own security and safety, where the greatest threat to our security—the actions of individuals—can become our greatest strength.

We need your help to take advantage of the fact that governments no longer have a virtual monopoly on space assets, like satellites, or innovations in communications, like the internet, as they did decades ago.

Whether trafficking in human beings, drugs, or missile technology, we know that the high seas are the smugglers’ highway. So the flip-sides of this coin are just as new technology is taking down barriers to access to dangerous technologies for those who could use them for ill purposes, it is also creating very powerful new opportunities to prevent the spread of dangerous technologies and to police agreements that have been reached among nation-states. UAVs, smartphone applications, ubiquitous sensors, crowd-sourcing, data-mining—all of these innovative pathways have very clear or increasingly clear applications for the problems that we’re trying to solve.

Today, for example, more and more companies are exploring how a constellation of small CubeSats—no bigger than a small speaker—can monitor the movement of vessels in real-time. And what makes sense for a company’s bottom line can also be used to track and tag vessels carrying suspicious cargo. In this way, those who could never have thought of joining the hunt for weapons of mass destruction can become a vital part of our defense and our ability to detect before it’s too late.

It was also not long ago that the collection and analysis of big data was once the sole providence of governments, but now it fuels innovation and growth across the private sector—with seemingly limitless possibilities.

Seven years ago, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA invited teams around the world to identify the location of 10 red weather balloons moored at visible fixed locations across the continental United States.

Over 4,300 teams composed of an estimated 2 million people from 25 countries took part in this challenge.

Now apparently Stanford must have sat it out, because it was a team from MIT that took home the prize. They identified the locations all ten balloons in an astonishing 8 hours and 52 minutes.

What was their approach? They dispatched the world, literally the world, on road-trips in every direction across America—21st century road-trips. They tapped into social networks with a unique incentive structure that not only incentivized people to identify a balloon location, but also incentivized people to recruit others to the team.

Now obviously a nuclear device is not a red balloon, but we could use similar sources and sensors to find it—and to respond faster and more effectively in an emergency.

The truth is that is easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency. It is easy to assume someone else is watching; someone else is on it. Today, we make those assumptions only at our peril.

Which is exactly what brings the State Department out to Stanford and Silicon Valley today and indeed in the days ahead.

We have an extraordinary reservoir here of expertise and imagination and innovation, much of it represented in this room today. We are deeply appreciate all that you have already done through technology to advance human progress. The sheer ingenuity of this work suggests that the seeds of a solution—or several solutions—in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction can be germinated right here in this room.

So the discussion we are having today isn’t theoretical. It’s not an abstraction. It’s not esoteric. It is our hope, our profound hope, that the ideas and thoughts you have today will guide our abilities tomorrow to make this world just a little bit safer and a little bit more secure.

Thank you very much. I look forward to rejoining you in a few hours to hear about the fruits of your labors.