Remarks at the Ploughshares Fund Gala

John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
October 28, 2013

Well, good evening, everybody. And Michael, thank you so much for a very, very generous introduction. I think everybody here wants to join me in thanking you for your remarkable efforts through all the years. You said a moment ago that you’ve been doing this for 40 years. You’ve really not only been involved in these humanitarian causes for a long time and the effort to make our world safer, but I think everybody here would agree that your groundbreaking film, China Syndrome, created a new consciousness about all of this, and you’ve been at it ever since. Thank you. God bless you for it. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

Doesn’t he look great? He looks absolutely spectacular. He is the comeback kid. And as everybody here knows, he has stashed away two Oscars. A month ago he added an Emmy to his mantle. And I’d asked him previously at another event we were at some time ago with friends here in Washington, I said, “What’s it like to win all these awards?” And he said, “You know, it was just an honor to be nominated.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what they tried to tell me in 2004.” (Laughter.)

He has done amazingly, obviously, and we are really happy that you are gracing the screen, whether it’s television or the big screen, still with your talent.

Let me say how much I appreciate the leadership of Mary Estrin and Joe Cirincione. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for your generous comments, Joe. And I want to thank everybody on the team of Ploughshares for your extraordinary work in pursuit of a difficult, obviously, reaching goal. But that’s what goals are supposed to be about, especially the big ones. Realizing a world that is free from the threat of weapons too terrible for any of us to comprehend is really hard for some people to grab onto. It’s a big concept. But I’ll say more about why I think it’s so essential that we do grab onto it in a few minutes.

I want to thank this guy sitting right in front of me. I don’t know why you’re sort of singled out there, Dick, but it’s great to see you again and to be with you here. He was my former Chairman, and for nearly 30 years we worked together on the Senate Foreign Relations together, which is a long time. And as every one of you knows – and I think you’re going to hear from Dick shortly – there is no nobody who’s spent more energy in more worthy ways to try to make the world safer than Dick Lugar. And I’m glad to call him a friend across the aisle. (Applause.) Good to be with you.

Needless to say, we need a lot more of Dick’s brand of common sense as well as his courage in reaching across the aisle at a time where we know how difficult that is, and his commitment to finding serious foreign policy answers to very, very challenging issues. We’re living in a time of much greater conflict in many ways, but far fewer people – despite the fact that it doesn’t’ seem that way – far fewer people dying in wars than did in the last century. And as asymmetrical as these challenges are, the reality is that we still face the great challenge that has been with us since 1945 and which so many people have expended their energy to try to control. I will always appreciate Dick Lugar’s partnership and persistence as we worked together on the New START Treaty. And without a doubt, we would not have made it through the Senate without Dick’s bipartisan efforts and without his common sense and courage.

I also want to thank all of you. It is heartening to see a lot of people here who are so committed to ensuring that one day, our children and grandchildren might actually be able to live in a world that is free from nuclear weapons, and that nuclear weaponry is a subject to be read about in a history book and not dealt with on the front pages of the newspapers on a daily basis.

In order for that to happen, above all we need two things. One, we need leadership that is willing to try to embrace this vision and give it life and make the world safer from the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and we also need – and I think you will agree that President Obama has actually stood up and provided that kind of leadership, in Prague, which was mentioned a few minutes ago, but also in Moscow, in Berlin, and across our own country. And I am convinced with all of the conversations we’ve had over the course of the last months, as I begin my tenure as Secretary of State, that is deeply committed, passionate and moved by this cause.

The second thing we need is you. We need organizations like Ploughshares and people who are willing to work the grassroots and people who are willing to educate. Educate – let me tell you about that for a minute. Dick will remember when I came to the United States Senate when we were there in the 1980s and Ronald Reagan was engaged in efforts then, before he became engaged in Reykjavik with Gorbachev, in what was then called Star Wars, as well as satellite weaponry, other discussion, the MX missiles. It was a time of enormous discussion in the United States Senate about these issues. We actually had an arms control observer group, and I worked for years to get onto that group. Ted Kennedy was on it, Sam Nunn, John Warner – a group of people who really cared about these issues and understood them and worked at them.

And then over time, as the Cold War ended and as we began both Dick and Sam Nunn’s work and other work to destroy nuclear weapons, the United States Senate changed. I’m willing to bet that maybe 10 senators, if that, have actually debated deeply and voted on issues of arms control in the United States Senate today.

So when I say educate, it’s not just the American public at large that has to be educated about these issues, about Comprehensive Test Ban, about computer testing, about all the mechanisms that are available today and all of the things we know about this weaponry. We need the United States Congress to spend more time and pay more attention and to be more importuned by all of you with respect to this challenge. None of this goal that we are trying to achieve here can be realized without your help – every single one of you here.

And those of us who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis – and I look around the room, I see some of you here qualify with me for that – we remember firsthand the palpable fear of duck-and-cover drills at the height of the Cold War. I remember as a kid in middle school, I guess it was, getting under my desk in the daytime and covering our heads and being told what we had to do in the event of a nuclear war. Those of us who have experienced that are obviously too quickly becoming the minority today.

So it’s our responsibility to educate the public about the challenges and the opportunities that we face. I learned some of it firsthand when I was in the United States Navy, the first school they sent me to – to was Damage Control, and then in conjunction with it Nuclear, Chemical, Biological Warfare School, Treasure Island, San Francisco. Now, Treasure Island, San Francisco back then was pretty damn good. We used to go hear the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones and Fillmore West and it was a pretty good time, although our daytime activities with nuclear weaponry was somewhat of a contradiction to all of that.

But I will tell you that I learned enough about throw weights and circles of damage and radiation and the consequences to say to myself, “This is insanity.” And back then we had about 50,000 warheads deployed on both sides staring at each other, until Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev brought people to their senses with a notion that was inconceivable back then that you might actually try to move to a world of no weapons.

So we have moved through START 2. We are moving down to a level where we’ll have 1,500 or so nuclear warheads. And it is a very good thing that our children don’t know what the threat of nuclear war really feels like, and we need to work to ensure that they never do, that their future is not going to be defined in the same way that ours was.

So I want to just say that I’m the first to acknowledge that getting there is a very, very challenging effort. I’ve listened to Henry Kissinger and I’ve listened to George Shultz, after whom this room is called, and I’ve listened to Bill Perry and people I have enormous respect for talk about this.

When President Kennedy so eloquently outlined his strategy of peace at American University over half a century ago, he called the goal of a complete ban on nuclear explosive testing “so near, yet so far.” And for better or worse, that diagnosis still applies today to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. And as President Obama has said, this goal is going to be the work of generations. But I’ve got news for you: Every step you take towards it, rather than in the opposite direction, is a step that will make this planet safer. And it may take those generations. But because every step means you are learning how to resolve conflicts in a different way, you are learning how to deal with international conflict far differently from the way we do today, that you don’t rely on the same kind of deterrence, to imagine that, to conjure up a vision of what that might be like, is not such a far reach, I believe.

Now, we have made important progress even towards that, and it shouldn’t be overlooked, from the Limited Test Ban Treaty that went into effect, what, 50 years ago this month, to the total moratorium on nuclear testing that President George H.W. Bush first proposed in 1992. And it’s only been breached by one country in this century: North Korea. We have made great progress in bringing leaders together to secure materials around the globe, especially through the establishment of a nuclear security summit, and we have voluntarily assumed a much greater role in the role in the international nonproliferation regime.

And of course, as I mentioned, there’s the New START Treaty, which will leave the world with the fewest deployed nuclear weapons since Dwight Eisenhower presided over the earliest standoffs with the Soviet Union, and Michael’s father was filming standoffs at the O.K. Corral. New START was a hard-fought – and because of the difficulties of bringing people along in this climate, a very significant agreement that does far more than reduce the number of weapons. It institutes a new and an effective verification regime, and it brings more of what was happening behind the scenes out into the open. It increases transparency, and it gives us much greater visibility into Russia’s nuclear activities, and they to us, which helps build confidence and actually reduces risk. It ensures that a strong nuclear deterrent remains the cornerstone of U.S. national security and that of our allies and our partners.

New START is a hallmark of the practical, commonsense approach that is needed to address the nuclear weapons threat. It’s not ideological. It’s not radical. And that’s why the satisfaction that Dick Lugar and I shared at its passage was tempered by the fact that the treaty passed the United States Senate with only four votes to spare. Now I don’t know about you, but I know that I do not want to accept as the new normal a standard of just 71 votes to be able to ratify the kind of treaty that used to pass the United States Senate near unanimously, a treaty that is so absolutely on its face prima facie without any doubt whatsoever in our common interests as inhabitants of this Earth. And none of you should be satisfied either. There is nothing the slightest bit partisan about our shared survival. And even at the height of gridlock, we ought to all be able to agree on the goal of eliminating the risk of annihilation.

So I’m encouraged by the representation here, and by the bipartisan capacity that is represented in Ploughshares and the spectrum of elected citizens – elected leaders and everyday citizens alike who consider solutions and ask one basic question above all else: What will make the world safer? Devising solutions and answering that question is no longer just the responsibility of the superpowers, as it was during the Cold War. It isn’t just the responsibility of the United States alone. All states can and must contribute to the conditions for disarmament and nonproliferation, and those two goals are actually the flips sides of the same coin. Peace will be, as President Kennedy said, the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. And we have to commit to doing our part. That’s what Joe said about George Shultz, about we’ve got to get into the field, you’ve got to get into the action, you’ve got to take the lead. Offense, not defense. As the sole surviving nation that ushered in the nuclear age, and accelerated it, we have, I think, a special burden to help usher it out. President Obama believes that. And if we see a future for big-ticket accomplishments like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – and President Obama and I do see that – we need more nonpartisanship, more education, and more advocacy from everybody here and from a lot of people who need to be brought here.

We need you out there to make the case, because the case, frankly, is stronger than ever. I was still in the United States Senate in 1999, on the losing side of a vote to ratify the CTBT. I thought it was a good idea then. I think it’s an even better idea now. And in a way that we could never have imagined 14 years ago, today we can maintain a safe and secure and effective arsenal without resorting to explosive testing. In a way we that we couldn’t 14 years ago – we didn’t know how – today we have a much more advanced monitoring capacity that will ensure that the treaty is, in fact, verifiable and reliable.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m realistic about the timeframe to try to begin to lower these numbers. Not going to happen tomorrow or the next day. But it’s time to re-start the conversation, to have the open debate, the full airing of every single argument and the chance to ask every question, just as we did on the START Treaty. And in the meantime, none of us here can dare to underestimate the message that we would send to the world if we began to rein in the most dangerous weapons.

Let me just say I know there are some who question the twin strategies of disarmament and nonproliferation. They think it’s somehow inconsistent. They think it makes us weak. But the simple truth remains that while our ability to deter our adversaries and protect our allies will never be compromised, as President Obama has made clear, we have more nuclear weapons today than we need to meet that standard. (Applause.)

And I might add, for all those budget-conscious folks up on the Hill, in an era of difficult budgeting, it’s very important to remember these weapons and their maintenance do not come cheap. Now, I’m not suggesting that you balance that against your security, but when you know your security is well met, and completely and totally spoken for, there’s no reason to fear reducing to lower levels and reducing the capacity for other nations to feel that they have to join the crowd.

Obviously, we are now facing a test of that – two tests – in North Korea and in Iran. And we are engaged, as the President has charged me to be and has welcomed, an opportunity to try to put to test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program, and will submit to the standards of the international community in the effort to prove that to the world. Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test. I suggest that the idea that the United States of America is a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise. (Applause.)

Nor will be stampeded into some notion that this is easy, or that somehow just the mere statement you’re willing to do something means you have done it. Our eyes are wide open. The actions must be real. They must be fully verifiable. They must get the job done. And no words can replace those actions. And we have made it crystal clear, and I will repeat again, no deal is better than a bad deal, because a bad deal could actually wind up creating greater danger.

So we will do what is necessary here, but it is important for everybody to remember that in a world with fewer nuclear weapons, every nation can actually be stronger, not weaker. Everybody can actually be safer and more secure because of the regimen that you set up in order to guarantee that. These are principles that guide us as we work to keep these weapons out of the hands of terrorists who seek to buy a nuclear bomb or get one off the black market, people who are nihilists with little interest in diplomacy, with no economy to sanction, no desire to join the international community, no concern for the next generation growing up on this earth.

The principles that guide us are the same principles as we work with our international partners to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons that Michael talked about a few minutes ago. Who would have imagined a few months ago that we would be removing weapons that hadn’t even been acknowledged to exist? We have to seize these opportunities. We have to explore this in the name of humankind and in keeping with our responsibilities as stewards of this planet.

And I will say that it is not words alone, as we call on North Korea to comply with its international obligations. We need to move forward. We need to see how North Korea will respond. How can you excuse a state, a rogue state, that spends its scarce resources on missiles designed to kill rather than investments that makes its citizens lives better? We are reminded through that contradiction of the very foundation of the Ploughshares Fund. Ploughshares, as all of you know all too well, echoes the biblical responsibility, the call of the scriptures to turn weapons of war into the tools that till the earth. It is a noble calling.

And you recognize that our responsibility does not stop with eliminating the weapons. It is not enough just to take them out and retire them. We have to redirect our resources and our energy into creating jobs and opportunity, encouraging advancement and growth, helping our neighbors, helping the needy, fulfilling the rest of the requirements of the scriptures. President Obama and I believe that this needs to be an age of construction, not destruction, one that will be defined by innovation, interactivity, and greater integration of ideas and cultures, more so than at any other time in human history.

So while weapons that were created to destroy have no place in our future, it is not enough just to melt the swords into silver. We have to make them into those ploughshares if we stand any chance of fulfilling the vision promoted by the prophets and presidents alike that one day we might be able to no longer know war. President Kennedy’s peace strategy was a courageous one. Think about it, at the height of the Cold War. President Obama’s agenda is equally bold, especially at a time when non-state actors have changed the way that we think about the nuclear threat.

These are not just high-minded dreams of leaders, my friends. These are the concerns of parents all across this planet, people who will never forget our responsibility to the next generation. And if we care about our children and what they will inherit – not just the kinds of weapons but what kind of world – then we have to act with courage today. Believe me, we’re not naive. Brent Scowcroft is not naive. Henry Kissinger is not naive. Bill Perry, Jim Schlesinger -- none of them – they’re not naive. We know that our goal of a world free of nuclear threat is a lofty one, but it is worth fighting for. We can’t just wish this world into a different reality. We have to fight for it, and that’s what I know every single one of you have come here committed to do. It’s a privilege to be with you. Let’s keep fighting and making it happen. God bless. Thank you. (Applause.)