Nation & World

Moves by Russia, China, North Korea rekindle nuclear concerns

Global security experts scrutinize weapon deployment threats in Ukraine, accelerated missile tests, silo construction

4 min read
Bonnie Jenkins

“We’re not pushing for arms control, we just want to start having some conversations so that we can avoid miscalculations,” said Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine along with China’s missile system expansion and North Korea’s recent accelerated pace of missile testing have revived concerns about global arms security.

During a talk Wednesday, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, spoke to Matthew Bunn, James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-principal investigator of the Managing the Atom Project, about the approaches that the U.S. is taking to the changing landscape of nuclear threats in Russia, China, and North Korea.

Despite Russia’s explicit and implicit threats, the U.S. has seen no signs so far that Russia has taken concrete steps toward deploying nuclear weapons. The U.S. and allies such as France and the U.K. have been cautious in their public responses in an effort to tamp down, or at least not escalate, Russia’s rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean such talk is not being taken seriously, she said.

It’s unclear whether Russia’s previous violations of arms control conventions and now its actions in Ukraine will hobble the U.S.’s ability or willingness to engage with it on nuclear issues in the future, Jenkins said.

“How do we work with Russia in light of the violations that we have accused them of —recogniz[ing] that we still have to work with them? That’s one of the outstanding questions,” she said.

Top U.S. priorities are to re-establish the importance of arms control and disarmament and to reassert the global leadership role the U.S. formerly held, which was “diminished a bit” during the Trump administration, said Jenkins, a former fellow of the Belfer Center’s Managing the Atom Project, which hosted the talk as part of a two-day conference launching its new global nuclear deterrence network.

China also presents some different, but no less significant, challenges than Russia. Jenkins said the U.S. has struggled to convince officials in China, which has recently constructed hundreds of missile silos, to agree to bilateral talks on routine security matters like risk reduction or crisis management.

“We continue to try to reach out to them and say, ‘It’s important to have these discussions.’ We’re not pushing for arms control, we just want to start having some conversations so that we can avoid miscalculations,” she said.

Adding to the difficulties is the lack of history between China and the U.S. over nuclear arms negotiations. This in contrast to the nation’s situation with Moscow in which both sides have learned over decades how to sit down and work through shared concerns despite having fundamental disagreements over a range of issues.

North Korea, which appears to be rapidly advancing its missile program, perhaps in preparation for another nuclear test, is “very challenging.” Though the U.S. has tried to open a door to diplomacy, “they have not responded. They have not come back to us at all,” said Jenkins. “Instead, they’ve been testing.”

As a Black woman from New York’s South Bronx, Jenkins spoke of the importance of role models and how essential it is to have ideas and decisions that spring from a group of people who come from diverse backgrounds and life experiences.

“When I sit around a table, my view is going to be shaped by my experiences. And the challenges that I’ve met and overcome are different other peoples’,” she said. If everyone comes from a similar background, agreement can be reached too easily, without hearing challenges or alternative viewpoints, which often leads to poor decisions.

“I don’t want groupthink. Get me people who have different experiences because then what results from that will be tested,” she said.

In 2017, Jenkins launched Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Resolution, an initiative to recruit and mentor people of color who wish to work in national and international security.

“To bring more people into this space, they have to feel like they’re in that space, and if they don’t see people who look like themselves, they will just feel like ‘there’s no place for me there.’”