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Profile: State Dept. Targets ‘Generation Prague’
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Kelsey Davenport

Since 2010, the State Department has hosted an annual conference on arms control and disarmament to support President Barack Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, with students and young professionals in the field as its principal target audience.

In interviews, participants in the conferences praised the meetings while suggesting ways to strengthen the effort.

The State Department uses the term “Generation Prague” to refer to the conferences and the next generation of professionals working in arms control. The term is an allusion to Obama’s speech outlining nuclear policy in Prague on April 5, 2009.

The State Department created the Generation Prague concept in 2010 to provide a “forum and framework for collaboration” with young professionals, students, and foreign governments that were energized by the Prague speech, Erin Harbaugh, outreach officer for the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 25 e-mail.

Now in its fifth year, Generation Prague is an event for “educating and empowering the next generation,” Alexandra Bell, director for strategic outreach in the Office of the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, said in the same e-mail.

Young people view nuclear weapons “through a completely different lens” in comparison to other generations because many were born after the Cold War, Bell said. The conferences give emerging leaders an opportunity to discuss nuclear policies that will fit in a more interconnected world, she said.

Making Disarmament ‘Relatable’

Participants at the conference said they benefited from the experience. For Brenna Gautam, a senior at the University of Notre Dame who attended the conference while working as an intern in Washington, the gathering presented “a more relatable image of the issue of disarmament and arms control.” Gautam, a co-founder of her university’s Global Zero chapter, said in an Aug. 20 e-mail that this is important because she feels that nuclear disarmament is “not a very personal issue” for her generation.

Erin Corcoran, a recent college graduate with an interest in the field, said in an Aug. 21 e-mail that, for young professionals to continue making progress in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons, it is important to learn about the gravity of the threat posed by these weapons from “predecessors who lived and worked through the Cold War.”

Officials also say they benefit from the conferences. An Energy Department official said in a July 28 interview that the students and young professionals at Generation Prague have “challenged and broadened his thinking.” He said experts need to be reminded that youth “view the value of nuclear weapons differently” because the weapons do not have the same deterrent value today as they did during the Cold War.

One of the young professionals he mentioned was Kingston Reif, who participated in a 2011 panel and is now the director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Reif said in an Aug. 20 e-mail that he was motivated to participate because nuclear threat reduction is the responsibility not only of previous generations, “but our generation and future generations as well.”

Although the conferences bring in high-level officials such as Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Bell said the State Department has also worked to bring in experts from the “policy trenches” to ensure that the “audience gets an idea of how policy is working from top to bottom.”

Shane Mason said he appreciated the opportunity to meet experts who have been in the field for five to 10 years and support high-level officials. Mason, a research associate at the Stimson Center, said in an Aug. 20 e-mail that these experts provide “practical insights” about finding jobs and developing the necessary skills for the field.

Increasing Participation

Mason said that barriers to careers, particularly at the State Department, “seem pretty insurmountable at times.” Although he acknowledged that budget constraints make hiring difficult, Mason said that young people will not stay in the field if they cannot find jobs.

Bell said a “key driver” for reaching out to young people is demographics, as many experts who “built the arms control and nonproliferation regimes” are reaching retirement age. The State Department “wants to recruit their replacements” and is looking for new ways to hire the next generation of leaders, she said.

Despite the difficulties finding jobs, the number of young people involved in nuclear issues at the global level apparently is growing. Meena Singelee, who has tracked participation by young experts attending conferences that are part of the review process for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said the numbers have “gradually increased” since 2010, due in part to “renewed momentum” on disarmament issues and “new priorities” in areas such as nuclear security.

Singelee, executive director of the International Network Emerging Nuclear Specialists, said there remains a “lack of significant participation by young experts from developing countries,” she said.

The State Department is looking to expand Generation Prague to reach international audiences. Bell noted that the State Department has paired with international partners such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and representatives from countries including Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Harbaugh said that the State Department sees Generation Prague as “one part of a larger push to engage global youth” and welcomes collaborators.

Moving Forward

Several participants agreed that the conferences could accomplish more. Corcoran said that small-group discussions at future conferences might be useful so that there would be more opportunities to “directly engage” with some of the experts.

Reif suggested that the State Department work with universities on events that bring officials to campuses to “demonstrate that nuclear weapons are not just a problem of the past.”

Gautam agreed and suggested that the State Department work with pre-existing clubs on college campuses that are dedicated to arms control issues. She said a stronger online presence could be helpful in reaching out to students who cannot attend events such as the annual conference in Washington. Streaming the conference live would be a good step, she said.

Harbaugh said that the State Department wants to partner with universities and nongovernmental organizations to “offer more opportunities through the year, in and out of Washington.”

She said plans are already underway for next year’s conference and that organizers hope to make it more “interactive.”

Posted: August 28, 2014