The Nexus of International Security and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals


Thank you for having me and a big thank you to Stimson Center for hosting me today. Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Sustainable Development Goals Summit during the UN General Assembly High-Level Week.  Today, it is my honor to speak to you as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security on how the three bureaus I oversee make progress towards the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs.  I know that many think this may be out of the ordinary – how arms control and other areas of international security, or “hard security” as it is often titled, are tied to sustainable development – but my hope is that we ignite a conversation that helps us to reimagine how we talk about issues related to security assistance, weapons of mass destruction, nonproliferation, disarmament, and arms control.  I also hope that this will give us the space and opportunity to reinvigorate, and if not remind, all of us of the importance of supporting, promoting, and strengthening international security as a mechanism for peace and prosperity.

The work conducted under my Undersecretariat is principally in the areas of weapons of mass destruction and other security related nonproliferation, arms control, regional security, defense relations, space and emerging technology, counterproliferation, capacity building, peacekeeping, as well as arms transfers and security assistance. Made up of three bureaus – the Political-Military Affairs Bureau, the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau, and the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau –  I and my team also work across the department to advance implementation of the Australia-UK-U.S. security partnership, focused on peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.  

We are responsible for advancing U.S. national security objectives by building enduring security partnerships and leading with foreign policy on our defense relations; enhancing strategic stability using tools such as arms control treaties, international agreements and organizations, transparency and confidence-building measures; export controls, sanctions, and interdictions. Ultimately, these tools, along with capacity building programs pursued by the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) in concert with other USG stakeholders, serve to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and destabilizing advanced conventional weapons capabilities.  We are also equally responsible for creating guardrails in anticipation of the use of space, emerging and future security risks brought about by the rapid advance of technology, as well as creating and maintaining enduring partnerships and alliances to uphold international law and the core principles of the United Nations Charter during these hinge moments in history. In doing so, we are also advancing the UN SDGs. 

International peace and security are intersectional.  What means security to one nation, may not mean security to another.  Where one person feels secure another may face poverty, lack of education, opportunity, health care, and access to equal rights no matter their gender.  For some, security means a stable and prosperous economy, for others their very right to exist is at stake either because of their very identity, or the climate impact on their borders. 

Thus, every day, we aim to ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.  Not just as it is described in SDG #16: “Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions,” but across all of the SDGs. 

For we believe that prosperity is founded on peace, and our work on issues of international security provide the bedrock to help ensure peace and stability. 

So how deeply interconnected and mutually reinforcing are hard security objectives and the UN SDGs to help meet global progress?  Let us look at the measured impacts of the various programs and policies bureau-by-bureau within the T Family and how they directly contribute to the SDGs to include combating food insecurity, promoting human, animal and plant health, ensuring the full participation of women in leadership, safeguarding our environment, promoting affordable and clean energy, taking care of our oceans, and strengthening institutions to promote the rule of law, to name a few. 

Let’s start off by looking at the hard lessons learned.  

The days, weeks, months, and years after a major military intervention are always harder than we imagine.  Communities are shattered, lands are destroyed, and generations suffer from the wounds of the past.  Landmines and unexploded ordinance remain a deadly legacy and reminder of the conflict. However, through the dedicated work of the United States in addressing these war legacy issues, we are supporting communities, helping them to not just survive, but thrive, and become sustainable.  In particular, the humanitarian demining programs administered by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is helping countries achieve their sustainable development goals. Long-term recovery truly begins when countries have the ability, the infrastructure, and the know-how to help themselves. As we continue to face the challenge of providing food security around the globe, which has been exacerbated by the illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must continue our efforts to support the removal of landmines and explosive remains of war from fertile lands. 

Most notably, funding, grant assistance, training programs, and capacity-building initiatives led by my Bureau of Political Military Affairs, to remove unexploded ordnance are provided to impacted communities around the world.  In areas recovering from conflict, explosive ordnance poses a life-threatening barrier to safe water resources and agricultural lands, while also posing a risk to environmental ecosystems including ecologically fragile environments.  By clearing landmines and other explosive remnants of war, communities can create an environment in which to pursue zero hunger and allow access to safe drinking water, and they can protect life on land, where they are free from the threat of injury or death – thus making progress towards SDG#2, SDG#6, and SDG#15. 

Capacity building, a focus for all three bureaus is an incredibly effective and important element in the toolkit for sustainable development. Also, in the case of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, building the participation and capacity especially of women not only in the humanitarian demining sector, but also in the security sector, in international military education and training courses, in peacekeeping operations, and in the physical security and stockpile management sectors is essential.  Promoting development through the active participation, leadership, and decision-making of women advances security.

Study after study shows that women play a key role in creating a sustainable peace. Women bring different and valuable perspectives to the table with solutions often rooted in strengthening communities through inclusion and empowerment for all. For example, in Vietnam, I had the honor to meet with a very impressive group of female deminers whose work is the embodiment of what is good about the SDGs and what can be accomplished to promote development and prosperity. It also reflects the embodiment of Secretary Blinken’s reminder to all of us in the Department that diversity and inclusion makes American diplomacy stronger, smarter and more creative. These women, through their leadership, have now empowered themselves and communities to increase development and sustainable land management for years to come. By promoting the participation of women in humanitarian demining, we are successfully making progress towards SDG#5 on Gender Equality.  

Moreover, our capacity-building assistance supports our partners’ military and civil institutions in multiple ways.  Our support enables them to respond to natural disasters and enhance climate resilience, but also to ensure that they have strong institutions to combat terrorism, organized crime, and illicit arms flows.  In turn, this furthers nonproliferation efforts by impeding access to advanced conventional weapons, while leveraging the capabilities of allies, partners, and international organizations. Our capacity building efforts overseas makes progress towards bolstering sustainable cities and communities (SDG#11), taking climate action (SDG#13), and strengthening peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG#16).  

Unlike so many new challenges we face, the WMD challenge – and in particular the nuclear one – is a space in which we are fortunate to be able to draw upon wisdom built through tested experience to inform and strengthen our future efforts.  Arms control is more than treaties; it is a set of tools and processes that avert arms buildups, promote stability and predictability, and strengthen strong, effective, and accountable institutions.  The Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance leads the United States’ diplomatic efforts to sustain strong multilateral institutions that cooperate in the face of today’s conventional and unconventional weapons challenges, which strengthens SDG #16 – peace, justice, and strong institutions. 

For instance, we are supporting countries to strengthen their national institutions as they work to develop implementing legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention.  This year, with the United States’ completed destruction of all declared chemical weapons stockpile, the world formally eliminated an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.  Our stockpile destruction was a decades long project with the close coordination of local, state, and federal government that considered the health and safety of local communities, the environmental impact on local and sensitive ecosystems, and the capacity building, training, and education of local workforce. In addition to SDG #16, by reducing potential illnesses and deaths from hazardous chemicals, we have also made progress towards SDG#3 – good health and well-being. 

Partnerships are critical to our collective success under SDG #16.  Advancing peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, the Australia-UK-U.S. security partnership represents a deepening of some of our closest partnerships.  We are working assiduously to find new ways of bolstering security cooperation and spark innovation, all while focused on peace and stability.  

Our success helps us lead other countries to their successes, furthering the positive U.S. leadership and efforts to constructively engage in the arms control and disarmament arena as well as to preserve the international rule of law, prevent the undermining of international organizations and multilateral institutions, and promote their good, unbiased governance.  I would say that our leadership also extends to strengthening gender and racial equality not just in our own offices but in multilateral fora as well. We advance efforts to feature women and people of color in presentations and events and bring gender-neutral language into various multilateral institutions’ rules of procedure and reports/statements, in turn making progress towards SDG#5 – Gender Equality.  

Arms control bodies and treaty organizations lay the groundwork for international cooperation that can be extended and offered to partner countries the expertise and support on security challenges.  Extended deterrence partnerships are a part of that, as well as several cooperative international efforts like the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), a strong collaboration among 31 countries to build capacity, increase awareness, identify, and develop solutions to nuclear disarmament verification challenges, and Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) – an initiative consisting of 42 countries which acts as a confidence-building measure that enhances relations with participating states and develops policy solutions for ongoing challenges related to nuclear disarmament efforts.  These types of fora allow for inclusive innovation and sustains international partnerships in support of not just a security goal, but an educational one as well – advancing SDG#17 – Partnerships for the Goals.  

What is also interesting about our work on arms control is the impact it has on the environment, from under water to the Arctic to space.  Effective arms control measures can help curtail or avoid conflicts that could damage the environment through pollution from explosive remnants of war, new pathogens and toxins, and hazardous chemicals, or through indiscriminate mining, dangerous space and naval maneuvering, and the release of hazardous pollutants resulting from damage to or sinking of vessels during hostilities.  We are also looking at ways to further enhance space security and ensure that the outer space domain remains a free and peaceful arena that will benefit humanity and provide prosperity, such as by not conducting destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests. 

Seventy years ago, President Eisenhower spoke about how the global community must come together to apply the atom to the arts of peace.  This was his Atoms for Peace speech, which soon became a guiding principle for how we must use nuclear energy, science, and technology for peaceful purposes.  The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is the direct descendant of this speech, established in 1957 after a series of “Atoms for Peace” conferences to “accelerate and enlarge the contributions of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity around the world.” Its founding motto, Atoms for Peace, was broadened in recent years to “Atoms for Peace and Development.”

Peaceful uses of nuclear energy are one of the three pillars of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which includes a commitment to expand and share the benefits of nuclear science and technology for serving the world’s energy, climate, environmental, health, and agricultural needs. The Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation oversees our support of the advancement of international cooperation on peaceful uses, our efforts to promote safe and secure international trade to protect our critical technologies.

One of the ways we are advancing America’s nuclear policy priorities, including advancing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, is through our support to the IAEA.  You may be familiar with the IAEA as the world’s “nuclear watchdog.”  Equally important, but less frequent in global news headlines, is the IAEA’s work to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, which I am excited to highlight today.  The IAEA is the first stop for most countries seeking nuclear solutions for energy and development.  Since 2010, the United States has provided over $640 million in extra-budgetary funding and in-kind contributions to the IAEA for peaceful uses activities, enabling dozens of countries to harness the peaceful power of the atom.  In that respect, we look forward to the IAEA’s 2024 Ministerial Conference on Technical Cooperation and Nuclear Sciences and Applications as an opportunity to draw greater political attention the contribution of peaceful uses to sustainable development and to advance collaboration to strengthen this tie.

The peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology span across many fields.  I recognize that nuclear energy is currently at the forefront of many discussions of energy security.  The world needs clean, reliable, safe, and secure energy options to address the realities of climate change and move toward our shared net-zero 2050 goals, while meeting increasing energy requirements.  Civil nuclear energy is an important part of that mix.  Advanced nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs) can help make this transition to a green economy with greater diversification and reliability in energy sources. They can be used for power generation, clean hydrogen production, industrial applications, process heat, desalination, or other uses. The United States supports nuclear newcomer countries in capacity building in a manner consistent with the IAEA Milestones Approach for implementing a responsible nuclear energy program through our Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology – or FIRST – program.  With the United States leading the way, and while maintaining the highest standards of nuclear security, safety, and nonproliferation, SMRs are meaningful investments in long-term economic growth, including enabling advanced industrial development and generating jobs. The U.S. has provided $41.75 million towards FIRST since it was first announced in September 2023, has had over 125 FIRST capacity building engagements through 2023 and has trained over 1750 nuclear experts and officials through 2023 on workshops, webinars, technical consultancies, study tours and site visits. The US and Japan jointly host the Winning an Edge through Cooperation in Advanced Nuclear (WECAN) to deepen cooperation to support the deployment of advanced, safe, and secure nuclear reactor technologies in responsible third countries and work towards Net Zero Emission goals. In addition, ISN is leading Project Phoenix, which will accelerate the global clean energy transition by supporting feasibility studies and providing technical assistance to support the pursuit of the conversion of coal-fired power plants to reliable and safe zero-carbon SMR nuclear energy generation.

On a more personal level for many of us is the transformative way nuclear medicine is combatting cancer.  The United States has contributed over $47 million to the IAEA to support countries with little or no access to cancer treatment facilities toward achieving the UN’s SDG#3 on promoting good health and well-being.  We are proud to be the largest donor country to the IAEA’s transformational “Rays of Hope” initiative through which the IAEA is leapfrogging capacity building in countries with little to no current cancer diagnostic and treatment capability.  This includes supporting the procurement of diagnostic imaging equipment and linear accelerators for radiotherapy treatments well as the training of radio-oncologists, technicians, and medical physicists to cultivate the necessary workforce to fully utilize these new facilities.  By focusing on helping to provide access to these targeted high-impact and cost-effective interventions, our strong contribution to cancer care promotes equity and a higher quality of life for all.

Through the IAEA, the United States also substantively contributes to initiatives that use nuclear technologies to combat plastic pollution and ocean acidification for a healthier, cleaner ocean supporting life below water (SDG#14); that build capacity for responsible water resource management in countries to enable access to clean water (SDG#6); that help farmers protect plants from damaging insect pests, grow more food using new and improved plant varieties, safeguard the health of livestock, and improve animal reproduction and breeding practices to combat food insecurity (SDG#2) and improve life on earth, and so much more.  

But we can do more.  We must do more. Recognizing the importance of engaging with diverse stakeholders not only from research and academia but also the development community and private sector, the United States launched the Sustained Dialogue on Peaceful Uses in August 2022 at the Review Conference of the NPT.  We created the Sustained Dialogue in partnership with the United Kingdom and with support from a large number of other NPT countries to find new avenues of cooperation and dialogue to expand access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology to help countries in their pursuit of the SDGs.  The Sustained Dialogue seeks to demonstrate the essential role that the NPT plays in not only stemming the spread of nuclear weapons but in facilitating access to transformative technologies and skills that can improve lives.  In this way, the Sustained Dialogue demonstrates that hard security and soft security are two sides of the same coin and our work can – and must – make progress on both at the same time.  

And as we promote innovative ways to use nuclear science and technology in support of the SDGs, we are also working to protect other sensitive technology from exploitation and strengthen national institutions to counter destabilizing transfers of military-related capability and to counter terrorism.

We do this by implementing export controls to protect legitimate trade and scientific cooperation from exploitation for illicit proliferation purposes, as required by all States under UN Security Council resolution 1540, which then also creates opportunities for value-added trade and scientific exchanges leading to improved national incomes and economic development.  We also reinforce international counterterrorism efforts and strengthen related international capabilities through promoting countries’ use of science-based, partner-enabled approaches to WMD terrorism and emerging technology threat responses.  Such capacity-building is part of our work. 

 In the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, we train stakeholders on establishing and applying national investigative and scientific resources to terrorism cases and criminal prosecutions involving CBRN materials and related asymmetric or disruptive threats.  These efforts include training partners on biosafety, biosecurity, molecular diagnostics, and related nonproliferation capacity building efforts.  We seek to educate foreign health workforce on practices for early detection and control of high consequence pathogens to fight against many communicable diseases that threaten global health.  We also help countries develop chemical security curricula to strengthen security education, equipping graduates to apply security practices and skills in the workplace. 

Gender equality plays a big role as well, as the United States presses for the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in peacemaking, conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts, consistent with the UN mandate, as well as the use of nuclear and other technologies for sustainable development, the inclusion of gender-neutral language in multilateral fora, support for women’s regional networks, and building women champions in WMD. It is why I have taken the opportunity to advocate for diverse and inclusive gender representation at every available multilateral fora over the past year: the NPT Review Conference, the BWC Review Conference, and the CWC Review Conference.

We, the global community, have set a high bar of achievement for an unprecedented project — 193 countries working towards Sustainable Development Goals to improve lives of all people and the planet we share. Our governments are united on a plan of action for peace and prosperity, and have committed to uphold and strengthen the values, principles, and institutions that have enabled so much stability, prosperity, and growth for the last 75 years.  We are halfway to the 2030 deadline.  And we still have a long way to go to meet our SDG targets. 

Certainly, the challenges we face are exacerbated in this pivotal moment in history, making it more difficult for us to meet the goals we have collectively set out to achieve.  Forging international cooperation has become more complex because of rising geopolitical tensions and increased global problems.  But we need to keep our eyes focused on achieving the goal, and continuing to work together, alongside each other, for peace and prosperity.  

As I have shared today, even in an area like hard security where you may think there are weak links to the SDGs, we find quite the contrary to be true.  The core precept of our what, why, and how are based on partnership, international law, our shared values, and a common vision for the future. We will continue to apply the benefits of our work in keeping the world secure to advancing peace, security, and development.

As Secretary Blinken said last month, the decisions we make today will shape the future to come.  Though America’s global leadership is essential  for a more free, open, and prosperous era for everyone around the world, we are determined to work with our partners, allies, industry, civil society and others – including those who may not agree with us on everything – as long as we are all committed to solving together our shared challenges in international security and keeping the promises we made to each other, and to the planet, for peace and prosperity. 

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