Kelsey Davenport

Looking to the Future of Nonproliferation

Interview with Kelsey Davenport

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we interviewed Kelsey Davenport in 2013. In the interview, she explores the role of the younger generation of women in nonproliferation efforts and the future of nonproliferation advocacy.  We believe women must be involved in arms control and security efforts at all levels. To that end — and in honor of National Women's History Month — we are delighted to reshare this interview.

Kelsey Davenport, still a Ploughshares Fund Grantee, was one of the up and coming women leaders on nuclear issues, a Nonproliferation Analyst for the Arms Control Association. Today, she is Director for Nonproliferation Policy, still at the Arms Control Association, where she is responsible for researching and analyzing developments related to weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia and other aspects of the international nonproliferation regime, including fissile material security.


Ploughshares Fund:  What led to your interest in nuclear nonproliferation advocacy?

Kelsey Davenport: I had the opportunity to live in Jerusalem and experienced first-hand the regional security situation in the Middle East, including the debate over the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the region. My experiences solidified my belief that human security cannot be realized by nuclear deterrence, advanced weapons systems, or secured borders. I believe we can do better, that we must strive for a higher ideal - a more inclusive sense of security that is based on meeting the basic needs of people and building connections between societies, not separating them by walls or weapons.

PF:  Do you think your experience as a young woman influences your nuclear nonproliferation work?

KD:  Absolutely. I have traveled, studied and lived in conflict zones where female voices are largely silenced and where women and children have suffered disproportionately the effects of violence wrought by the proliferation of weapons and failure to broker peace. In witnessing this suffering, I realized that it is vital to be a voice for building positive peace that recognizes the unique needs of women, men and youth. I try to keep these needs in mind when I think about policy that the United States and the international community pursues when dealing with states that pose proliferation threats. This lens reminds me to question how tools like sanctions impact the wider community and the ethical dimensions of using humanitarian aid as an incentive for negotiations.

PF:    Which women have inspired you over the years, whether from nonproliferation or outside that issue area?

KD:  To borrow from Sir Isaac Newton, I appreciate that what I have accomplished thus far and that what I hope to accomplish in the future, is because I have had the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of the incredible women that have broken down barriers and empowered women to pursue careers in every profession.

I am in awe of early female reformers like Elizabeth Blackwell and Ida Tarbell who broke into professions dominated by men. I am inspired by amazing women such as Leymah Gbowee and Gita Sahgal, who risk retribution for drawing attention to the disproportionate suffering of women during conflicts and seek to empower women to be voices for peace. But I think I draw the most strength from the women whose names and stories we will never know, women who continue their lives after surviving unspeakable horrors, women who face persecution to seek education in societies that deny them access to schools or retribution for speaking out against rape and abuse when the law may not protect them. These women exemplify perseverance in the face of inconceivable odds.

PF:  Do you think is it important for women to have a strong voice for nuclear nonproliferation? Why?

KD:  I think it is incredibly important for women to have a strong voice in nuclear nonproliferation – as it is with every issue – because a gendered lens provides a different perspective. We will only meet the challenges of proliferation if we understand the threat and the environment holistically. Nonproliferation cannot just be about preventing states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but creating an environment where states are no longer compelled to pursue them. That requires a clear understanding of state, regional, and global security needs. We need to hear the voices of women around the world, and not just women, but also youth and minorities, if we are to truly develop a sustainable vision of human security that meets these needs.

PF:  How do you see the leadership role of women in nonproliferation changing over the next five to ten years?

KD:  There are already a lot of incredible women working on nonproliferation issues; like Acting Undersecretary Gottemoeller who demonstrated incredible negotiation skills in working on New START, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins who played an integral role in reshaping the Global Partnership Against Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Catherine Ashton, who leads the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, and so many others who lead outside of government in NGOs and think tanks and contribute to the dialogue on important nonproliferation issues.

Looking into the future, I hope to see the number of women in roles of responsibility increase, particularly in areas of the world where women’s voices are not as prevalent. I also hope to see more women elected to the U.S. Congress and take an active interest in proliferation concerns, support diplomatic actions and be cognizant of the gendered dynamics of these issues.

PF:  What challenges do you see for the field of nuclear nonproliferation, and what advice can you give for other young women interested in advocating for nuclear nonproliferation?

KD: To me, one of the most pressing challenges right now is maintaining the space for diplomatic engagement so that we can negotiate with North Korea, which continues to build its nuclear arsenal and test ballistic missiles in defiance of the international community while its people are starving, and Iran, whose nuclear ambitions remain clouded by the suspicion of past activities related to weapons development, and not resort to military force to solve these conflicts. Military action on the part of the U.S. or its allies will only strengthen the resolve of countries like Iran to pursue nuclear weapons. We can settle these issues diplomatically, but we must show through our actions that we are willing to negotiate in good faith and give diplomacy time to work.

For women going into this field, I encourage them to be a voice for those who may not have anyone to speak for them and always seek a multitude of perspectives and challenge themselves to consider new ideas. I would remind them that we are influenced by our own environment, narrative of history, and surroundings – it is a challenge to look beyond these perceptions, but it is necessary if you want to gain insight into the perspective of another side. I think that this kind of holistic understanding makes you a more effective advocate and helps you think about solutions that are mutually acceptable. 

PF:   Why is it important for young people to have an interest in nonproliferation?

KD:  I believe that it is the fundamental responsibility of every person to work toward improving human security, to not only dare to envision a more peaceful future, but also strive to achieve it. To be part of an effort to pass on a more secure world by working to eliminate the threat of weapons which, if used, would have catastrophic global consequences, is an incredible feeling. Additionally, I would remind them that being proactive about diplomacy now, that working for creative solutions now to prevent the spread of these weapons, is in their best interest. We may have to fund and fight a war if politicians do not give diplomacy the political support it needs.  I don’t want our generation to bear this cost, or pass on the threat posed by these weapons.

PF:  What, if anything, do you see is currently lacking in the nonproliferation environment and what steps need to be taken to fill the need?

KD:  Nonproliferation is not just about ensuring the absence of nuclear weapons, but creating the security environment where countries do not feel that such weapons, or reliance on a nuclear deterrent, are necessary. It is vital to understand what motivates a state to acquire these weapons and determine a course forward that shifts the larger security paradigm away from this type of strategy. To accomplish this, I think that we need to widen our vision. We cannot rely solely on mechanisms like sanctions and interdictions to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons programs. Rather, we must think creatively about diplomacy, even when it is not politically popular. I think that forging relationships across multiple levels of society is integral to building policy recommendations that take into account the broader security concerns of all of the parties involved and provide a mutually acceptable outcome.

Ms. Davenport works on monitoring and analyzing developments in Iran and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs at Arms Control Association. Currently, she is finishing up a report that assesses the strength of ten nonproliferation and disarmament standards in eleven states. We’d like to thank her for sharing her experiences as a young leader in nonproliferation with us.

Originally published by Jessica Sleight for Ploughshares Fund, March 21, 2013