8 Questions the U.S. Senate Should Ask Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins On Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins speaks on the plenary session of the Halifax International Security Forum, “Nukes: The Fire and the Fury”, November 18, 2017

By Yong-Bee Lim and Bill Beaver

U.S. President Joe Biden has nominated a number of veteran diplomats for top posts at the Department of State (State). Of particular interest for the nonproliferation and arms control community, Biden nominated Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins to be the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Jenkins formerly served in the Obama Administration as the Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs at State in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) and brings immense expertise and experience to a broad range of nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and arms control issues.

The role of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs will be particularly important as shifts in the international arena may change how states view the incentives and disincentives of researching, developing, retaining a capability, and potentially using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Syrian use of sarin against its citizens, DPRK use of VX in the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, and Russian use of novichok in the UK and Germany indicate an erosion of the norms against the use of chemical weapons. 

On the nuclear side, old adversaries and new opportunities abound as the U.S. seeks to reengage with the international community by restarting nuclear talks with Iran (despite recent challenges), building on the extension of New START with Russia where possible, and continuing to address tensions with states like China and the DPRK. 

Biological risk issues are equally important. There is a growing push to leverage next-generation sequencing, point of care and point of person diagnostics, and other tools to create a global pathogen early warning system; this will require significant diplomatic leadership. The continued effects and grave outcomes from COVID-19 and advances in the life sciences also have implications for how the U.S. continues to engage in the Biological Weapons Convention’s (BWC’s) Meeting of State Parties planned for November 22 – 25, 2021, as well as during the BWC’s Meeting of Experts on August 30 to September 8, 2021.

Indeed, State could consider appointing a special envoy on biological threats. This would echo Amb. Jenkins’s own elevated special coordinator role for threat reduction programs during the Obama administration.  

The Biden Administration has a unique opportunity to leverage Amb. Jenkins’ deep expertise and diverse views to help set priorities and empower the Under Secretary position for managing the arms control and non-proliferation challenges associated with biological, chemical, and nuclear threats to the United States, its allies, and the global community. To this end, we recommend that the Senators active in her confirmation hearing consider the following information and questions.

On Biological Threats

The global community, and particularly the United States, is still dealing with the vulnerabilities that COVID-19 exposed: vulnerabilities that the United States had assumed were addressed through past initiatives to increase resilience and operate with an all-hazards preparedness approach. These exposed vulnerabilities may lead to significant changes in how state and non-state actors view the feasibility and utility of pursuing a biological weapons program. The next Under Secretary for Arms Control and Nonproliferation should be given all the tools, support, and cooperation necessary to work within State and across the interagency to address arms control and nonproliferation concerns with current, emerging, and future biological weapons threats. The Under Secretary will also be ideally positioned to ensure that the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, and regional leaders across State, are kept updated on intelligence concerning existing and emerging biological threats from state and non-state actors. Strong situational awareness across State is important for setting the best courses of action for the United States in mitigating biological weapons threats and ensuring the nation uses all the tools available in the arms control and nonproliferation toolbox. 

With these considerations in mind, the Senate should ask the following questions to Amb. Jenkins during her confirmation hearing:

  1. The ongoing case of COVID-19 highlights critical vulnerabilities in the United States and the world for addressing biological threats. How do you plan to strengthen U.S. foreign policy and international cooperation in this context?
  2. Further, how will you prevent or discourage adversary countries from becoming interested in moving forward with biological weapons?
  3. What do you view as the role of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in addressing WMD threats?
  4. If confirmed, would you take any action to try and strengthen the BWC? If so, why and how? If not, why?
  5. In the White House’s first budget request, the first priority listed for State is to ensure the nation is better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to future biological threats and pandemics. It includes a significant expansion in funding toward this objective. Given your responsibilities for nonproliferation and countering WMD threats, will you ensure these resources are used in ways that help deter and counter biological weapons threats?
  6. If confirmed, how will you go about setting priorities for this new funding and ensuring it is executed effectively? 

On Chemical Threats

The United States is approaching its deadline in 2023 for complete destruction of the last remnants of the former U.S. chemical weapons stockpile. The next Under Secretary should uphold these commitments to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as an obligation we are required to meet through the treaty. However, as stated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on February 22 in an official statement at the High-Level Segment of the Conference on Disarmament, Syrian and Russian use of chemical weapons in recent years indicate there are erosions in the norms against the use of chemical weapons. The new Under Secretary will have to take appropriate action, either through the Chemical Weapons Convention or through other mechanisms, to re-strengthen these norms. 

With these considerations in mind, the Senate should ask the following questions to Amb. Jenkins during her confirmation hearing:

  1. If confirmed, how would you leverage the milestone of the United States destroying 100% of its remaining chemical weapons stockpile by the end of 2023 in your diplomatic leadership? 
  2. The Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its citizens, the DPRK’s use of VX to assassinate Kim Jong-Nam, and ongoing Russian uses of a class of nerve agents known as Novichok have raised concerns that the norm against using chemical weapons, and potentially even biological weapons, are eroding. If confirmed, how do you plan on addressing this issue?

On Nuclear Threats

Over the past decade nuclear threats have been rising. This stems from geopolitical tensions, increasing diversity in nuclear weapons types (including several countries pushing toward new and so-called “low yield” nuclear weapons), rhetoric and planning by the United States and others that indicate a view of nuclear weapons as useful for warfighting rather than just deterrence, and dissolution of key treaties. 

It is a critical time to bring back nuclear arms control, be bold in the ideas explored, and align it to the 21st Century (in terms of political relations,  technological change, and increasing tensions and fragility in many parts of the world). The nation has an opportunity to explore new formats and options such as pursuing a nuclear-only successor to the INF Treaty, potentially via political agreement in advance of binding legal commitments. Amb. Jenkins, if confirmed, will play a key role in reducing these and other nuclear risks. Questions the Senate considers should include:

  1. If confirmed, how will you reinvigorate arms control and develop new approaches to it that fit today’s global security environment?
  2. How will you help ensure that State has a strong voice in informing U.S. nuclear weapons policies and plans, along with the White House and Departments of Defense and Energy?   


The promise and peril from nuclear, chemical, and biological (NCB) threats are shifting constantly. Geopolitical events, great power competition, non-state actor involvement, and rapid advances in science and technology are making it harder for experts and policymakers to forecast potential outcomes, ranging from the best to the catastrophic. From their listing of nominees, it is clear that the Biden administration is looking to take global such threats seriously. With strong veteran nominees like Ambassador Jenkins in positions like the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs at State, the U.S. has the opportunity to both display transformational leadership on these threats and return the U.S. to its position as a strong international actor in the global arena.


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