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U.S. Leadership and Nuclear Proliferation

Why should the United States play a role in stopping nuclear proliferation?

March 11, 2002

Why should the United States play a role in stopping nuclear proliferation?

For some 50 of those 60 years, the threat of a nuclear strike has been proffered as the mainstay of international peace and security.

Indeed, this posture has been dignified by a doctrine of deterrence — the threat, in the case of the United States and Russia, of mutual assured destruction.

There is little, if anything, in human history to compare with the enormity of what has been at stake in, or the bitter contradiction of, the notion that the preservation of civilization can be assured by the threat of the use of weapons that could destroy life as we know it — and the planetary environment that supports it.

Nothing compares to the age of nuclear weapons — our age. Nations and publics have reacted to this extraordinary set of circumstances in two main ways.

The nations locked into the nuclear matrix have struggled, on the one hand, to match the nuclear weapon-based power of their perceived adversary — an action that resulted in the number of nuclear weapons in existence growing from the original three to some 80,000 — while pledging, on the other hand, to work toward their elimination.

Attitudes among concerned citizens around the world have ranged from an initial extreme existential anxiety in response to the original development and testing of nuclear weapons — leading, for example, to nuclear attack drills and bomb shelters in schools — to the current widespread combination of resignation to the permanent presence of nuclear weapons and a numb distancing from the dangers they pose.

This latter attitude includes a classic attitude of denial — the underlying idea that nuclear weapons threaten others rather than us — and an associated uncritical belief in the reliability of nuclear deterrence.

The truth is that notwithstanding the pledges by governments, made for some 30 years, to eliminate nuclear weapons and the unstated but palpable wish of very many people that nuclear weapons would simply go away, they continue to exist and threaten all.

There must be no mistake about the threat posed by these weapons. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the possibility that they will be used, either by accident or design, is real.

Any use of them would be devastating — literally, politically and morally. It is also axiomatic that as long as any state possesses nuclear weapons, others, including non-state actors, terrorists, will seek to acquire them. And as the number of those possessing nuclear weapons increases, so does the likelihood of their use.

Policies that purport to respond to these disturbing facts by building a national defense screen are now being implemented by the United States.
Failure to draw the right conclusions from September 11 will condemn us to suffer terror again — possibly in large, nuclear, measure.

These policies fail utterly to address the causes of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but instead hold the prospect of both failing to provide defense and increasing the scope of the very problem they are supposed to solve.

The outrage committed by terrorists against the United States on September 11, 2001, has made even more urgent the need to eliminate, once and for all, the threat posed by nuclear weapons. It has also starkly exposed the illusion of missile defense.

A national missile defense system, had it then existed, would not have prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001. To proceed with building such a system now would divert massive resources away from the crucial tasks of eradicating terrorism, securing the U.S. homeland, and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including to terrorist groups.

We must draw the right conclusions from September 11. Failure to do so will condemn us to suffer terror again and possibly in large, nuclear, measure.

In these circumstances, what is required is essentially a choice: to survive nuclear weapons or to be sentenced by them, to remain hostage to their terror, if not be their victim. Survival is manifestly the only civilized choice. For it to be made will require people to demand of their governments that they tackle head-on the problem of nuclear weapons.

The public has also been told endlessly that what is crucially at issue with nuclear weapons — national survival on the basis of deterrence and mutual assured destruction — is too complex, too difficult for them to understand. Leaders who should know better have reached for what is often the most cynical of appeals for popular consent — “trust me.”

I strenuously reject such obfuscation. It recalls the stance of the medieval Catholic Church, which insisted to ordinary people that only the cognoscenti, the priests and monks, could understand the mysteries of life and death. Their stance rested mightily on the fact that the relevant information was recorded in an ancient language, Latin, to which they had exclusive access. This ended when Gutenberg put the Bible into vernacular.

The choice on nuclear weapons also invokes life and death. It can he understood by plain people in plain language.

The specific solution to the problem of nuclear weapons proposed in this book may not be the only or perfect one. It is a practical and achievable one, and it addresses the problem of nuclear weapons directly and globally.

Overt proliferation has occurred in Israel, India and Pakistan, and covert programs for the acquisition of nuclear weapons have been under way in Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Iraq may already have succeeded in acquiring such a capability.

It is to be expected that other countries have either conducted relevant work on nuclear weapons acquisition or are contemplating it.

This is to say nothing of the real, but essentially incalculable, order of magnitude of possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups. Leadership will be crucial, and thus it focuses on the need for the United States to lead the way.

There can be no doubt that without U.S. leadership, the problem will not be solved. The exercise of that leadership requires the adoption and articulation by the United States of a clear and comprehensive policy on the control and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Such a policy does not exist today.

The United States must therefore take action on three fronts:

(1) maintain a quantity and quality of nuclear weapons able to deter their rise against the United States, that is, a nuclear deterrent capability directed principally, although not exclusively, at Russia;

(2) ensure that the threat posed by nuclear weapons does not expand through the emergence of new nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-armed terrorism, and for this purpose, strongly support the NPT and associated agreements; and

(3) reduce the size of the problem through arms control and disarmament agreements. In the latter context, the United States would work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons as the overall solution, a commitment required of a nuclear-weapon states as a mainstay of the non-proliferation treaty.

March 6 , 2002

© 2001 by Richard Butler
Adapted from Fatal Choice. Reprinted
with the permission of Westview Press