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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Richard Butler’s Fatal Choice
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Wade Boese

Ambassador Richard Butler’s latest book, Fatal Choice: Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Missile Defense, is an easy-to-read and, at times, impassioned argument for why the world should work toward eliminating nuclear weapons and why the five legally recognized nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States, must lead the way.

Butler, who headed UN efforts to dismantle Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs between 1997 and 1999, builds his case around three core beliefs: first, that nuclear weapons are horribly destructive weapons with no military utility and that they are the greatest current threat to world security; second, that as long as any country possesses nuclear weapons, other countries will seek to acquire them; and finally, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, they may be used either accidentally or intentionally and that that possibility only increases as more countries acquire them.

It is the second proposition that leads Butler to put the onus of nuclear disarmament squarely on the shoulders of those who currently possess nuclear weapons, the United States foremost among them. In Butler’s eyes, the five recognized nuclear-weapon states (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) have deliberately shirked this responsibility, even though they are legally bound to fulfill it under the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Although missile defense is featured in the book’s title, the NPT is at the heart of Butler’s argument. The NPT is based on a simple bargain: countries that did not possess nuclear weapons at the time of the treaty’s signing pledged not to seek them, while the five countries that already had such weapons committed themselves to work toward nuclear disarmament. This bargain, according to Butler, created a norm that “no state or person should possess nuclear weapons.”

To date, the five nuclear-weapon states, in Butler’s assessment, have done a feeble job of living up to their end of the deal, thereby undermining their credibility to influence Iran, Iraq, and North Korea to forswear nuclear weapons as they promised.

Although Butler describes these three countries as being the “embodiment of the worst nightmare” because of their covert and proscribed efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, he more frequently and fervently faults the disarmament failures of the nuclear-weapon states for the proliferation problem. For instance, he recounts that, when reporters asked him to speculate on the rationale behind India’s May 1998 nuclear tests, he told them to “start with the nuclear-weapon states.” He further explained, “India and many others had begun to despair at the failure of those states to keep their nuclear disarmament promises.”

Butler acknowledges that other factors may compel countries to seek nuclear weapons, but he also believes the world would support more forceful action to enforce the nonproliferation norm if the five recognized nuclear-weapon states took real, and not just rhetorical, steps toward eliminating their own arsenals.

For starters, Butler suggests the nuclear-weapon states should seek to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in October 1999. He also calls for Washington and Moscow to de-alert their nuclear weapons and reduce their arsenals to about 1,000 warheads apiece. Butler says the world should also ban production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons and strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards system to detect cheating on the NPT.

These suggestions are not new, however, and Butler does not offer any fresh proposals on how to bring about their timely enactment. He suggests that success is mostly a matter of the nuclear-weapon states, namely the United States, summoning the political will to act, but that problem has been identified for some time as well. The difficult question is how to generate political will.

Where Butler departs from existing proposals is his call for establishing an international Council on Weapons of Mass Destruction, which would be charged with implementing and enforcing adherence to nonproliferation agreements. Unfortunately, it is unclear how countries would make this body work, especially given that the impasse on finding an acceptable approach to deal with Iraq has lasted more than three years.

Implicit in Butler’s recommendations is that the solution to proliferation lies in bilateral or multilateral cooperation, not unilateral action, which brings the book to missile defense. Any effort to find a solely national solution to the problem of proliferation will fail, Butler suggests. The best defense against nuclear weapons, according to Butler, is their elimination.

Butler rejects the United States’ assertions that it has to build missile defenses because arms control has failed and that nuclear proliferation is too far advanced to reverse. “The decisions of rogue states to proliferate can be contained and progressively reversed first by eliminating the conviction that they will escape punishment for their actions,” Butler writes.

Effective enforcement, however, hinges on the enforcers having legitimacy, which is why Butler concludes, “If the history of nuclear weapons is to be brought to an end, it must start with those who possess them to decide to make it so.”

If the United States chooses not to take this path and opts to seek its security through unilateral measures, such as defenses, Butler believes it is making a fatal choice of condemning the world to live with nuclear weapons and the possibility that they will be used again.

In Bookstores
Author: Richard Butler

Title: Fatal Choice: Nuclear Weapons and the Illusion of Missile Defense

Publisher: Westview Press

Date: 2001

Pages: 178

List Price: $22.00