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

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Regime Protection Fuels Nuclear Proliferation
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July/August 2019

Paul Kerr’s article “Lessons Learned From Denuclearizing States” (ACT, May 2019) has much to offer, but it leaves out a very important lesson from Libya’s denuclearization: engaging in regime change, as the United States effectively did in Libya, motivates nuclear proliferation by other nations that we might target. Here is the background and the result:

On Dec. 19, 2003, President George W. Bush stated,:

Today in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. … [L]eaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations. … As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates its seriousness, its good faith will be returned. Libya can regain a secure and respected place among the nations, and over time, achieve far better relations with the United States. … I hope that other leaders will find an example in Libya’s announcement today.

When President Barack Obama attacked Libya in 2011, North Korea put out a press release indicating that it had learned a lesson from Libya’s example, but not the one that Bush had in mind. Although that press release includes puffery, it also conveys an important point:

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson.

It was fully exposed before the world that Libya's nuclear dismantlement, much touted by the United States in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world.

Even if Bush had not promised Libya that “its good faith will be returned,” whenever we threaten regime change and especially when we engage in that practice, we unwittingly encourage nuclear proliferation. Nations that we threaten and that have the capability to develop nuclear weapons are likely to do so since that is the only way they can deter us from doing to them what we did to Libya.

If we want North Korea to denuclearize and if we do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, we need to recognize that threatening regime change works counter to achieving those goals.

Martin Hellman is a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.