LONDON — London. SLOWLY, very slowly, too slowly, the world is waking up to what has been obvious for many years -- that almost any country with a modest industrial base that wants a nuclear weapon can get one. They are already in the hands of countries in the two tinder boxes of the world, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
At last Washington has dropped its cloak of ambiguity that allowed Pakistan to pretend it did not have a nuclear weapon to match India's. Belatedly, Washington -- and everyone else -- has realized that Iraq is well on the same road, spurred by Israel's sizable nuclear armory and the fear of Iran's conventional superiority.
It is still possible to bring some pressure and influence to stop the further spread and development of nuclear arsenals. We can further tighten controls on the export of nuclear bomb components, and we can punish nations that have the bomb by cutting off economic and military aid.
But these are not enough. That's why in a way we should be glad of Saddam Hussein's provocative invasion of Kuwait. The world can now legitimately insist as its condition for peace not just on his withdrawal from Kuwait but on allowing full-time, on the spot, monitoring and supervision of his nuclear activities.
Nevertheless, no one seems to have a foolproof way of keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle. Or rather, for this is what it comes down to if we are honest, no one has a good counter-argument to those who say: Well, if nuclear weapons were such a remarkable instrument for keeping the peace between East and West for over 40 years why shouldn't everyone have it?
There is an answer, but it's been taboo to mention it unless one was an orthodox pacifist or woolly-headed leftist. Now at last someone who is neither -- and indeed was senior staff member of the U.S. president's National Security Council in charge of Soviet affairs -- has dared to spell it out. In the recent issue of Foreign Policy Marshall Brement calls for the big powers to give up their nuclear weapons altogether.
When one thinks about the unthinkable without thinking, it is a way-out idea. But set within the context of last week's Paris meeting, formally declaring the end of the Cold War, the suggestion seems apposite and timely. How else should one interpret the solemn declaration of the heads of government of Europe and North America: ''We are no longer adversaries, we will build new partnerships and extend to each other the hand of friendship.''
Then what are the targets for the silos loaded with end-of-the-world weapons? As Mr. Brement says colloquially in his otherwise erudite essay, ''You cannot build a relationship of trust with a neighbor who has a loaded 50-caliber machine gun pointed at your bedroom.''
Are the big powers holding on to their nuclear missiles as a kind of status symbol, like a set of golf clubs casually propped up in the hallway so visitors can see who and what one is, or rather was? Or are they to be used against new enemies like Saddam Hussein or Muammar el Kadafi? If the latter, it would be like using a pile driver to crack a nut -- with the added disadvantage that they would provoke a quite counterproductive hostile reaction from the rest of the world.
The big powers have enough firepower in their conventional armories to take care of such contingencies, even if the country in question has a few nuclear weapons.
The threat of Armageddon, even in the worst days of the Cold War, was never fully credible, as Henry Kissinger argued persuasively in his memoirs. Over the years as the nuclear arsenals grew to massive proportions, with one submarine capable of working as much destruction as was inflicted in the entire span of World War II, they became effectively unusable. Who was going to make the decision to destroy half the planet?
Giving up nuclear weapons is an idea whose time has come. If Moscow and Washington can take this step, Paris and London won't be far behind. Nor would Beijing, if it wants to go on being seen as a responsible member of the Security Council.
Not every nuclear-have country will follow the example readily, although big-power disarmament will make it extraordinarily difficult for newcomers to justify going nuclear. But the recalcitrants can be dealt with. They should be treated as international outlaws. The Security Council can vote as it has with Saddam Hussein to use whatever means are necessary -- political, economic and, in the last resort, military -- to enforce this decision.
Nuclear weapons are just too terrifying, too destabilizing, too potentially apocalyptic, to be left in mankind's hands for much longer.