NEW YORK — THE RESIGNATION of Eduard Shevardnadze probably will harden President Bush's determination to continue testing nuclear weapons. But continued testing will surely encourage the development of nuclear weapons by Saddam Hussein.
Polls suggest that keeping such weapons out of Saddam's hands is one of the few reasons Americans might support a war against Iraq. It's clearly an important goal of Bush's policy in the gulf crisis.
Thus, a United Nations session next month seemed to offer the president a good opportunity to reconsider his testing policy, in order to strengthen his opposition to nuclear weapons for Iraq.
On Jan. 7 in New York, 118 nations will begin deliberations to convert the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTB) of 1963 into a comprehensive test ban (CTB) that would prevent underground as well as atmospheric testing.
Participation of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in a CTB would greatly strengthen observance of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) now in effect, as well as prospects for its renewal when it expires in 1995.
International resistance to an Iraqi bomb would be greatly enhanced if the superpowers were to restrain their own weapons development. As Spurgeon Keeny, the president of the Arms Control Association, recently put it:
"A (CTB) would create a worldwide environment that would discourage both new proliferators and undeclared nuclear weapon states from pursuing their programs. (But) continued testing by the nuclear-weapon states underscores their belief in the importance and utility of nuclear weapons."
If, therefore, the Bush administration insists on continued nuclear testing, in violation of a solemn U.S. obligation under the NPT, it will continue to downgrade the importance of non-proliferation, jeopardize renewal of the NPT in 1995, cause more states to "go nuclear," and undercut its own arguments against development
of an Iraqi bomb.
The connection between superpower nuclear tests and non-proliferation is clear -- at least to the non-nuclear powers. They see themselves as meeting their commitment under the NPT against horizontal proliferation: more nuclear states.
They also see the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union continuing vertical proliferation: more nuclear weapons. Even after the Start treaty scheduled for signing in February reduces U.S. and Soviet strategic weapons by 30 percent, for example, the nuclear powers will have many times more such weapons than they had when the NPT was signed in 1970.
Thus, in the hardly challengeable view of non-nuclear states, the superpowers have ignored their NPT commitments to seek a halt to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Superpower testing, moreover, plainly creates two classes of states -- those with and those without nuclear weapons.
But no moral or other justification ever has been advanced for some nations to possess these awful instruments, while insisting that all others -- including Iraq -- may not.
The end of the Cold War appeared drastically to weaken even the power argument for nuclear testing -- that the resulting weapons maintained the balance of terror, hence an uneasy peace. Both the risk from Soviet tests and consequently the need for U.S. tests seemed to be reduced -- and vice versa.
The Soviet foreign minister, Shevardnadze, and Secretary of State James Baker agreed, in fact, that nuclear proliferation was the major security challenge of the coming decade.
Nevertheless, at the NPT review conference last year, the Bush administration adamantly refused, as had the Reagan administration before it, to agree to enter negotiations to end all nuclear testing.
The administration's purpose was transparent, since only new or improved nuclear weapons require nuclear tests. The argument that tests are necessary to assure the safety and reliability of stockpiled weapons is only an excuse for more testing; non-nuclear tests can achieve these purposes.
Before Shevardnadze's resignation, however, and his warning that "dictatorship" in the Soviet Union was "approaching," the coming U.N. session conceivably might have persuaded Bush that a test ban was in U.S. interests.
But if Washington takes the Shevardnadze warning to forecast a militarily more threatening U.S.S.R., there will be the old, familiar arguments that testing must continue -- even if that weakens the case against Saddam's quest for the bomb.