STOCKHOLM — Stockholm. - A moment some of us have long been waiting for, a fluorescent marker in a gray sea: ''World military expenditure fell by 5 per cent in 1990,'' according to a report to be published today by the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
No other institution studies the global arms traffic as thoroughly as does this one, and never before in its 25 years of annual reporting have there been so many good things to talk about, even though the perversity and perfidy of mankind never allows us to truly relax.
The number of wars currently being fought, despite the Persian Gulf, is dropping fast. As recently as 1986 there were 36. By 1989 it was down to 33, and last year it was 31. And all the present signs are that by the end of this year it will be significantly under 30.
Apart from Northern Ireland, all the conflicts are in the Third World. A few are inter-state conflagrations like Iraq-Kuwait, but most are civil conflicts, rivals fighting for control of the government, or struggles for autonomy and independence.
Right through the 1980s, arms spending by Third World countries has been steadily declining, in particular in Africa and Latin America. But then, seemingly in contradiction to the downward trend in warfare, the downward trend in spending stopped in 1990, mainly because of increased spending in the Far East and the splurge in new buying sparked by the Gulf War in the Middle East. Even in this combustible region, Syria, Libya and Israel all have been cutting their arms purchases.
In fact, the global trade in conventional weapons is less than two thirds what it was in 1987. Soviet exports have fallen, mainly because of reduced sales to India, Iraq and Afghanistan; for the first time, the U.S. outranks the Soviet Union as the major Third World arms supplier.
The influence of the U.S.-conceived Missile Technology Control Regime increased last year. The regime is designed to discourage the transfer of missile technology into dangerous hands.
Sixteen countries have now signed on, and the Soviet Union has decided to abide by its rules informally. This leads the Stockholm experts to conclude, in spite of Iraq's use of 81 Scud missiles against Israel and Saudi Arabia, that the overall danger of missile proliferation may be declining.
Many Third World nations attempting to build missiles have either quit work on their programs or have stalled because of technical difficulties. Of course, Iraq's own program lies in ruins.
This leaves China, North Korea and Argentina as the worry points: China, because it continues to sell missiles to hot-spot countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; North Korea, where missile and nuclear developments appear to have reached a dangerous stage; Argentina, where the military is refusing to obey a presidential order to dismantle its missile program (originally funded mainly by Iraq).
Chemical-weapons research and stockpiling continues to be too widespread for safe sleeping. Even the allies, reading Iraq's recent declarations to the United Nations, have been taken aback by just how big are its stockpiles. While a Third World nation would hesitate, as did Iraq, to use chemical agents against a nuclear-armed, militarily sophisticated opponent, it would not have the same compunction against one of its own kind.
America's recent announcement that it was prepared to give up all its chemical weapons gives the negotiations outlawing these barbarous but ancient tools a useful fillip, but it probably won't change the minds of many Third World nations who consider them useful, cheap and effective, whether for use in a civil war or against a neighbor.
The same goes for nuclear weapons. It will be a long time before any of the world's new nuclear weapon states can effectively threaten Europe, the Soviet Union or North America, but they can certainly threaten each other -- in the Middle East, in the Indian sub-continent, and in the Korean peninsula. As Third World countries run out of money to buy more sophisticated and expensive conventional weapons, they are finding, as the old nuclear-have nations found years ago, that nuclear weapons are a relatively cheap deterrent.
The progress on arms proliferation is only a drop in the bucket compared with the oceans of ongoing arms deals and research programs. The developed nations still spend $800 billion a year on arms, and the Third World $150 billion. Nevertheless, the news from Stockholm is that the world can get better as well as worse. Both Moscow and Washington have said recently they want more negotiations about more controls on selling. They should get on with it.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.