Twenty-three years late, China and France have agreed to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In doing so they are putting aside their feelings of pique toward the United States and the Soviet Union in order to face the reality that their nuclear pretensions merely served to undercut their own security -- and that of all mankind.
The history of the NPT is a long story of nationalist perversity and chutzpah. Devised by Washington and Moscow after they had established their near-duopoly in strategic weaponry, the treaty is intended to limit membership in the nuclear club to the five permanent members of the Security Council by stopping the spread of nuclear arms and technology elsewhere.
Britain came on board early, not least because it had joined the two superpowers in 1963 in the pact to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Late-starters France and China balked; they were still in the business of catch-up. France was intent on displaying its independence, as it did in withdrawing from the NATO military command in 1966. China had similar aims, plus a desire to identify with Third World nations aggrieved at the continuing growth and sophistication of U.S. and Soviet arsenals.
In the end, however, China and France remained second-class nuclear powers whose actions helped prevent the NPT from having the psychological clout necessary to discourage such "threshold" powers as India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Iraq and South Africa from rushing off in nuclear pursuits. Most nations signed on, more than 140 of them, and established the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna as an arm of the United Nations. But all the while, nuclear bomb knowledge kept spreading and, lately, the booming arms trade came to include ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
If a jolt was needed, Iraq supplied it. Saddam Hussein's success in hiding his nuclear-weapons program from IAEA inspectors seems to have awakened the world to the need not only to renew NPT in 1995 but to make it much stronger -- even to the point of infringing on the sovereignty of member nations. It may also have made China a little more self-conscious about its sales of missiles to Pakistan and Syria in violation of the spirit of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, a pact China has not signed but ought to.
With the cold war over and the superpowers reducing their arsenals, this is a moment to start stuffing the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Big powers may always want to keep some weapons for deterrence and to build up defenses against "renegade" attacks, but a world in which most nations do not consider nukes essential to their self-esteem is a world with a chance at survival.