London -- It is a fool that doesn't take the non-hyperbolic U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker III, seriously. And when he says on television, as he did Sunday, that the Soviet Union could end up like Yugoslavia, with the difference that the Soviet republics would fight each other with nuclear weapons, we had better take notice.
At the moment, all is relative camaraderie among most of the departing Soviet republics. But tensions could boil up in a minute over any number of reasons. For starters, the Muslim bomb is already a reality. Kazakhstan has enough intercontinental missiles on its soil to destroy half the world in half an hour. Many, if not most, of the other Muslim republics have countless mobile, short-range ''tactical'' nuclear weapons (i.e., about the size of the original Hiroshima bomb).
Don't believe anything you've been told about ''locking'' and ''coding'' systems. Once the lines of traditional authority disintegrate, given time, any of these states has enough scientific expertise on hand to ''break-in'' to the control systems. The number of now-unemployed nuclear-weapons experts looking for paid work in the Soviet Union is in the high thousands.
The U.S. Congress' recent appropriation of $400 million to help dismantle or secure Soviet missiles is useful at the technical level, but it speaks not at all to the political problem -- how to generate the will to get rid of them quickly, or at least put them in a safe pair of hands, if such there be these days.
Dramatic as it sounds, there is probably only one sure way of developing the political momentum necessary to short-circuit this nuclear storm in the making. It is for the U.S. to announce that it is unilaterally prepared to give up all its nuclear weapons, and to ask all the other nations which possess them to follow suit.
With the end of the Cold War, it is quite impossible to dream up a plausible threat to the U.S. or Europe that would require nuclear defenses. As General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it not so long ago, ''I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of villains. I'm down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.''
The worst scenario we could confront is a Third World Saddam Hussein-type figure with a nuclear weapon or two. But it would not be a situation in which the U.S. or its British and French allies could use their nuclear weapons.
Even at the height of the Cold War, as both Gen. Charles de Gaulle and Henry Kissinger used to argue, nuclear weapons were never truly a credible deterrent. If used, they would have destroyed user as well as used-against.
Of course, if the attacker were a smaller nuclear power than the Soviet Union, its destructive capacity would not be so extreme. But if the U.S., Britain or France, as the target country, retaliated even using only a modest part of its arsenal, world opinion would heap such censure on the perpetrator of such an act that it would be totally disastrous and counter-productive. It was similar reasoning in an earlier age that led Stalin to know that the U.S. would never use the nuclear monopoly it then had to stop his seizure of eastern Europe. Likewise, Beijing and Hanoi went to war with American armies in Korea and Vietnam without fear of being halted by American nuclear weapons.
The fact is, these days it is conventional weapons that provide the real credible deterrent because, as we saw in Iraq, there is little compunction about using them and they are quite devastating. Any Third World nation that thought it could attack the U.S. or Europe, even with its small nuclear arsenal, would know it would be suicidal. It would meet with the total destruction of its infrastructure, a good part of its population and probably its entire leadership. This is real deterrence, far more realistic than threatening to unleash Armageddon.
Washington should act now, while the situation in the Soviet republics remains open to sober dialogue, while there exists some residual authority in the still centralized Soviet armed forces and, indeed, while the number of Third World nuclear-weapon states is small and their armories small also.
While the initiative should be unilateral on America's part, all nuclear-weapon states should be invited to sign a joint declaration that commits them not only to renouncing their own nuclear stockpiles, but to join a United Nations enforcement action, using the tools of both economic and military blockade, to bring any outlaw to heel.
We should start this ball rolling right now before Christmas. President Bush should simply say that, rather than wait for negotiations which always play into the hands of ''expert'' bureaucrats, who find a hundred reasons for arguing that apples and oranges can't be counted against each other, he is ordering forthwith all nuclear weapons under his command to be removed from alert. This is to be followed by the immediate withdrawal to base of all submarine and mobile rocket systems. Then the president can step back and see if the Soviet republics are following him. Once assured they are, the work of dismantling can begin.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.