PARIS. — Paris -- The problem of controlling Soviet nuclear weapons is no doubt urgent, yet in a way it is unserious.
It will be unpleasant if some of the ex-Soviet Union's battlefield missiles get into the hands of a Third World (or other) government, but sooner or later nuclear weapons are going to exist in Asia, if they are not there now, and the logic of deterrence will still function.
The principal lesson of the Cold War, with respect to nuclear weapons, has been that these things are largely useless except as a deterrent to the nuclear threat of others.
Saddam Hussein wanted Iraqi nuclear missiles in order to make himself invulnerable -- not to destroy Israel and be himself destroyed. The logic of deterrence fails only with respect to terrorism; and nuclear terrorism is not so simple as frequently made out.
The serious problems before the American and Western governments, as their officials deal with the various authorities now claiming power in what was for the past 73 years the Soviet Union, are those of Soviet politico-economic disintegration, the popular disorders to follow and the enormous challenge of reconstruction.
Secretary of State James Baker's journey to Moscow will have little effect upon those issues -- nor, regrettably, will the Washington conference to coordinate Soviet aid announced by Mr. Baker in his recent Princeton speech.
The January conference proposal bears the mark of something done in order to seem to do something while actually doing very little. It is an attempt to assert American leadership in an area where the United States has until now neglected to lead and where, today, few want its leadership.
American aid to the ex-Soviet Union has until now consisted mainly of food and food credits. Mr. Baker said at Princeton that the United States has given more food to the ex-Soviet Union than any other nation.
This food, however, either was stored U.S. farm surplus or is to be purchased from American producers with the U.S.-supplied credits. This is called doing well out of doing good. There is
nothing wrong with it, but it is not aid that bears too much boasting about.
Up to now, the European Community has furnished 80 percent of the international aid to the ex-Soviet Union (and 78 percent of the aid that has gone to Eastern Europe). The United States and Japan and a few others have divided up the other 20 percent.
This is a division of help that is likely to continue, given that the United States has so tightly bound itself up by tax refusals and public deficit as to have little to spend on anything, at home or abroad. The United States cannot expect to enjoy the leadership of the international community through talk, rather than action.
However, the capacity of the Soviet successor states to make constructive use of aid is slight and fragile.
In reform circles in Moscow -- at least so long as the semblance of a central government still existed -- one could hear the argument that no help should be sent other than humanitarian aid. Other assistance might only delay fundamental reform. This argument concerned aid to the state itself.
One reform leader close to Mikhail Gorbachev said recently that the OPEC crisis of 1973 -- which gave the Soviet Union a windfall boost in hard-currency earnings from its own oil exports -- ''delayed reform by a decade.'' He feared generous Western help now might do the same again.
Nonetheless, humanitarian aid is needed this winter. So is technical and training help to leaders in all the new republics, on how to make the non-command economy work. This training is vital to prevent an economic collapse so complete as to produce political chaos.
More than three generations have grown up in the Soviet Union knowing only the command system and central control and planning.
A psychology of dependence and subservience to authority exists, where effort is dissociated from reward.
Mr. Baker's January conference on Russian aid can do no harm and possibly some good.
But the conference is transparently meant to have a domestic political pay-off, as an American presidential election year begins.
It risks gravely disappointing those in the new Commonwealth of Independent States who have seriously expected U.S. help, while annoying the Western governments that already give the bulk of the aid the ex-U.S.S.R. now receives.
Washington and the American press were for months pre-occupied by an inside-the-beltway wrangle over whether political correctness lay in aiding Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, while the United States did little to help either.
This has not been a useful debate at a time when the injuries the United States inflicted upon its own economy effectively deprived it of the ability to act, therefore of its capacity to lead.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.