London. -- For all the hyperbole about non-proliferation (and indeed for all the good work by legions of dedicated arms controllers) every post-war American president, except for Jimmy Carter during his period of earnestness in the first couple of years of his tenure, has acted to limit the spread of nuclear weapons only if it did not conflict with America's Cold War aims.
Washington too frequently looked the other way when regional allies pursued nuclear-weapons development. Indeed, on occasion it assisted such programs, both officially and unofficially. But then, so did the Soviet Union, Britain, France, Germany and Canada.
Unrestrained arms sales by the same bunch of countries exacerbated the nuclear thirst. Events have proved false the argument that high-tech conventional arms would provide a satisfactory alternative to going nuclear. Arms merchants helped both to promote regional arms races and to raise the aspirations of various military establishments toward the highest realms of modern technology. Once there, the desire to own the trump card of nuclear weapons becomes, if not totally irresistible, totally enticing.
One sees it clearly with Saddam Hussein's war machine. He began building it in the mid-1970s because of his rivalry with Iran. The Nixon administration, intent on making the shah a regional policeman, had sold him almost anything he wanted. But that spurred both countries into a deadly rivalry, in the end leading them to search for a nuclear capability.
In this atmosphere of moral and political confusion and ambiguity, it has been difficult to mobilize political will to tighten the Non-proliferation Treaty and to give its policing arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the powers it needs to be effective.
One hundred forty-two signatures now grace the treaty, and all but the original ''big five'' nuclear powers abjure the possession of nuclear weapons. But what does this grand vow mean when the treaty allows adherents to come to the brink of assembling a nuclear weapon and withdraw from the treaty with a mere 90 days' notice. And what can this treaty do about the two tactical nuclear weapons apparently sold recently to Iran, or about Kazakhstan if it decides to stand alone with its long-range missiles formerly under Soviet control -- enough to blow up half the world in half an hour?
The non-proliferation treaty was based on a three-part bargain. On signing, the non-nuclear states gave up their sovereign right to develop nuclear arms. In return, they were promised two things by the nuclear-haves: first, access to civilian nuclear technology, and second, a commitment that the nuclear-haves would move rapidly to negotiate cut-backs in their nuclear arsenals.
What the treaty needs now is a new three-part bargain. The West should acknowledge the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and agree to phase out, all over the world, civilian nuclear programs, including their own.
Second, the nuclear-weapon states should step up the pace of nuclear disarmament. The U.S. should implement its decision to eliminate short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and Asia, and it should withdraw all its tactical nuclear weapons world-wide. The nuclear-haves should swiftly negotiate a comprehensive test ban, thus capping much of their own nuclear-arms development and that of would-be new nuclear powers. Joined to this should be an accord among the big powers to curtail the conventional-arms trade.
Even this agenda is a minimalist one, meant only to start the ball rolling and to encourage ''the other side'' to make significant unilateral moves of their own.
Third, finally, to win the trust of the rest of the world, the veto-power members of the U.N. Security Council must renounce the right to intervene in other countries unilaterally, reaffirm their 1945 commitment to resolve all disputes through the mechanism of arbitration, peace-keeping and collective enforcement laid down in the U.N. Charter and resolve to hold everyone else to the same promise.
Only policies of this kind will give the necessary momentum to what has to become a quite extraordinary world-wide effort to halt nuclear proliferation. We are on the knife edge of what, if not handled well and expeditiously, could turn out to be a madness.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.