PARIS. — One easily understands the fear that ex-Soviet nuclear expertise is going to find new sponsorship abroad, and that Soviet nuclear weapons will appear on the black market. However, nuclear proliferation is a problem with no solution. It's too late now to stop it.
By licit means or illicit, there are going to be more nations with nuclear weapons. Those of us who already live in well-armed states will have to make the best of it.
Obviously all that can be done should be done to destroy or secure Soviet weapons and provide harmless employment to the scientists and engineers of the new Commonwealth of Independent States. All that this can accomplish, however, is to delay the inevitable -- which of course is worth doing.
The debate on proliferation too often overlooks its real cause, which is fear.
The U.S.-Soviet arms race was driven by each side's fear of the other. Israel has built its nuclear force because it fears eventually finding itself alone, vulnerable to the attack of Arab nations vastly more populous. The Arab drive for nuclear status is motivated by fear of Israel.
This fear is not simply that the enemy might make a nuclear attack on you. The essential appeal of nuclear weapons -- deeply pernicious in its consequences -- is that they deter conventional attack. That was their primary attraction to the United States from the 1940s onward.
No one in Washington in the early years of the Cold War believed that the Soviet Union was capable of mounting a nuclear strike on the American mainland. U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed as a response to the threat of a Soviet land attack in Europe that would involve what was feared would be overwhelming numbers. To the very end of the Cold War, NATO kept open the threat of nuclear first-use to stop a Soviet conventional attack.
The threat works even if your nuclear force is a feeble one. You have introduced a crucial uncertainty into your enemy's calculations. A finite risk now exists that your nuclear counterblow will somehow get through to one of his cities.
Saddam Hussein has not wanted nuclear rockets for a first-strike on Israel -- which would, with the certainty of night following day, have resulted in a doomsday blow upon Iraq. He has wanted nuclear weapons to deter an Israeli (or Iranian, or for that matter, American) conventional attack upon Iraq in some new war. If he had had such weapons last year, would Operation Desert Storm have taken place -- or taken place in the way in which it did?
Pakistan wants nuclear weapons because India has exploded a nuclear test device. North Korea wants them because its neighbors China and Russia have them, the United States has XTC them (and has had them in South Korea) and Japan is capable of having them.
The celebrated threat of terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon cannot completely be dismissed because the blackmail potentiality of this would be immense.
Countries in the non-Western world want nuclear weapons because the Western countries have them. They afford high prestige among the neighbors and present a very large nuisance factor to the great powers. Countries with nuclear weapons are taken seriously. Nuclear weapons offer a further possibility to a risk-taking government.
They provide a sanctuary from which conventional aggression might be launched.
The stopper was out of the nuclear bottle long ago. It won't go back in. But is this entirely a bad thing? Obviously it increases certain risks. There is an enlarged mathematical probability that someone, somewhere, will use a nuclear weapon against an enemy.
However, it is virtually impossible today to imagine a scenario in which this would not be an isolated event. With no Cold War, there is no nuclear holocaust to trigger.
I would argue that the larger effect of nuclear proliferation is to contribute to international stability. The logic of deterrence functions as compellingly among small countries as big ones. A fundamental reason the Cold War did not become a real war between East and West was the nuclear threat each side posed to the other. Because of that no direct confrontation was ever pressed home.
The Cuban missile crisis was never close to producing a nuclear war, contrary to what many think. An American air attack upon the missile bases being constructed in Cuba, yes; or a naval confrontation, or a Soviet conventional countermove in Europe. But not nuclear war. The Soviet Union always backed away from Berlin.
It was the Vietnamese, Laos, Afghans, Africans and Central Americans who fought the Cold War on behalf of one or the other of the superpowers. A small nuclear state in a desperate fix may be more dangerous to provoke than the superpowers were. But no one will do it more than once.
Proliferation would logically seem to make the world more dangerous; in practice it may make it less dangerous. It was observed in the 1950s that when you carry out your first nuclear test -- and go out and look at the hole -- that makes you think.
This is not a very satisfactory way to live, surely, and everyone would be better off without these weapons, or with them confined to the control of democratic states with responsible leaders, etc. However, that is not what governments not in possession nuclear weapons can be expected to believe. The only cheerful thing that can be said about nuclear proliferation is that while it is bad, it may not be as bad as you think. Either way, it is happening.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.