Nuclear Taboos Are Going the Way of the Cold War

JONATHAN POWER

September 25, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON. — London -- As President Fernando Collor De Mello's power wanes in Brazil under the onslaught of the campaign to impeach him for corruption, it's inevitable that the power of Brazil's military waxes. It is likely that the ''no nuclear weapons'' accord between Brazil and Argentina signed in 1990 will unravel further. There have been indications for some time that a part of the military establishment has been secretly ignoring it, and now, with civilian authority badly diminished, who is going to pull them into line?

The Cold War was a bad teacher: Every developing country's aspiring officers learned from day one that nuclear arms are the currency of power, the repository of respect and the mark of military virility.

But worries about Brazil, Argentina and even, some say, South Africa, with their relatively elementary bomb technology, are nothing to compare with the sophisticated nuclear bombs, complete with long-range missiles, clearly visible in India, China and Israel, with Pakistan and maybe North Korea only a step or two behind. Before too long, Iran may join them.

And then there are the nuclear arsenals of the ex-Soviet territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, where the control exercised by the military authorities in Moscow under the Commonwealth arrangement appears to become more tenuous by the day.

With a world like this, is it really possible anymore to think we can create a ''global nuclear taboo?''

Until the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf war, there was, in effect, a conspiracy of silence that allowed countries to deny they had nuclear weapons. No Western government would ever confirm, on the record, that Israel or India had them. It was a curious policy, but it did have the benign effect of maintaining the taboo in an unviolated state.

But after the gulf war, the revelations of Iraq's sophisticated nuclear machine, Israel's deployment of its Jericho nuclear missiles during the war, the clear disintegration of nuclear authority in the ex-Soviet Union and, with the end of the Afghanistan war, America's refusal to cover up for Pakistan any longer -- the nuclear tiger shows its teeth.

Even if the U.S. could quickly develop a truly effective anti-missile defense for itself, which is uncertain, it would leave the rest of the world, including Western Europe, vulnerable to the missiles of some rogue nuclear power. And even the proponents of this extraordinarily expensive missile defense acknowledge it would be useless against a nuclear-armed ship or submarine coming close to shore, much less to nuclear devices smuggled in in suitcases.

Even if U.N. inspectors have now cut the claws of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program, as seems to be the case, the Security Council is unlikely to move against other nuclear proliferators, unless they, too, decide to pick a fight, and by then it probably would be too late anyway. If Saddam Hussein had waited another six or so years to launch his invasion of Kuwait, when he would have had both the bomb and the missiles to deliver it, would America have taken a chance with ''Desert Storm?''

As nuclear weapons come out of the closet, the danger we face is that more and more countries will dare to break the taboo. The new nuclear honesty makes self-denial ever less attractive, and it's all too easy to imagine a large increase in the number of nuclear powers before very long. It could be Turkey, provoked by nuclear Iran, or South Korea, provoked by North Korea. From there it is a short jump to Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and Japan, Thailand and Indonesia in the Far East. (After all, why is Japan building up such large stocks of plutonium?)

At present, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has more than 140 member countries who have signed on the dotted line of self-denial. It is a remarkable achievement. Yet it could evaporate quicker than the Maastricht Treaty. What does it actually mean to be one of this grand total if the treaty allows adherents to come to the brink of assembling a nuclear weapon and then give a mere 90 days' notice that they are going to withdraw from their solemn undertaking?

Maybe such nuclear pessimism is not totally in order. The present tightening of export controls on nuclear materials, combined with more assertive inspection procedures by the International Atomic Energy Agency, could stymie Iran, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. There is diplomatic movement in the points of tension between Pakistan and India and it is possible to conceive of a fruitful negotiation between China and India on nuclear arms control. North Korea, perhaps, is responding to the combined pressure from the U.S., Japan and China to think again.

But it needs hard work, constant vigilance and deep diplomatic engagement. It means giving Third World countries a feeling that they have a real say in the highest echelons of U.N. Security Council's decision making. It demands, too, an end of the resentment by the Third World against the economically privileged position of the West -- at least, there must be an end to trade barriers and more progress on debt relief.

But, finally, we are forced to ask the question: Is there any way of encouraging self-denial except by practicing self-denial? That is the question that the old Cold War nuclear-haves resolutely shied away from. It is a question they can no longer refuse.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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