Forward to the Past with ZBM


January 08, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- The logic and coherence of the posture of the old-time superpowers fades with every new nuclear arms-cut deal.

For a start, can one imagine that that anti-war protester, Bill Clinton, would ever press the button? I don't know if anyone has ever asked him the question straight. But if, as I suspect, there's no one in office who is prepared to press it, there's not much point in having all the paraphernalia that lies behind it.

But the overriding job today is not to divine the psychological strengths of the chief button pushers in Washington and Moscow. It is to stop the bomb ending up in countries where the safeguards and constraints are less and the instabilities and provocations more pronounced.

The imagination boggles at the task of wresting an agreement that commits Pakistan, India and Israel to give up their nuclear weapons; Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Libya and North Korea to stop their nuclear weapon research programs; and the old holdovers Ukraine, China, Britain and France to disarm. When there's no policy of absolute self-denial by America and Russia, how can the other nuclear haves and would-be's be encouraged to practice absolute self-denial?

Just when one despairs of achieving both the political will to forsake and the technical prowess to effectively monitor and control nuclear weapons, a group of American thinkers have come up with a brilliant and clever way forward.

The group includes old hawks like the former assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle, and the Reagan-administration adviser, Paul Nitze, together with traditional liberal arms controllers like Sydney Drell of Stanford University. The most lucid exposition of its case appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy under the by-line of Alton Frye, Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations. It is, to use their jargon, ZBM, Zero Ballistic Missiles.

''Technically, constraining ballistic missiles is more feasible than preventing the spread of clandestine nuclear capabilities,'' is how Mr. Frye puts it.

This is a fascinating turnaround. It was the introduction of missiles and the subordination of bombers in the 1960s that spurred the nuclear arms race. The later evolution of technology dictated policy to the point of recklessness. For the superpowers, present and ex, to return to the bomber era would, at last, remove the chance of surprise assault, thus finally assuring crisisstability.

This one plus. The double plus is what Zero Ballistic Missiles would do for the rest of the world.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with its 144 member countries was meant to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. To some extent it has. But a few countries, like Iraq, pretend to be faithful members, while evading its weak investigative and enforcement procedures. Others, like India and Pakistan, refuse to sign, correctly arguing that the treaty is discriminatory: It allows the nuclear-haves to keep their weapons, while asking the rest of the world to abjure the option.

But the proposed anti-rocket treaty has none of the non-proliferation treaty's weaknesses. Its application would be universal, and it is more easily enforceable. As the Iraq experience has uncomfortably demonstrated, much of the work of creating nuclear weapons can be concealed from detection. But missile systems cannot be effective unless their engines are tested and their boosters flown in the open. A ban on flight tests would quickly render any hidden missiles unreliable.

Of course, such a treaty wouldn't get rid of planes carrying nuclear bombs, much less terrorist bombs delivered in suitcases, but it would diminish the tempo of crises and conflicts, buying time for diplomacy to resolve them. Banning missiles removes the ''instantaneous'' ingredient.

The new treaty signed last weekend by Presidents Bush and Yeltsin brings us to the moment of truth. Do we seize this unique occasion to stymie the use of nuclear weapons, or don't we? If we pass this chance up, the opportunity may not return.

Jonathan Power writes a column about world affairs.

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