Give Up Our Nukes? Horrors!

January 07, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

Vienna, Austria -- If Saddam Hussein had succeeded in building a nuclear weapon, a U.S. president would not have launched ''Desert Storm.'' There would have been at most an economic embargo and the threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons if Iraq dared use its.

The near miss with Saddam Hussein has made all the present nuclear-haves determined to hold on to their nuclear weapons. It is a policy of questionable wisdom.

By holding onto their large arsenals long after the Cold War's end the nuclear-haves forfeit arguments of morality, self-discipline and symmetry in seeking to dissuade would-be nuclear powers.

Economic calculations overrode nuclear temptation in the case of Kazakhstan, which has agreed to ratify the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and to return its nuclear missiles to Moscow. But North Korea's pursuit of the bomb is less amenable to economic pressure. Nor does anyone in Washington have much of an idea on how to dissuade Iran and Algeria.

The most delicate of all situations is Japan's edging away from its long-time nuclear pacifism. Japan now hints that it will agree to extending the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at next year's review conference onlyif the present nuclear-haves agree to abolish nuclear weapons within a limited period of time. Washington appears not to have understood the implication that Japan might start to develop its own bomb under certain circumstances.

Whether they like it or not, the big five nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- now face the biggest decision of their nuclear lives. Will they opt for the status quo, holding on to their nukes, albeit with reduced numbers, and attempt to maneuver around bad situations like North Korea as they arise? Or will they, in time for next year's non-proliferation conference, when Japan and the Third World will insist on radical changes, acknowledge that piecemeal nuclear fire-fighting will no longer stop proliferation? In that case they must try something else -- creating within a reasonable time, perhaps ten years, a nuclear-free world.

This would have to be done by means of a world-wide negotiation, but it need not be exceedingly complex. It should be a negotiation by layers, while keeping the whole cake in sight as work proceeds.

One big obstacle will be trying to persuade Ukraine to implement START 1 -- the disarmament agreement that cuts America's and Russia's missiles and abolishes Ukraine's. But a collective promise to eliminate all nuclear weapons within a set time will vitiate the argument made by nationalist Ukrainians that nuclear disarmament will leave Ukraine for all time vulnerable to Moscow's nuclear blackmail.

If the sticking points involving Russia and Ukraine are resolved, freeing Russia and the United States to move ahead with START 2, then Beijing, Paris and London can be brought into the mix.

China has long held that it will consider disarmament only when cutbacks by the superpowers reach a certain -- so far undefined -- threshold. That is more than Paris and London have said. Nevertheless, political pressure to join the disarmament regime will be formidable, even against the national egotism of France.

When France's ''Non!'' is all that stands between a nuclear-free world and bombs in the hands of Israel, India, Pakistan and perhaps Japan, Paris may see the value of compromise.

That will leave the pariah states -- North Korea, Iran and, maybe, Algeria. By then, however, the traffic in nuclear materials and nuclear advice should be under stricter control. That and the anti-nuclear climate of world politics should be enough to intimidate the hardest of them. Not one of them is strong enough to stand alone economically for very long.

Many nuclear strategists I have talked to, or whose recent work I have read, seem to think it's likely that nuclear weapons will be used somewhere, sometime in the next 10 to 20 years, probably in an intra-Third World conflict. I suggest we do something fairly radical to avert it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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