GENEVA — Geneva. -- The non-nuclear-armed powers appear to have let the nuclear mighties off the hook.
The word is that the signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, most of the world in fact, are going to agree to its renewal, perhaps even indefinitely, at the review conference beginning today in New York.
This is exactly what Washington has been fighting for.
It has sought to protect the treaty from possible assault by Egypt, angry at America's long-time tolerance of Israel's sizeable nuclear arsenal, or by Mexico and New Zealand, which have long campaigned for a nuclear-free world, or simply by a Third World malaise arising from its continuing sense of military inferiority.
The treaty's central trade-off has been reduced, once again, to ,, so much verbiage.
The treaty recites that the ''nuclear have-nots'' promise to refrain from developing nuclear weapons if the ''nuclear haves'' make significant progress on nuclear disarmament.
During the Cold War, this undertaking was a dead letter. Since Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan forged the beginnings of an entente that helped end four decades of nuclear confrontation, no one can say progress has not been made.
Even so, nuclear armories remain at a ridiculously high level. And there is still no nuclear test-ban treaty that might curb the manufacture by the ''haves'' of new kinds of so-called ''usable'' nuclear weapons, and help cap nuclear-bomb development elsewhere.
The non-nuclear powers have missed an opportunity. If they had spent the last two years seriously organizing, they could have demanded -- and probably got -- from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France, not only a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but another large reduction by Russia and America in their nuclear armories -- down from the present thousands to, possibly, Robert McNamara's ballpark figure of a couple of hundred.
Such a move might lure Britain and France, which have perversely enlarged their arsenals since the end of the Cold War, to enter the serious cutting game.
That, in turn, might win a promise by China to cut, since it has always said it would do so when Britain and France did.
The leverage was there; the ''haves'' would have done a lot to avoid jeopardizing the non-proliferation treaty. They value it, quite rightly, as a check on unpredictable nuclear madness.
The treaty may not have stopped Israel, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea from pursuing nuclear programs, but it unquestionably kept the number of nuclear powers below 20, the number President Kennedy expected by the 1990s.
It persuaded five countries that did try to develop nuclear weapons to reverse themselves -- South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Moreover, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus have voluntarily agreed to renounce possession.
What can be done in the two weeks of the conference to make up for the two years of neglect?
How about a ban on the production of new fissile (bomb-grade) material? Preparatory work has begun in the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
Since 1978, the U.N. General Assembly has consistently voted its support. President Clinton, in September 1993, came out in favor of such a ban.
A cut-off would make irreversible the drawdown of nuclear-weapons materials in the superpower arsenals.
It would cap the weapons stockpiles of the other ''haves'' and would bring the three de facto unannounced weapon states (Israel, India and Pakistan) into the non-proliferation regime by capping their weapons programs.
Of course, a full agreement would take longer to negotiate than ** the two weeks available in New York. But, as a first step, an informal agreement is feasible.
The aim should be to push the declared and de facto states to state that they will no longer produce weapons-usable material, and will participate in relatively non-intrusive verification arrangements.
Would it be worth threatening to sabotage the renewal of the non-proliferation treaty to win this?
Indeed it would, because the treaty, as Iran and North Korea have shown, is not strong enough to stop a determined `f would-be nuclear power getting its way.
A no-fissile-material agreement in fact would be a much better fence for protecting the world from future nuclear developments.
Ideally, of course, the New York review would end with both the indefinite renewal of the non-proliferation treaty and a fissile-materials agreement.
Astute diplomatic brinkmanship could achieve the double whammy. But first the non-nuclear powers must be prepared to risk the treaty.
The gamble would be worth it.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.