The new nuclear age

January 05, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- First France, then China, now India. History may never forgive French President Jacques Chirac for starting up the nuclear-testing rounds again.

Still, as long as China has nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them, India will have them too, though it has been responsible enough so far to neither test nor deploy its substantial nuclear armory.

But early last month it was reported that U.S. intelligence suspected that India was preparing a nuclear test. Then the intelligence suggested not a bomb test but a test of India's short-range, but possibly nuclear-capable missile, the Prithvi. A month later, it is still unclear what, exactly, India is up to at its test site in the Rajasthan desert. But New Delhi has made clear its nuclear diplomacy: There will be no Indian signature on this year's expected Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty unless all the nuclear powers agree on a timetable for disarmament.

Catching up to China

This has nothing to do with India's traditional enemy, Pakistan, whose nuclear posturing with India gets regular news stories. India is now engaged in a catch-up game with China to determine which will be the dominant power in Asia. Economic competition is the weapon of choice for day-to-day affairs -- and India now looks as if it has a good chance of overtaking China in the early decades of the next century.

But nuclear weapons may play a role, if, despite the end of the Cold War, they remain the currency of power.

All the indications are that China after Deng Xiaoping will become more assertive and militaristic. If China continues to build up its nuclear armory at its present rate, it will reach parity with the U.S. in just 30 years.

India, with its latest somersault over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has forced the issue. Testing nuclear weapons or refraining from testing them is hardly the issue when simulated computer testing provides all the necessary information. It is possession that the power game is all about. As the momentum for nuclear disarmament that was built in the Bush-Gorbachev days now dissipates, a test-ban treaty is almost a diversion.

The dangers of a nuclear-armed world appear to be of little interest to our political leaders, or even to our daily press. But the dangers remain nevertheless.

In the issue of Foreign Affairs to be published Monday, Fred Ikle, who was under secretary of defense for policy in the Reagan administration, warns that the big powers ''must realize that the best offensive and defensive weapons systems will not provide adequate protection in the new nuclear age,'' and therefore ''the U.S. must lead the great powers in planning for the international control of nuclear weapons.''

More coos from the hawks

A new report by the Washington-based Henry Stimson Center, by a panel including another old Reagan hawk, the arms-control negotiator Paul Nitze, and a former Supreme Allied commander in Europe, Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, goes even further.

It seeks to persuade nuclear states to cut their arsenals from thousands of nukes to dozens and even to zero. The panel believes such a goal is possible in the lifetime of most of those now alive. ''Apart from the devastating consequences of their use,'' the report observes, ''the continued reliance of the U.S. on nuclear weapons for broad political or military purposes undermines our efforts to convince other states that those weapons have no value and thus may weaken our ability to stem nuclear proliferation.''

Even the old Cold Warriors now admit that we have escaped nuclear war thus far (''seemingly by accident,'' they qualify). It seems quite incredible that the modest arms-control measures already agreed to could be held up (until last month) by one maverick U.S. senator, by chauvinistic posturing in the Russian parliament, and by lethargy in both presidencies.

It is irresponsible that there is no plan in the works for presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton to meet to speed up further nuclear cuts. And that the major nuclear powers now allocate about 100 times as much to deterrence as to the prevention and mitigation of catastrophic accidents or human error.

The Indians have made a valuable point. They should keep jabbing at the world's nuclear nerve center -- until we all wake up.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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