This week 114 nations are meeting in Geneva to review the 1968 nonproliferation treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. if we step back from the conference rhetoric, where does the world stand in its efforst to control the spread of nuclear weapons?
Three-and-a-half decades have passed since the energy of the atom was used in warfare. Yet rather than nuclear doom, the world has seen a surprising nuclear stability -- thus far. Equally remarkable is the fact that over the same period nuclear technology has spread to more than two score nationss, yet only a small fraction have chosen to develop nuclear weaponry. A third notable point about the period has been the development of an international nonproligeration regime -- a set of rules, norms and institutions -- which haltingly and albeit imperfectly has discouraged the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability.
Can this situation last? Obviously there will be changes in political and technical trends, but the fact that proliferation may be destabilizing in many instances, that nuclear weapons need not enhance the security position of states , and that superpowers cannot fully escape their effects provides the common international interest upon which the nonproliferation is based.
Under such conditions some inequality in weaponry is acceptable to most states because the alternative anarchic equality is more dangerous. So long as countries can be made better off without a bomb than with one, then a policy of slowing the spread of nuclear weapons technology rests on a realistic formulation of common interests, and there are serious prospects for maintaining a legitimate and stable international nuclear regime.
Realistically, and international regime does not need perfect adherence to have a significant constraining effect, any more than deviand behavoir means the irrelevance of domestica legal regimes. Nevertheless, there is a tipping point beyond which violations lead to breakdown of normative constraints. The police function is traditionally the domain of the great powers in international politics, but as their preponderance in the nuclear issue area erodes, and they become diverted by other issues, there is a danger that the gradual historical curve of proliferation could approach such a tipping point.
There are two major contentious issues at the NPT (nonproliferation treaty) review conference. One centers on access to technology for peaceful uses of nuclear energy which is guaranteed by Article 4. while peaceful uses are not the sole cause of proliferation, there are connections, and how to manage them has caused turmoil since the Indian explosion in 1974.
One result was agreement by 15 nuclear supplier countries on stricter guidelines for nuclear transfers. At the same time, potential recipients pointed out that stringent denials of technology would violate the bargain struck when they promised not to develop weapons.
To a very considerable extent, the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) which President Carter luanched in 1977 and which reported earlier this year, helped to lay a basis for convergence on this issue by deflating some exaggerated projections about nuclear energy. A gradual evolutionary approach to nuclear energy can help to reconcile the tension between the suppliers guidelines and the NPT.
In addition, INFCE helped to persuade others to share our nonproliferation agenda and broadened the leadership in maintaining the regime. As one long-term French official noted wryly in Vienna, "We may encroach on your markets, but somehow we seem to have inherited your nonproliferation policy in the process."
The other contentious area is the accusation that the superpowers have not done their share in arms control. But the relation between nonproliferation and other arms control regimes is not as simple as it first appears. The usual connections are made by provisions like Article 6 of the NPT, calling for a halt to the "vertical proliferation" of the arms of the superpowers.
This gives rise to certain paradoxes in nonproliferation policy. Ironically, calculability and stability of deterence between the United States and the Soviet Union has occurred over time and at high levels of weaponry. By historical evolution, this pattern has produced prudence in their relationship and extended deterrence to their allies who have thus been able to eschew the development of nuclear weaponry. Changes in the balance which are perceived as weakening the credibility are deterrence not only threaten the stability of the central relationship but reduce the sense of security that permits allied states to forswear proliferation. It is paradoxical but true that under many circumstances the introduction of a single weapon in a new state may be more likely to lead to nuclear use than the introduction of an additional thousand each by the United States and the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the profess indifference to the superpower nuclear arms relationship can weaken the nonproliferation regime in two different ways. First, a disdain for the arms control institutions and concerns expressed by nonweapons states can exacerbate the discrimiantion issue that is the central dilemma in nonproliferation policy; the halting of SALT hurt here. Second, nuclear doctrines which overly stress the usefulness of nuclear weapons in warfighting situations may help to increase the credibility of deterrence, but they also tend to make nuclear weapons look more attractive to others.If states that have deliberately eschewed nuclear weapons see them treated increasingly like conventional defensive weapons, they may one day reconsider their decisions. In short, the relation between nonproliferation and the general nuclear arms control regimes will require a sensitivitiy to both horns of the dilemma during what promises to be a difficult period in the superpower relationship.
After the conference is over, the United States will need a steady policy that balances these complex trade-offs in both the nuclear energy and nuclear strategy areas. On the nuclear fuel cycle, to a very considerable extent, leadership in the job of maintaining the nonproliferation regime is now shared. But collective leadership is difficult to manage. On the second issue, we must not let our fundamental rivalry with the Soviet Union blind us to our shared interest in slowing proliferation.
The wrong policies in the 1980s, i.e., policies that put us in an overly rigid position on the nuclear fuel cycle or which lower the priority we give to the issue in security terms, could still sacrifice the current modest success in regime maintenance. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the political problem of proliferation. But given the difficulty of constructing international institutions in a world of sovereign states, and the risks attendant upon their collapse, political wisdoms begins with efforts to maintain the existing regime with its presumption against proliferation.