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To maintain 'a suprising nuclear stability

By Joseph S. Nye Jr.Joseph S. Nye Jr., professor of government at Harvard, was a deputy undersecretary of state with responsibility for nonproliferation policy, 1977-1979. / August 18, 1980

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?

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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."