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The Next Challenge: Warlords With Warheads

By Helena CobbanHelena Cobban does research and writes on foreign affairs for Search for Common Ground in Washington. The views in her columns, however, are her own. / February 13, 1992



It is a long, cold winter here in Washington, and there is gloom over a host of foreign-policy issues. Perhaps most worrying are the drumbeats of two new discontents: the gathering rhythms of anti-Japan and anti-Muslim sentiment. It is almost as if, after the implosion of the Soviet empire, many Americans need another enemy at the gate to define their sense of national purpose.

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Yes, there are some developments in both Japan and the Muslim world that are rightly of concern to Americans. But let's get the "threats" of Japanese protectionism and Muslim fundamentalism into proportion. Otherwise, we might end up ignoring the one development of our times that could, like the nuclear hair-trigger of the cold war but with less predictability, threaten the future of all life on earth.

That is the collapse of authority in a military machine that still has in its hands more than 20,000 nuclear warheads - that of the former Soviet Union.

We always used to take for granted the cohesiveness of the Red Army and the effectiveness of the Communist Party bosses' control over it. We can't any more. Now, the political establishment of the former Soviet empire has splintered once, and inside many of the resulting republics it threatens to splinter again.

At the same time, most of the budget to sustain the formerly "Red" Army has evaporated. Small parts of it have been taken under the wing of the new republics. But other parts have been left to fend for themselves.

Already, there are reports that commanders in two of the Russian military districts have set up their own revenue-collection systems and started to ignore the feeble orders emanating from Moscow. The prospect? One veteran American arms controller suggested that I title this piece "Warlords with Warheads."

We might not be quite at that stage yet. But given the speed with which the collapse has already occurred, we are far too close for comfort. The fashioning of a stable successor system in the former Soviet lands - and particularly in those which have nuclear weapons and major nuclear facilities - is the greatest foreign-policy challenge of the years ahead.

Fashioning such a system serves the direct interests not only of Americans, but of all passengers on this planet we share. We all must work together to find a solution. American and European know-how in the nuclear-weapons field, Japanese and Arab investment, goodwill and sound ideas from throughout the developed world - these are the necessary ingredients for any lasting success.

The major success story of my parents' generation lay in the way that a stable internal order, and stable relations with the outside world, were brought to the defeated nations of Germany and Japan. Now that same generosity, vision, and cooperation is required for the (virtually defeated) Soviet Union. Of course, the task will be much harder, because the victorious allies of the 1990s do not control their adversary's terrain.

But we have many assets not available to our parents in 1945. Incredible technical know-how and means of communication, powerful and attractive ideas, and above all no major remaining enemy to arm against. And we have an existing, tested international organization - the United Nations - that can coordinate our efforts in the former Soviet lands even while we work to bring to it much-needed reforms.

Here are the areas that the international stabilization effort needs to address:

* Nuclear control. A credible system of identifying, inventorying, in-gathering and dismantling nuclear warheads is the first priority. Disposal of fissile materials and cleanup of nuclear sites are subsequent aims. Commanders of the formerly Red Army would reportedly like some reciprocal action by Western forces. Only an international body like the UN can finesse this point. And only the UN can mobilize the huge resources needed for the task.

* A stable economic future. A Japanese diplomat remarked that the total cost of stabilizing the ruble would be less than the cost of the Gulf war. That is only the first step. A generous integration into world markets is also needed.

* Good governance. This one seems harder for outsiders to affect. But satellites enable us to speak to the formerly Soviet peoples directly. We can spell out to them why we think democratically-accountable governments are in their own best interests. A move to democracy need not run counter to the demands of nuclear dismantlement: Look at Brazil and Argentina.

Such a lot to do. So little time to get started. But the major theme of constructing the post-Soviet world is one of building a better future - for all peoples. This is no time for magnifying petty hatreds.