WASHINGTON — WITH the new strategic weapons pact signed yesterday, the United States and Russia have completed an historic cycle in arms control history. In essence, they have agreed that fear of each other will no longer be the driving force behind the buildup of their nuclear arsenals.
When the national security team for President-elect Clinton takes office, its main nuclear concern will not be the threat from Moscow, but the problem of atomic proliferation in smaller states. That means the fundamental goals of arms control must change in the post-cold-war world.
"While traditional arms control sought to preserve a stable balance, the new agenda must seek to create a new stability," concludes a recent study on the future of arms control issued by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
Instead of a game in which both sides are jockeying for any relative advantage they can secure, arms control should become the joint management of shared problems, according to the report. START III, if there is such a treaty, might well focus on more than simply pushing warhead limits lower than the 3,000-3,500 allowed under START II.
The study points out that certain kinds of limits the US and Russia could agree on between themselves might help contain the spread of nuclear materials or smuggled weapons. For instance, the nuclear superpowers could propose that the warheads of weapons to be eliminated, and their dangerous nuclear fuel, be put under joint or international supervision.
Or the US and Russia could sign a binding agreement to stop new production of the fissile material that powers nuclear weapons.
President Bush has already announced the US will temporarily stop making the material, and with thousands of warheads to be scrapped under the START I and II pacts in coming years, the biggest problem will be what to do with the removed fissile matter.
Other possible arms control agenda items listed by the report include:
* More vigorous efforts to deal with the security and dismantlement of nuclear weapons still scattered across the former Soviet Union.
For instance, Ukraine's evident reluctance to give up its small atomic arsenal, as called for by START I-related agreements, is holding up the arms control implementation process. One way around this might be to call a signing conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for new European states - something the Ukranian government might find hard to avoid, given the strong anti-nuclear sentiment among its citizenry.
* Development of a comprehensive non-proliferation policy. This might include joint agreement on stronger restraints for shipment of atomic-related materials, or stronger regional conflict-reduction measures, or perhaps even an international nuclear test ban.
* Even deeper strategic reductions. Some experts think both sides could safely go below the START II limits, although then the US and Russia might be approaching the point where the arsenals of smaller nuclear powers would play a role in their calculations. "You hit a floor where you don't want to be a smaller nuclear power than France," argues Greg Weaver, a senior defense analyst with the SAIC Corporation.
Not all the above moves would prove popular with the Pentagon, or with officials from the outgoing Bush administration. In particular, Bush officials have argued strenuously in the past that as long as the weapons exist, the US needs to at least retain the option of resuming nuclear tests.
In military planning circles the problem now is figuring out what kind of nuclear force makes sense in the new world. "What's the new planning focus? The US and Russian arsenals are no longer tightly linked," Mr. Weaver says.
For instance, the sheer size of the remaining US arsenal is unlikely to deter a rogue state with a nuclear weapon. Nuclear theorists think that what is needed for that job is a small weapon that a dictatorial leader might conceivably believe the US would use against him.
Scientists at US nuclear weapons labs are already working on designs for such so-called "tiny nukes." But critics complain they are just searching for ways to keep building weapons and to justify the existence of a large national nuclear infrastructure.