South Africa's Nuclear Example

IS the idea of aiming at zero nuclear weapons so crazy? A year ago, then Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin told a graduating class at MIT that, "A world without nuclear weapons would not be disadvantageous to the United States. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons would actually be better."

Since then Mr. Aspin has become secretary of defense. His statements on nuclear weapons are more cautious. And the Clinton administration is reluctant to support a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing, arguing that the US may want to resume testing in the years ahead.

South Africa is taking a different track. Three years ago, it dismantled the six atomic bombs it had secretly produced. It then signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed scores of inspections of once-clandestine nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In April, the head of South Africa's nuclear program met with specialists from several black African countries in Zimbabwe. He loaded them down with the kind of details needed to reassure them that his country's int ent in the nuclear field was now peaceful.

South Africa may be showing us all the way. Granted, some cynics say the waning white-led regime just wanted to divest itself of nuclear weapons before all governmental assets fall into the hands of the black majority. But a better explanation may be that dismantling the nuclear arsenal, and the way these canny South Africans have chosen to do this, is part and parcel of the shift in national doctrine and self-definition that President Frederick de Klerk has spearheaded during his years in office.

Developing, and then hanging onto, the nuclear arsenal was probably a response to the deep-seated insecurity the white community suffered during the apartheid years. They felt surrounded by black Africans both within and outside their borders. So when Mr. De Klerk started envisioning a new, more inclusive future for his country, this entailed not just vast changes in the domestic political system, but also a new approach to national security. Nuclear weapons were transformed from being a boon to a potent ially major irritant as an end-of-apartheid government reached out to build good relations with neighbors.

How about the rest of us? Plenty of analysts these days are finding reasons why the US should hang on to its nuclear weapons. Many of these "reasons" rely on a fairly amorphous and generalized sense of global threat. Samuel P. Huntington has written of cultural factors that cause people from "Confucian and Islamic cultures" to pose a large new threat to Western values. Keeping nuclear weapons is thus made necessary by these new threats, analysts like Dr. Huntington say.

But the leaders of white South Africa have faced a more present threat from angry black Africans. If white South Africans can magnanimously reach out and reassure its neighbors, then surely we, whose sense of threat is so much less a daily reality, can reach out and build confidence with those whose actions we may otherwise have cause to fear.

One way to do this is to support a comprehensive test ban. Another is to commit the US to further deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal, unilaterally. The Russians, Ukrainians, Iranians, and North Koreans might even be invited to witness some of the dismantling. Such acts could be linked with new high-level statements about moving to a nuclear-weapons-free world. Aspin already has those speeches written.

In 20 years we might be close to a post-nuclear world. That kind of world would depend on creative new applications of old notions of collective security. It would depend on an aggressive commitment to confidence building and to maintaining networks of strong relationships worldwide.

Alternatively, we might be in Fortress America, scared of nations "not like us," armed to the teeth, still paying for a huge military, and hanging on to our nuclear stockpile. The white South Africans have been down that road. They saw the dead-end. Let's hope their efforts to change course succeed, and that the rest of us can learn from their example.

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