FOR the past 40 years, the nuclear powers have enforced their monopoly on mass destruction through secrecy, export controls, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This combination has proven remarkably successful, for despite many efforts to break into this most exclusive elite, only a small handful of nations has thus far succeeded, and only with a token number of weapons.
But the Clinton administration now has decided that these nonmilitary measures are insufficient to meet what it views as unprecedented threats to United States security from nations or groups actively developing nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction.
First conceived after the Gulf war (where the US sought with only partial success to ``take out'' Iraq's nascent nuclear capability), a new doctrine called ``counterproliferation'' has begun to take institutional form in the Pentagon.
Last December, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced a ``Counterproliferation Initiative'' to add ``protection'' to the ``preventive'' political measures of the existing nonproliferation regime. He proposed ``a drive to develop new military capabilities'' as shields or, if necessary, to attack perceived threats from unnamed nations and groups in the third world.
Such capabilities would span a wide range of weapons systems, including theater missile defenses and precision-guided nonnuclear munitions capable of destroying hardened underground installations. Many of these weapons already have been deployed; others have yet to be designed. Some are purely defensive, others decidedly offensive.
It is difficult to determine yet just what weapons and strategies are to be developed under counterproliferation's vaguely defined rubric. Pentagon spokesmen deflect inquiries about specifics, revealing only that counterproliferation ``is intended to permeate the entire defense establishment and is going to be with us for the long haul.''
But even before it has been clearly defined, counterproliferation has aroused considerable controversy within the federal bureaucracy, as well as among politicians and policy analysts here and abroad. State Department officials reportedly are cool to the idea. They are concerned that unilateral military strategies could undermine the multilateral cooperative regime so laboriously built over the past few decades. And NATO allies were wary when asked to endorse the concept at their January summit.
In response to this concern, Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and the administration's leading counterproliferation advocate, has begun downplaying the assertive military option. He argues that it is just one dimension of counterproliferation and is intended only to reinforce multilateral diplomacy.
Proponents of counterproliferation assert that effective ballistic-missile defenses or chemical-weapons protection might dissuade potential proliferators from developing their own attack capabilities. But there is a considerable difference between defensive and offensive measures, and the the threat of attack could trigger unpredictable responses from those being targeted. The political costs of pursuing an aggressive military option could easily outweigh the dangers posed by a nation possessing a rudimentary nuclear or chemical arsenal.
The costs of counterproliferation could easily run into tens of billions of dollars, a point not lost on the still-powerful ``star wars'' lobby in the Pentagon, the arms industry, weapons labs, and Congress. These people have embraced counterproliferation technologies as their best hope for securing new funding since the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was disbanded last year. Deploying a sophisticated theater-missile defense system in Japan to defend against a putative threat from even a primitive North Korean nuclear device could cost at least $8 billion.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world's primary means of monitoring clandestine nuclear programs worldwide, remains chronically starved for funding at $60 million a year and has even been forced to cut inspections.
Many nonproliferation specialists in the US and abroad criticize counterproliferation's military thrust. Natalie Goldring, deputy director of the British-American Security Council, says that promulgating the new doctrine would scuttle next year's Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference and thus undermine the entire nonproliferation regime.
Others believe that it would needlessly antagonize the smaller nuclear powers and nonnuclear nations by focusing attention on the inequalities inherent in the existing nonproliferation regime.
Still others believe that such criticisms are overblown, maintaining that the principal thrust of US counterproliferation efforts is not to attack would-be proliferators or to act unilaterally, but simply to prepare US forces to fight effectively in places where nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons already exist.
However such issues are answered, once assertive military options are introduced, they all too easily could take on a momentum of their own, generating yet another self-perpetuating cycle of threat and counterthreat. Only when the great powers decisively reduce their own stockpiles of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction will other nations cease trying to gain access to these totems of ultimate power. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.