As rare as opportunities for improving global security are, rarer still are leaders capable of taking advantage of brief historical moments. The fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union gave leaders in the United States and the former Soviet Union an opportunity to ease cold war tensions and reduce the risk of global nuclear annihilation. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev recognized this opportunity by negotiating the START II agreement.
History has handed President Clinton and his counterparts in the international community a similar opportunity - the chance for a comprehensive treaty banning nuclear tests. If completed, the test ban would help prevent the development and deployment of advanced, new nuclear weapons, and stymie the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The goal of a comprehensive test ban has eluded world leaders since the dirty atmospheric blasts of the '50s. But after three years of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, agreement on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is possible if the leaders of the nuclear weapon states take bold action.
Leadership is needed because negotiators can't reach agreement on a final treaty. Ironically, it is one of the "undeclared" nuclear weapon states, India, that is blocking consensus. India, among the first to call for a test ban in 1954, now balks because a test ban would close-off its own nuclear ambitions while allowing the five declared nuclear weapon states to maintain their nuclear arsenals. India's opposition has become significant because the United Kingdom, Russia, and China insist that India must ratify before the test ban legally enters-into-force.
The apparent deadlock in Geneva requires the pursuit of alternatives to secure the CTBT. Without unanimous agreement in Geneva, the US and a group of "friends of the CTBT" should sidestep the Geneva process by submitting the CTBT directly to the UN, which could open the treaty for signature.
This approach needs an overwhelming vote of endorsement at the UN. If only India objects, its action can be linked to its own nuclear agenda and internal political situation. However, if several countries reject the "friends of the CTBT" alternative, it could severely undermine the credibility of the treaty and future nuclear disarmament efforts.
The key is whether President Clinton can secure the support of developing nations. While they do not wish to hold up agreement on a test ban, the developing nations share India's frustration with the failure of the five declared nuclear weapon states to pursue their obligation - established in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - to further reduce their nuclear arsenals.
It isn't certain that the majority of developing states would support a CTBT resolution not endorsed by the Conference on Disarmament, especially if the declared nuclear weapon powers continue to balk on nuclear disarmament.
The US and the other four declared nuclear weapon states should agree to forming a new ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament. This committee could serve as a nonbinding forum to consider nuclear disarmament proposals.
Given the leadership role on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament sought by Mr. Clinton, the US must pursue initiatives that ensure success. In light of the role of other nuclear weapon states in requiring Indian support before the test ban goes into effect, they also must assist in gaining support for the test ban. Without such actions, a rare chance to turn back the nuclear threat could be lost.
*Daryl Kimball is associate director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, Stephen Young is a senior analyst for the British American Information Council.