The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests have sent a wake-up call to the world. And that alarm is about far more than "just'" the stability of South Asia. It is about nothing less than the architecture of the world order, based as it currently is on a two-tier system in which one group has kept for itself the right to have nuclear weapons and also has permanent, veto-wielding seats on the UN Security Council - while the other group has none of the above.
It seems strange, to say the least, that it is the members of the first group which are now taking primary responsibility for dealing with the challenge to the world's nuclear regime launched by the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.
Ever since the conclusion of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, India has expressed vociferous protests against the intrinsically discriminatory nature of the NPT "system." Now, India - and Pakistan -- have turned those verbal protests into an intentionally activist challenge. The Indian government's present desire to flaunt its ability to blow hundreds of thousands of human beings into smithereens (and this, in the land of Gandhi?) may strike us as extremely wrong-headed. But New Delhi's criticism of the two-tier system of global governance has always had some validity, and continues to.
Right now, the NPT system, and the broader nonproliferation regime that it represents, seem to be the portions of the present global system most clearly challenged by the South Asian tests. But it is not an easy matter to fix or fiddle with the NPT. In 1993, the treaty was renewed "into perpetuity" by a broadly attended international gathering from which only India, Israel, and a few other NPT opponents were absent. That conference reaffirmed the previously defined deadline by which a state should have declared its nuclear arsenal in order to be defined as a "nuclear- weapons state." To change the deadline to allow India and Pakistan to become recognized nuclear "have" states, would strongly encourage others to follow suit.
Rather than trying to square the circle regarding the NPT, it might make sense to focus more on reforming the "permanent five" system in the Security Council. At the same time, the P-5 states themselves need to step up their efforts to implement the promise made when the NPT gave them the status of recognized nuclear "have" countries, to work for "general and complete disarmament." Only by taking serious steps on those two fronts will we be able to rearrange an incentive structure which at present makes it seem to many nuclear have-nots that possession of atomic arsenals is a useful, prestigious, and valid goal.
In addition, it will make all continuing challenges to the NPT easier to deal with, if the group taking the lead on this in the Security Council is not composed solely of nuclear "have" states.
Reform of the P-5 system should involve giving some states which are nuclear-abstainers permanent Security Council seats. (South Africa, which gave up its nuclear arsenal, is a clear candidate. Japan is another.) It should also involve changing the representation of present P-5 members. As Europe's governments become ever more closely bound together, does it still make sense that they have two seats in the P-5 club? Why not one seat for Europe, to be rotated, perhaps, among the European Union's nuclear and non-nuclear powers? Power inside the Security Council could be further diffused, meanwhile, by giving all Council members, permanent and rotating, effective veto power.
Broad changes in the international system since the UN was established in the 1940s have made reforms such as these quite necessary, anyway. The current threat to the nonproliferation regime merely makes them much more urgent.
Regarding general disarmament, the end of the global cold war long ago rendered the doctrine of competing "nuclear umbrellas" and "mutually assured destruction" quite dysfunctional. The United States and the other four nuclear-weapons states should redouble their efforts to draw down arsenals, and start thinking - now - about how to pool their capabilities into a single global deterrent force, as a transition to the promised complete disarmament.
Again, those are steps which probably should have been taken anyway. The challenge from South Asia makes them more urgent.
And as a very first step - one which should have been taken long ago - the US Senate needs to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the earliest possible date. If the US, from its position of unrivaled strength and national security, cannot bring itself to do this, why should we expect other, more vulnerable nations to do the same?
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.