Listen to the nuclear chatter

The noise of war distracts attention from dangerous escalation of threats.

As we immerse ourselves in the cacophony of military operations in Iraq, let us not forget to keep an ear cocked for the dangerous nuclear wrangling in the background.

Apparently wishing to put a lid on the Korean problem while dealing with Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon last month made a show of flying two dozen nuclear bombers forward to the Pacific island of Guam. The North Koreans responded promptly, shooting an old, nonnuclear missile on a "test flight" into their own coastal waters. They'd done the same two weeks earlier on the news of the US "warning order" telling the bombers to get ready.By twice choosing not to lob a newer weapon over the heads of the Japanese on a trajectory toward the US as they had last year, the North Korean regime seemed to suggest a degree of restraint. This week, they fired yet another missile, perhaps intending a fresh show of defiance.

Another nuclear duel is under way in South Asia. After inching back from last year's near-war mobilization, India and Pakistan reheated that confrontation a few days ago with matching "test missiles."

Welcome to the world of nuclear signaling. Welcome back, that is. The art of keeping the peace by threatening nuclear obliteration fell into happy disuse when the Soviet Union disappeared. At the time, it seemed the "nukes" themselves would become obsolete. Wrong.

So far, the new voices in these "conversations" are few: North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel - the latter notable for keeping mum. But each lives in a region where local threats pull the great powers into the discussion. The trouble is that none of the members of the nuclear club - including the nuclear Goliath, America - has any experience in today's varieties of atomic tête-à-têtes.

Even among the old hands of the cold war, nuclear signaling was fraught with misunderstanding. Among today's rookie players, one side's nuance could well be gibberish to the other. We have no real understanding of what North Koreans intend with their bluster or how they interpret our gestures. Indeed, we don't know for certain who is in charge in North Korea. We can only be sure that these isolated men, deliberately starving their own people while they parade a huge army, don't think the way we do.

The pattern of nuclear proliferation is shifting, and with it the dynamics of deterrence. Formerly we worried about countries like Iraq and Iran making their weapons from scratch. But in the future, we'll deal also with shadowy networks of terrorists who buy their weapons on the underground market. Where does a superpower fly a squadron of bombers if it wants to grab the attention of a covert terrorist organization like Al Qaeda, with scattered cells all over the globe?

At heart, nuclear signaling is much more than just writing diplomatic notes on a warhead. By threatening catastrophe, each party hopes to extract a measure of safety from the mutual standoff. That's the theory. But instead of calming the situation, nuclear threats ricocheting among today's players may lead one of the smaller, inexperienced parties to panic and shoot.

Regardless of who pulls the trigger or why, a nuclear detonation would be a disaster. A mushroom cloud rising over the dead in any city could thrust civilization into an era of unlimited violence just when bio-weapons are creeping into our mass-killing capabilities. Clearly, humankind must steer in the other direction, toward managing disagreements with less deadly methods.

That's long-term. But how ought we handle the real nuclear threats zinging around right now? Piling on more threats isn't the answer. Flying nuclear bombers toward leaders barricaded in a small country may be macho; it's also escalatory and militarily meaningless should they and their warheads be hidden. With the most to lose, Americans might find themselves more deterred by North Korea's handful of nukes than the North Koreans are by America's thousands of nukes.

As it is, the bomber gambit probably stiffened the North Koreans. Hearing murmurs from some in Washington that "you're next" after the US invasion of Iraq, the North Koreans may be thinking they need even more warheads to hold off the US.

The new White House language of preemptive strike disregards a bit of cold-war wisdom that still applies: Nothing escalates like the prospect of preemption. The cold-war nuclear confrontation didn't become really stable until intense, detailed negotiations gradually capped each side's escalation fears. Mutual understanding led, in turn, to a smaller, more relaxed nuclear posture for both sides. Now a new generation needs to repeat that experience.

Like it or not, the nukes are here, and nuclear risks are rising. The urgent task is to devalue them. Until we can substitute an entirely different grammar, we need to encourage all the world's nuclear actors and their at-risk neighbors, large and small, old and new, to understand how each thinks as it sends and receives nuclear signals.

Let's start talking about nukes, not with them.

Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain, has been the custodian of nuclear weapons at sea and a contributor to nuclear deterrence strategy in the Pentagon.

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