There is bound to be disappointment over the outcome of the just-concluded United Nations conference on halting the spread of nuclear weapons. No agreement was reached by the 75 attending nations on a final declaration that would have strengthened implementation of the 1968 nonproliferation treaty.
But it would be a mistake to write off the conference as a failure. Nonproliferation is an immensely complex goal requiring a steadfast commitment that persists beyond the rhetoric of the moment. Despite all the vituperative speeches, the issue is definitely alive. No country pulled out of the treaty, although some had threatened to. Indeed many delegates endorsed the signal importance of the pact and of getting nations not already a party to it to join. There was also a general recognition of the value of international safeguards on the use of nuclear technology.
On the latter score one significant step of progress was made. That was a nonbinding agreement not to export nuclear material to countries which are not parties to the nonproliferation treaty unless they place all their nuclear installations under the full-scope safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. If carried out, this means such countries as Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Africa, which are thought to have developed or are developing nuclear weapons, would be denied nuclear aid if they did not comply. West Germany, a primary exporter of technology, had previously resisted such a move. So did the developing countries, which feel that the industrial countries use safeguards to preserve their lucrative technological monopoly.
While the consensus reached in Geneva carries no legal weight, it at least showed that the valuable objective of tightening guidelines on nuclear transfers is gathering support. The need will be to follow through both to put the agreement into practice and to bring about its formal adoption.
Underlying the discontent of the developing states, however, is the even weightier issue of nuclear disarmament. The United States and the Soviet Union are rightly chastised for failing to curb the nuclear arms race or agree on a test-ban treaty. If the superpowers cannot restrain their arsenals -- and they now even talk as if nuclear weapons could be rationally used in war situations -- how will it be possible to persuade the nonweapon states they should continue to forgo the development of such arms? The way to help the cause of nonproliferation is clear, and the message was again loudly sounded in Geneva.