Controlling nuclear arms includes curbing their spread

Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's recent visit to the United States raises anew fundamental questions of how superpowers can effectively reduce nuclear arsenals in the interest of a more stable world. All but lost in the understandable clamor surrounding this issue is another problem of equal significance to world peace. The US and others have been quietly working on this problem for a long time: how to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

In developing policies to deal with this threat, decisionmakers are confronted with three basic questions: First, should we really be concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons? Second, what should we do about it? Third, isn't the situation hopeless in the long run?

Unlikely as it may seem, some people have contended that the spread of nuclear weapons would foster stability and enhance the prospects for the peaceful settlement of regional disputes. In the 1983 book ''Strategies for Managing Nuclear Proliferation,'' Kenneth Waltz chided that ''concentrating attention on the destructive power of nuclear weapons has obscured the important benefits they promise to states trying to coexist in a self-help world.'' This view falsely assumes that the unique mix of political, technical, and other reasons that have resulted in the non-use of nuclear weapons between the superpowers in the past decades will also exist in the conflict-prone regions where nuclear weapons might spread in the decades ahead.

The truth is quite the contrary. The bomb's spread would increase suspicions among traditional rivals, aggravate regional instabilities, escalate the risk of war, and hinder efforts to resolve disputes. For example, while both Iran and Iraq remain many years away from the technical potential to produce nuclear explosives, few can doubt that nuclear weapons might have been used in their bloody war if either country had had them. More is not better.

The threat of nuclear proliferation calls for a ''defense in depth.'' Technical measures, political and security efforts, and institution-building are all needed.

The US must continue to work with other suppliers to tighten international nuclear export practices, thereby making it technically more difficult to acquire nuclear explosives. Controls on technology for producing weapons-grade enriched uranium have just been strengthened; additional restrictions on technology for another weapons material, plutonium, are in the works.

So-called nuclear export alerts can help. Nuclear suppliers have joined forces on a number of occasions to head off dangerous sales to sensitive countries. Tightened controls and practices will have to keep pace with changing technologies, with new ways to get around controls, and with new sources of supply.

Nuclear supply is no longer the exclusive preserve of a few major industrial countries. Three decades ago the US dominated the nuclear market; a decade or so later, we had been joined by several Western European countries. Now, countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan are emerging on the nuclear scene. They, too, can supply nuclear materials, technology, or equipment of increasing sophistication and potential proliferation risk. Steps will also be needed to persuade these newly emerging nuclear suppliers to accept at least minimal standards for peaceful nuclear cooperation.

China is a case in point. In the course of negotiations with China on a nuclear cooperation agreement, nonproliferation issues were raised to the highest political levels. Those discussions helped. China has joined the International Atomic Energy Agency and made clear that it will require IAEA safeguards on its own future nuclear export commitments. This is a major and welcome gain, since IAEA safeguards designed to detect misuse of peaceful nuclear activity are a linchpin of international nonproliferation efforts.

Initiatives to tighten technical constraints can only buy time. This time is important. It must continue to be used to reduce the political and security incentives for acquiring nuclear explosives. Strong and credible US alliances and security ties around the globe are vital to this endeavor. Because of those alliances, many countries technically capable of acquiring nuclear weapons have chosen not to do so. Naturally, one of the critical tasks of US security assistance must be to lessen tensions and promote peace in the Middle East and South Asia.

We should also use that time for institution-building. An effective IAEA safeguard system can help deter misuse of peaceful nuclear assistance and foster confidence. The US continues to provide funds and expertise to strengthen safeguards. Regular US safeguard discussions with friends in Europe and Asia have also helped the IAEA to meet its immediate responsibilities better and have begun to forge an international consensus to deal successfully with future safeguards challenges.

In July 1981, and again in March 1983, President Reagan urged the major nuclear suppliers to agree to require nonnuclear-weapon states to accept international safeguards on all their peaceful nuclear activities as a condition for any significant new nuclear supply. Since then, we have held intensive bilateral and multilateral discussions to move closer to consensus on this basic safeguard principle.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), non-nuclear weapons states renounce the right to acquire nuclear weapons. It is another critical institution. Without it, political constraints to the bomb's spread would be undermined, suspicion and tension in conflict-prone regions would be heightened, and the technical barriers to acquiring these weapons would be lowered. With 124 parties , it is the most widely supported arms-control agreement in history; since 1980, 10 more countries have adhered to the treaty.

Preparations are well under way for the 1985 conference to review the NPT. The US commitment is strong in fostering the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as called for by the NPT. The US is also committed to negotiating radical reductions of US and Soviet nuclear arsenals, which is the best way to meet the treaty's arms control goals. As the review proceeds, we must never lose sight of the crucial contribution of the NPT to all countries' security by helping contain the spread of nuclear weapons.

Putting in place a defense in depth requires the cooperation of many other countries, including other suppliers, our allies, and also the Soviet Union. Both the Soviets and we have a shared interest in rigorous nonproliferation measures. As a result, in recent years discussions with the Soviet Union on nonproliferation have become more regular and intensive. They should and will continue.

But are these efforts in vain? Are we, like King Canute, trying to hold back an inevitable tide?

Over two decades ago, President John F. Kennedy warned of a world of 15 to 20 nuclear weapons states by 1975. This prognosis, with its dire implications for peace and stability, has not come to pass. Instead, a strong set of technical, political, and institutional barriers has been created against the spread of the bomb. Working with other countries, the US can and will continue to buttress that ''defense in depth,'' to ensure that today's pessimists are proved wrong.

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