Nothing any American does is as important as contributing to a sound consensus on how to avoid nuclear war. All our other debates won't matter if our civilization is destroyed. We are being deluged with information, but consensus eludes us. If we continue talking past each other, we will be locked into damaging divisions, unable or unwilling to defend ourselves except by threatening nuclear suicide.
Universities can play a role in helping bring leaders and people together in a consensus. But universities cannot reflect in full measure the sound instincts and common sense of the public. That is why the Public Agenda Foundation of New York and the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University joined forces on a project to analyze public opinion and frame choices on nuclear weapons policy for voters and candidates in this election year. To that end, they produced a briefing book: ''Voter Options on Nuclear Arms Policy.''
The briefing book marries public opinion to a framework of choices based on the question: What purposes should nuclear weapons serve? The survey yields a startling finding: Most Americans think we have nuclear weapons solely for the purpose of deterring nuclear attack, when US policy for decades has been also to threaten the first use of nuclear weapons in order to deter - or defeat - an attack by tanks and soldiers.
By framing the choices in terms of purpose, the study provides a clear look at the advantages and disadvantages of a policy based on a single purpose for nuclear weapons. Proponents assert that nuclear war might be less likely if the US no longer threatened to be first to use nuclear weapons; US nuclear weapon needs could then be more modest; and negotiations with the Soviets on mutual reductions might stand a better chance. On the negative side, the NATO alliance would be badly shaken if the US took such a step unilaterally and abruptly. And we and our allies would need expensive nonnuclear means of defense to replace the nuclear threat, unless and until Soviet conventional forces are reduced.
In similar fashion, the briefing book also presents the pros and cons of three other views and the policies that flow from each: That nuclear weapons serve no useful purpose whatsoever and should be abolished by all countries; that nuclear weapons will continue to play an essential role in defending our allies from nonnuclear attack and should be improved to that end; and that our nuclear arsenal should in addition be sufficiently intimidating to serve many other political and military purposes.
At present, however, none of these options - abolishing nuclear weapons or continuing present policies - have strong public support. Therefore the discussion must start from Americans' instinctive belief that we should not threaten nuclear war as the ultimate response to a tank attack on Europe, to a North Korean attack on South Korea, or to some other nonnuclear aggression.
This conclusion by Americans flows from their judgment about the nature of nuclear weapons. If it is brushed aside without serious discussion, the consequences are unpredictable. The country could be riven, as in the past when Washington and public opinion moved in opposite directions on momentous national issues. Or the result might be widespread alienation, resignation, and unwillingness to make sacrifices to defend the values on which our country was built.
On the other hand, an honest and thorough discussion can lead to a new consensus. Perhaps through debate Americans will be persuaded that, on balance, present policies are still best for the indefinite future. If not, our leaders should take full account of the public's convictions and map out, in concert with our allies, a plan for gradually reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons.To defend ourselves, our allies, and our democratic values, our military must be strong and credible, our policy stable and predictable. That requires the understanding and support of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.