FINGERNAIL by fingernail, another evil genie is emerging from its bottle: the proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles. Consider a few recent developments. China has just sold missiles with ranges of up to 2,200 miles to Saudi Arabia. Israel is said to be preparing to deploy a missile, the Jericho 2, which can reach the Soviet Union. And Iran and Iraq have already been lobbing ballistic missiles into each other's cities.
When dozens of countries have long-range ballistic missiles, the world will be a much more dangerous place. Many countries, including the United States and its allies, would have to contend with the possibility of surprise attacks on their military installations, capitals, and other cities. At best, they would have only a few minutes' warning; ballistic missiles travel much more quickly than airplanes, can't be recalled, and can't be shot down.
These missiles might carry warheads with considerably more explosive power and much greater accuracy than those that fell on Britain during World War II. Or the warheads might carry nerve gas, the ``poor man's nuclear weapon.'' In the decades to come, they might even be fitted with nuclear warheads, and every country might be at risk of sudden long-range nuclear attack from any of a number of unstable nations or leaders.
Many regional missile arms races can be imagined: Israel and Syria; India and Pakistan; South Africa and Angola; Libya and its neighbors. As these countries learned to increase the ranges of their missiles, or purchased longer-range missiles from others, they could threaten more distant nations as well.
The US and six of its allies began to address this emerging problem last April, when they agreed not to sell to other countries any ballistic missiles or ballistic missile technology that could enable the buyers to hurl 1,100-pound warheads more than 190 miles. These weight and range limits were designed only to curb the proliferation of missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
But the seven-nation agreement will not prevent a global arms race in ballistic missiles. Some important nations, such as the USSR, China, and Israel, are not parties to it. Equally important, the agreement does not reduce the incentive or ability of third-world nations to develop ballistic missile technology on their own.
A multilateral ballistic missile treaty (MBMT) might, however, give every country some confidence that its neighbors were not acquiring ballistic missiles. It might thereby at least slow the impetus to acquire this technology.
An MBMT could take many forms. At the very least, it should establish a new standard in international law, prohibiting first use of long-range ballistic missiles in a war. This is a very modest goal, but compliance with it would be easily verifiable, and it would at least declare that ballistic missiles are peculiarly dangerous and abhorrent weapons, like poison gases (whose use in war has been banned by a multilateral Geneva Convention negotiated in 1925).
A more meaningful measure would be one that barred nations from testing or deploying long-range ballistic missiles. An exception would have to be made for nations such as the US, France, China, and the USSR, which already have them, because while an attempt to stop the further spread of such weapons is possible, it would not be realistic to imagine that the US and USSR will agree in the foreseeable future to restrict their nuclear missile forces in this way. This type of treaty could be modeled on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which countries having nuclear weapons agreed not to share this technology with other nations, and more than a hundred other countries (including Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Syria) have agreed not to acquire them.
Verifying compliance with such a treaty would be difficult, but not impossible. Because the US and USSR would gain security from halting the spread of ballistic missiles, they might be willing to contribute satellite and other advanced verification technology to an international verification agency, which would monitor compliance worldwide. They would probably be unwilling to share their latest intelligence technology. But even a previous generation of verification satellites and other devices might be sufficient. Ballistic missile tests are easier to detect than deployment of the missiles themselves, so a treaty that included a missile test ban might be particularly verifiable with less than the latest technology.
Negotiating an MBMT would not be easy. It could succeed only if developed at the 40-nation Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, rather than imposed by the superpowers. Even so, many countries would resist any treaty that purports to distinguish between countries that are allowed to keep their missiles and those that are prohibited from acquiring them. Some would be offended by the prospect of using US and Soviet technology to monitor their territories. Even defining a long-range missile would be difficult; those with ranges of up to 200 miles are not very threatening to the US, but such a range limit would be of little help to small nations such as Israel.
But the problems can be overcome by good diplomacy and creative drafting if nations recognize that it is easier to keep evil genies bottled up than to force them back into their bottles after they escape.
Philip G. Schrag is a professor of law at Georgetown University. From 1977 to '81 he served as deputy general counsel of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.