IT was 20 years ago that Richard Nixon ushered in a new era of the arms trade that soon may haunt us. Under what was later tagged the Nixon Doctrine, the United States would provide military aid to friends and allies but not soldiers for US allies' battles. Although it made few ripples at the time, the Nixon Doctrine - and arms transfers in particular - has been a pillar of US foreign policy and containment of the Soviet Union. But as US-Soviet competition wanes, it is time to ask whether this interventionary tool serves US interests.
The US, in fact, is creating numerous military powers in a third world wracked by debt, population pressures, and fierce rivalries. While rightly pursuing strategic and European arms reductions with Moscow, it is feeding high-tech weapons to unstable parts of the world with little restraint.
If anything, the US is increasing the flow of arms. Last year, Secretary of State George Shultz urged the US to expand its exports, and apparently it is. The Congressional Research Service, in a report released last month, notes that US arms transfers to the third world jumped by 66 percent in 1988, accounting for one-third of the total and about equal to Soviet exports. The geographic dispersion is wide: From 1981-88, for example, US transfers of military aircraft included 476 to East Asia and the Pacific, 346 to the Near East and South Asia, and 411 to Latin America.
Shipments of sophisticated weapons to the third world have been commonplace for years. After Mr. Nixon articulated his new doctrine, arms transfers increased from $2 billion in 1970 to $16 billion in 1976. President Reagan reinvigorated arms shipments after a mild attempt during the Carter administration to stem the flow of weapons to the third world. Despite this eagerness, arms transfers peaked in 1982, declining with the global recession of the early 1980s, the large third-world debt, and ``overabsorption'' of arms resulting from the binge of the 1970s. If counted, commercial sales and the black market (illegal) and gray market (dual-use technologies) for arms would perhaps double the official figures.
More significantly, the advanced countries of the developing world are producing their own arms, and in some cases are exporting them as well. This coproduction or licensing of arms technologies is usually done cooperatively with the major industrial powers. But recently countries like Argentina and Israel are becoming senior partners in such deals.
This worrisome trend can clearly be seen in the case of ballistic missiles. Eighteen third-world nations - including Egypt, India, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Syria, and North Korea - have ballistic missiles of some kind. These nations imported the technology or design from major suppliers, including the US, the USSR, West Germany, and China. In Senate testimony earlier this year, however, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Webster predicted that 15 nations will be able to produce ballistic missiles at the end of the next decade. Some also have, or are close to having, chemical and nuclear weapons-making capability, making the pursuit of missile technology all the more dangerous.
Another unsettling dimension to the Nixon Doctrine exists: When superpower relations with third-world leaders are significantly shaped by arms transfers, political power accrues to military elites within those developing countries. This was true in Iran in the 1970s, where the Shah and his generals were favorites of American shipments. It has worked the same black magic in Panama, Chile, Honduras, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The long-term interests of the US are rarely served as a result.
These trends point to a sobering convergence: a breakup of the old global order enforced by the US and Soviet military prowess, combined with the rise of third-world military powers. We could welcome the end of the superpower military confrontation if the two giants had envisaged a graceful transition to a post-cold war world. But they have not. And as a result we may be facing a more heavily militarized world endangered not just by two but by dozens of antagonists.
The US can, however, take advantage of the refreshed climate for bilateral arms control to put weapons transfers on the agenda. A brief but promising attempt was made in the late 1970s to work with the Soviets to cap the arms gusher, but it was ended by a White House suddenly chilled by cold-war tensions. Some movement toward restraint has originated in the third world as well, so it need not be a paternalistic exercise. A new effort should include West European suppliers - who account for one-sixth of the trade - and China. But it can begin with US-Soviet talks that regard regional security pacts, codes of conduct, action on debt and economic development, and even unilateral restraint as a useful mix of options to explore.
If the US and USSR fail to reverse this volatile trend - the unexpected ``triumph'' of the Nixon Doctrine - the cold war era may be replaced by one of many hot wars, sooner or later certain to draw in the arms merchants themselves.